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.