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Monday, April 8, 2013

Move Over Neurotypical, Allistic Is In Town.

Ive seen the term 'allistic' used a lot online lately. Apparently it describes anyone who is not autistic. As I've blogged previously  this idea of an autistic neurology versus the rest of us is a false dichotomy on several levels. The term Neurotypical was and remains the most pervasive descriptor online of the non autistic mind, but as most are aware there is no typical brain to speak of. This tongue in cheek label was initially a response to the normal/abnormal dichotomy that was dismissed as inherently pathologising by autistic activists. And perhaps acknowledgment of that limitation along with good will on the part of non autistic people led to its quick and popular use by most members of the ASC community.

Then along comes the term allistic. In searching for the aetiology of the word I found this satirical and lengthy piece that dates back a decade. I note in my search that some bloggers have claimed the term vehemently.   I'm not sure why, each will have their own perspective on it I suppose, but we are still left with the fundamental problem of a polarising terminology. 

Meanwhile the term I choose, neurodiversity chugs along, used sporadically, often in threads that claim to embrace yet often contradict its meaning. It seems to me the most respectful and all encompassing term, one that acknowledges even within the autism spectrum there is phenomenal difference.

Explaining your neurology as autistic is useful to a point, but it actually tells me very little about who you are, what you care about, and how you see the world. Likewise saying I am not autistic doesn't tell you anything about how complex my mind may be. Whether I have any myriad of potential labels. And even without the labels I may live with a neurology that makes life challenging. That's why I choose neurodiverse. The term allistic seems to me dismissive, divisive and moving in the opposite direction to a movement that purports to celebrate difference.

 I am willing to be corrected if I've misunderstood the term. In my search I could find nothing to disabuse me of my current assumption regarding its intent, but I welcome correction if I'm not comprehending its use accurately. And if I am understanding it correctly I think this raises a legitimate challenge to those who claim to be advocates for a neurodiverse perspective.


  1. I thought the use of "allistic" was just to correct the problems with the word "neurotypical"? For example, there are plenty of non-autistic people who are also neurodiverse--dealing with ADHD, dyslexia, depression, deafness, or any other DSM condition or disability. You couldn't accurately describe such a person as "neurotypical," but there needs to be some word to describe the frustration they and an autistic person might feel when trying to communicate. me out here, what makes this dismissive and divisive? Not sure I understood the part of your post where you explained this. :)

    I guess a downside of "allistic" could be that we're focusing on what divides, say, a dyslexic and an autistic person, when just by being so different from the norm and having a disability label they share some crucial, identity-defining experiences? What do you think?

  2. Hi Emily, thanks for the opportunity to clarify. I suppose I just don't see how allistic isn't as problematic as Neurotypical, in that neither acknowledge diversity. I make the exact same point that you do in my post, and in my links to my previous blog post on the term NT, that neurology is diverse beyond autism therefore there is no typical, and there is no one autistic brain, just as there is no 'all' istic brain. This idea there is an autistic brain and then there's the rest continues to create a perception of dichotomy, yet I would argue it's all more fluid than that. I think you need to look no further than the autism spectrum itself to understand how diverse yet often interwoven all neurology is. And yes your second paragraph beautifully illustrates my point.
    I hope that all makes sense.

  3. It's my understanding that the term was adopted as a way for autistic people to define their own terms. Up until now they've been subject to the terminology of people who aren't autistic, and not always in a good way, so creating and using their own language is empowering. From a social justice perspective I think this is fantastic, necessary, important, and useful.

    MY problem with the term, however, is that the only time I've ever actually seen it *used* is an an insult against me: "Oh, you're just another allistic parent," almost like a slur, as if to imply that I am bigoted against autistic people. I have a BIG problem with that and unless I see the word being used in the mainstream in a reasonable manner I will continue to insist that I be referred to as "neurotypical."

    1. That's a really interesting take on it jillsmo. I haven't been on the receiving end of the term as a slur, but I've seen it. And I agree with you that autistic people developing or reclaiming language on their own terms is essential. It just seems to me NT and Allisitc both dismiss the incredible variation of neurology right across the human spectrum. I prefer autistic or non autistic if we have to distinguish between those two labels, but I think we get into trouble when we assume anything about peoples neurology based on those terms alone.

