Autistic, Allistic, Neurodiverse, and Neurotypical: Say what?

Coming into the neurodiversity movement, there are some terms that a new person might not be familiar with. I’ve been seeing a lot of questions about some of them, and some misunderstandings about them as well, so it is perhaps time for writing something on these terms.

If you are reading this blog, I’m assuming that you know what Autistic means in a general way. Some of you might still hold some misconceptions about autistic life, but I believe that to be a part of the learning process. You are reading Autistic voices either here or on the blogs of other Autistics, hopefully learning from it, and that is what matters.

You’ll notice that I use “autistic” rather than “person with autism” throughout. This is intentional. The basic idea is that my being is autistic- the patterns my brain form thoughts in, the essentials of the way I perceive and learn from the world are autistic. Autisticness is, for me and many others, an essential part of what makes me, me. Saying I am “with” autism denies this reality.

There are many brilliant writers who have addressed Autistic vs person first language in more depth. Jim Sinclair, one of the Autistic community’s elders, wrote a piece in 1999 on the issue which you can read on Cafe Mom. Many others have echoed and expanded upon Jim’s thoughts since then. Lydia over at Autistic Hoya has written a number of posts on identity first language vs person first, including “The Significance of Semantics: Person-First Language: Why It Matters” which ends with a list of links to other writers on the issue.

Some people’s constructions of how they phrase their identity are very personal, others political, and a good number both. I have multiple disabilities, and have a mixture of phrasing for myself. My own preferred construction is “Autistic with anxiety/chronic pain/etc.” When I expand that beyond ability it gets more complex, but I will leave it at this because eventually listing every part of my identity, regardless of relevance, becomes a metaphorical rabbit’s hole.

Allistic, on the other hand, means “non-autistic.” (Some people use “neurotypical” this way, but I”ll get to why I disagree with that usage in a moment.) That is all it means. It doesn’t mean someone is intrinsically better or worse, and it doesn’t indicate ally-hood or opponent-hood. It just means that someone is not autistic.

Allistic is a term that members of the autistic community came up with. While the earliest mention I can find (Zefram,, 2003) is constructed to work in a parody, the word construction makes a lot of sense. So much so, in fact, that Zefram’s work isn’t known to many community members now using the term. In Zefram’s postscript, it is explained that the construction is based on the way that the word “autistic” is constructed:

The word “allism”, invented for this article, is intended to precisely complement “autism”.
It is based on the Greek word “allos”, meaning “other”,  just as “autos” (in “autism”) means
“self”. […]

This explanation of “allistic”‘s construction continues to be in use. As some might note, the relative constructions of “autistic” and “allistic” are not dissimilar to the relationship between the words “transgender” and “cisgender.”  Even if the alternative was developed to suit the needs of politically charged parody, allistic is linguistically a more accurate term than some of the alternatives.

Neurotypical is often used interchangeable with allistic, but I would argue that it isn’t actually interchangeable. Neurotypical is short for “neurologically typical”- within the typical range for human neurology. Obviously it wouldn’t make sense to say that someone with definitively atypical neurology was neurologically typical just because their atypicality wasn’t that they autistic. Indeed, the Neurotypical/neurodiverse terminology has been adopted by certain segments of the Mental Health consumers/survivors communities for this very reason.

On-going usage aside, from what I recall the initial usage was one that is synonymous with the current “allistic.” However, between the acceptance of autistic cousins (those who aren’t autistic but who have similarities, including those with ADHD) and the penetration of the term beyond the initial communities it swiftly became used more diversely. Eventually, the more diverse (and in my mind accurate) usage meant that a more accurate term for non-autistic was needed. (Which brings us back to Allistic!)

Neurodiverse can have two meanings depending on what it is talking about. When referring to individuals, it simply means that the individual(s) in question have neurologies that are neurologically atypical. AKA, that they aren’t neurotypical. Generally speaking this usage is not used to just talk about Autistics, but is inclusive of other people whose neurology is atypical.