  4. I understand the rationale but not the execution. I also agree with you that all of these labels feel dated and hazy.

    Still, I am hung up on this word. If you google it, you certainly discover some interesting things about the origin and its intentions. However, to me, the use of "ALL" in allistic (albeit not necessarily pronounced the same) indicates a dichotomy - and that the alternative - being autistic - is something less than "all" or merely a piece of a whole.

    Without context, it seems derogatory toward those that are NOT allistic, including the same group encouraging the use of this word. I don't like seeing yet another reason out there for my daughter to feel that being autistic excludes her from whatever "all" is indicated in this term.

    I'm sure I'm missing something here, but it just seems counter-intuitive to my "allistic" way of thinking.

    1. Or you could argue it suggests superiority rather than 'less than'. Its hard to know the intent behind the word because its fundamentally meaningless, and as Jillsmo illustrates above can be used pejoratively.

  5. Hi Sharon. This is my first time visiting your blog and I found this piece and the convertion that followed very interesting.

    I like to categorize things. It gives me great peace in fitting something where it belongs and a sense of control over my situation. In fact, categorization is basic human nature and one of the first things children learn (think to preschool lessons about big/small, fast/slow, quiet/loud, etc.) When we have the power to categorize something, we gain a certain sense of control over that thing.

    The trouble with categorization is that there is only one "first" category. As the parent to a child with multiple disabilities, I've seen first hand the fallacy of categorization. Is my daughter autistic? Epileptic? Brain injured? No one term best describes her and a more generalized term is even less likely to do the job adequately.

    People MUST understand that when assigning a category -- ANY category -- to an individual, they are automatically losing the best chance of truly KNOWING that individual. It's like driving that new car off the lot for the first time -- automatic depreciation.

    I'm not saying we should do away with categorization - we need it to process our world. But I'm also not entirely sure we can ever find the perfect word to describe something so unique and amazing as the individual neurology.

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts Mom2LittleMiss. I too like to compartmentalise and categorise stuff. Its my natural inclination and an instinct Ive had to work against in order to see the 'grey shades' of things. I suppose where I find this allistic term so problematic is that those who use it also claim to be advocating for neurodiversity, and it seems to me ND and Allism are inherent;y contradictory, if I am understanding its meaning correctly.

      I really like your point about losing sight of the person when assigning them to categories. I wish I'd said that :)

  6. A clarification: the term "allistic" specifically arose to acknowledge that there are more ways to be non-neurotypical than just being autistic.

    The term "neurodiversity" has two meanings. The most commonly used meaning is neurodiversity as a political movement, but it can also refer to the simple fact of neurodiversity, which exists. I know some people refer to themselves as "neurodiverse" but to me that term doesn't grammatically make sense because by definition, no one person is diverse. "Neuro-atypical" or "neuro-divergent" makes more sense, and are also used sporadically by autistics and non-autistics with other differences, but I am uncomfortable with telling autistic people which terms they ought to use.

    Like all categories, these might not be perfect, but they do serve a basic purpose of allowing people to communicate their thoughts in a commonly understood terminology. I notice that you yourself use categories when you describe your children as being on the autism spectrum. Why, then, is it not okay for autistic people to use our own terms when describing our reality?

    1. Thanks for your comment Anon, let me clarify.

      You say the term was developed as recognition "There are more ways to be non neurotypical than just being autistic".
      Yes there are, and thats why I find the term to be problematic. Its a blanket term. It suggests there is an autistic neurology, and then there's the rest which is a bunch of 'other' stuff. It seems to me to be lacking in the acknowledgement of fluidity of neurology and the labels we hang on that. But you seem to be suggesting the use of the term 'all' is supposedly inclusive of 'all' neurology so I'll take your point on that.

      Re. neurodiversity, I take your point that as a label calling yourself neurodiverse is a bit meaningless in terms of communicating more meaningfully about your individual status. I suppose I wasnt really suggesting it as a label for individuals but more about embracing the concept of us all being part of the neurodiverse fabric which shifts slightly away from what I called the false dichotomy of an autistic brain compared to non autistic brains. I suppose if I had to choose labels, Id say autistic and non autistic. Which doesnt tell you any detail about any persons neurology, but does still draw the distinction.