When discussing a population sample, though, it can mean that the neurologies represented are diverse. In this usage, the people in question include more than one type of neurology, and may even include members with individually typical neurology in some instances. This is the less common of the two usages that I’ve seen, though.

I hope that this was useful. For those interested in more information about the origins of certain aspects of autistic culture, I recommend you read Jim Sinclair’s History of ANI, which documents the early days of the autistic culture movement through the establishment of Autreat.


Personal note: I’ve been a bit distracted so far this month and have had issues coming up with something to write for here- while at the same time, preparing for putting things out elsewhere later this month. That I haven’t done much writing here so far this April hasn’t sat well with me, so I figured it was time to do another terminology type post. This isn’t the best post I’ve written, but it is what I have for you today.


53 thoughts on “Autistic, Allistic, Neurodiverse, and Neurotypical: Say what?

  1. Pingback: Microcosmic Multitudes | Cracked Mirror in Shalott

  2. There’s also the important argument advanced by Nick Walker for use of the term “neurominority” or “neurodivergent” to describe an individual in place of the term “neurodiverse.” An individual person cannot be “neurodiverse” or “racially diverse.” A group of people can be neurodiverse or racially diverse.

  3. I prefer the term neurodivergent to allistic. I prefer neurodivergent to allistic because it is a more inclusive. The neurodiversity community is small enough without excluding/categorizing different groups.

    • Liz, they are two different things. Allistic means “not autistic”- which is a term we NEED when talking about certain things. Neurodivergent means that the individual may or may not be autistic or allistic, but is not neurotypical. They aren’t exchangeable.

      There are circumstances where we do need to be able to talk about autistic vs allistic experience in ways that are different from neurodivergent vs neurotypical experiences, so I’m sorry, but we *do* need those words. There are some aspects of Autistic experience that allistic but neurodiverse people will not have in common. This is the reality. Holding hands and acting like all experiences of neurodivergence are the same only allows for oppressive behavior within our community by denying subgroups the words to explain their own experiences and how they differ from our fellows.

      Should we be working together for the benefit of all Neurodiverse people? Sure. But that shouldn’t mean denying that there’s a difference in how we experience our worlds.

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  7. thank your very much for that explanation. read allistic recently on Twitter and didn’t find it in the dictionnary. then I came to your blog 🙂

    As I was diagnosed with 47,XXY syndrome, I fit in neurodiverse the best. I like the inclusive part of this term, too. Sidenote: Prevalence for autism (and ADHD) is enhanced with additional X chromosome.

    • Nice. I do have some changes in my thoughts around this- not really position changes, but nuance changes. I also at some point want to add links from the perspectives of autistics who don’t like allistic so much, but was unwell when I first saw them and haven’t gotten around to adding them, as well as to people who prefer “neurodivergent” to “Neruodiverse”.”

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  9. This was most helpful. I have been following a blog with interest in the past year and read “allistic” and figured it must been not with autism but I have never heard that term before and found it only in an urban dictionary with no information as clear as this blog.

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  11. Thank you for this helpful information. Shared it on my blog’s FB page. My son is Autistic but also young (almost 9) so we are still pretty new to this journey.
    I never felt comfortable with the term “neurotypical” because there really is no typical. I especially felt uncomfortable using it to describe myself because I am ADD/OCD/bipolar with sensory issues and anxiety (just to name a few ) and I cannot see how that could be called typical. A few people have declared upon meeting me that they suspect I might be on the edge of the spectrum. I embrace and respect brains in all their unique forms. So can I call myself Neurodivergent?

    • Neurodivergent refers to all neurologies divergent from typical neurology. (Typical refers to a range- the large part of the bell curve. It gets confused with “Normal” which is a similar but different thing. A typical neurology simply means that the traits don’t significantly diverge on the bell curve.) You state that you have several mental health disabilities, so by definition you are neurodivergent.

      (There’s also something culturally that is referred to as larger autism phenotype, which is when you have autism traits but don’t quite fit “autism.” And also something called a “cousin” where you share traits with autistics but it is due to a different neurological status such as ADD or OCD. So depending on things- and I’m not sure as I don’t know you super well?- you could also use one or both of those to desccribe yourself.)

      • It’s interesting you bring up neurodivergent “cousins” to disorders, because I recall a few years ago I wrote a paper for one of my psychology courses on ADHD (which I was interested in because I happen to have it, of course). One of the things I found out was that at least one study had indicated a variant of a given gene — I believe it was DRD4? — was found in all the ADHD spectrum participants but also in some non-ADHD participants, and was thought to be associated with “novelty-seeking behavior” (it’s also connected to other impulse control related issues such as drug/alcohol addiction, apparently). In other words, just because you had the gene didn’t mean that you would have the disorder, but if you had the disorder you almost certainly had the gene.

        When you consider that diagnosis for the disorder requires that it actually cause you significant problems in two or more settings (e.g. both home and school), this makes sense. Not everybody who might be predisposed to it or have occasional symptoms in common with it is going to have that exact Disorder/set of symptoms in that severity in that many settings.

        Even more so when you consider there’s another study that suggested that in populations that still primarily make their living from hunting and gathering, rather than industrial or agrarian type means, that particular gene variant is more common than the 5% or so rate in the more dominant industrial/agrarian general population (and boy, that goes with your bell curve explanation which is the best I’ve heard yet for contrasting “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent”).

        It’s actually thought that it works well/may be adaptive for those in that situation (my personal assumption is that it is for the exact reason it results in “distractibility” in other settings: your attention is quickly pulled elsewhere! Something that can be perfectly handy when looking for edible plants and fungi or hunting animals in a forest or spearfishing etc., but not so much in a classic classroom or office setting where “focus” while sitting still is more relied on).

        Honestly ever since I first saw the word “neurodivergent” my mind went to that – to something that isn’t always a disorder and in some cases is even adaptive, but is definitely not in the neurological majority either. I love having that word available for that reason.

        I’m glad I found this post by the way; I was able to guess from context that this was probably the meaning of all those terms, but it’s great to have it laid out this clearly, alongside the origins. 🙂

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  13. Hi there! Not sure if you’ll see this as this is an older post and maintaining a website myself I know it’s hard to keep up. I recently (finally!) was diagnosed with ASD (Aspergers on the diagnoses but of course not “official” any longer as they knocked it off in the DSM-5). I a familiar with the term Aspie, but know many outside of the ASD community aren’t, so how can those with Aspergers refer to ourselves other than “I have Aspergers.” Is there a way to do so that is not person-first? Obviously given Aspergers is part of autism, I know Autistic persons still applies, I was just curious is there was a manner to achieve that with Aspergers? It’s funny I’ve worked with individuals with disability (the term we were told was correct) for over 10 years, and many autistic individuals in that time, but never entered the discussion for myself. Thank you so much for your time and your work! Really enjoying your site.

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  33. Thank you for taking the time to write terminology posts, even if you think they aren’t your best. I thought it was well written and it answered the questions I had.

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  35. thank you so much for this. my first language is spanish and i do not know any websites that have this kind of information about autism and terminology in general.
    I’m not autistic, but i want to be informed and educated, and the school system doesn’t do that, so I’m trying to do t myself in my school. If anyone has any other websites where I can get accurate information to educate myself and others, I would be really thankful if you could send them to me.

    with love.

  36. thank you so much for this. my first language is spanish and i do not know any websites that have this kind of information about autism and terminology in general.
    I’m not autistic, but i want to be informed and educated, and the school system doesn’t do that, so I’m trying to do it myself in my school. If anyone has any other websites where I can get accurate information to educate myself and others, I would be really thankful if you could send them to me.

    with love.

  37. Pingback: An Advocate’s Guidebook for Caregivers of Autistic Kids – PEACE I GIVE

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