      To your last paragraph, I do go some way to answering that above. I agree about the usefulness of categories, and yes I do use them myself. I don't have a problem generally with labels as I find them helpful, its this term 'Allistic' specifically that Im struggling with. I cant really see how it helps to "describe your reality" though? I'd appreciate clarification on that point.

      Im all for people using their own terms to describe their realities, it just seemed to me that there's was inherent contradiction in the terms neurodiverse and allistic. As I said in the post above, even telling me you are autistic gives me very limited information about you and your neurology. You are probably quite different to my kids, who are both very different to each other. I suppose I'd argue labels are OK as a starting point but then we need dig a bit deeper to really understand each other.

      And as a final point Im not "telling autistic people what terms to use", I am asking people to think about them. Thats all. There's nothing I can do or say that alters the terms people will ultimately decide suit them best. This blog is a space where I think out loud. Theyre not always fixed positions, and Im always happy to be challenged and to change my mind if I see merit. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Same anon as above: This blog post might be interesting/helpful to you:

  8. I am also investigating the word allistic and I consider it to be a made up concept used to express the frustrations of (pick your own classifier) about who they are treated or described etc. It strikes me as brilliantly witty and I enjoyed reading the allistic-speaks blog on tumbler and laughed out loud frequently in recognition of both sides of the imaginary fence I am straddling.
    There are many people who lack a full understanding of many topics, I'm guessing that's 100% of us. It seems to me the term allistic is being used for people who are foolishly claiming they understand more than they do and inadvertently winding up others. I am enjoying interpreting the word, non-seriously as either NT people who copy others to look normal and fit in, overly focused on social standing or appearing more intelligent than they are to avoid expected ridicule, and this can also describe those who mean well and have a diagnosed relative and try too hard to be understanding about a similar condition.
    Other than a few extra annoyed people upset from dealing with an ignorant do-gooder for the 1000th time who may have started using the label to retaliate unhumerously, which can be done by all of us, and is an inevitable side effect of any brilliant joke, that's all it is. A funny flip back to make a point.
    I do feel for parents of diagnosed children who are on a learning curve and feeling insulted, but I don't think the word is intended for them. It's about holding a reversed mirror up to the daft ignorant majority of the population. If it insults you, you've just experienced a mild version of how it feels.

    From a Female with AQ of 28!

    1. Hi Anon, I should qualify I'm not personally offended, Im simply asking people to consider the usefulness of the term or otherwise. I understand the joke, but I see many people using the term pejoratively, so I'm asking them to think about it.

  9. The autistic community seems to have coined the term allistic to refer to anyone that does not fall onto the spectrum of autism. This term really is too vague and does not really explain what autism is. It also does not account for the wide variation that exists within humanity. Using Baron-Cohen’s model of the empathising-systemising brain, the allistic brain would be an extreme empathiser. One that is extremely good at intuitively knowing the mental states of other people. These people would be highly social relative to their intelligence and have an excellent ability at reading the so-called social cues that autistics often miss. A person like this may be able to hyper mind read. They would be able to guess what a particular person is thinking by reading key signs that their body is giving off almost immediately and they would be able to empathise and share in joint perspectives with almost anyone. However, there may be a dark side to this. These people that I postulate, as a result of their hyper mind reading ability, would have the ability to be very manipulative and to take advantage of someone’s naivet√© to make them do what they want. These people may even be some of the worst people for an autistic person to associate with because they may see the autistic inability to take perspective and read other people’s intentions as weakness to exploit to their every whim.
    These people would also likely be systems-blind. They may have a hard time with the maths and sciences. They may not have a good grasp of how to convert pictures on a map to a three-dimensional landscape or other tasks that require spatial-visual processing. They may also have difficulty forming their own interests because their experience of life is so heavily linked to the experiences of others. An extreme form of this would be William’s Syndrome (Nicholson and Hockey, 1993).
    With the concept of the allistic mind, we can take a deeper look at Baron-Cohen’s research to postulate the full spectrum of brain types from the extreme empathisers to the extreme systemisers. And using this we can estimate a confidence interval in which 90% of people would fall into regarding the extents to which they systemise and empathise with the world around them. The people whom fall to the right of this confidence interval would be labelled as allistic and those to the left of it would be labelled as autistic.