What Does ‘Neurotypical’ Mean?

By Lisa Jo Rudy

The word “neurotypical” is an informal term used to describe a person whose brain functions are considered usual or expected by society. This term is often applied to people who do not have a developmental disorder like autism, differentiating them from those who do. It is neither a mental disorder nor even an official diagnostic term.

Other terms commonly used include “neurodivergent” which describes someone who isn’t neurotypical, and “neurodiverse” which generally refers to differences in brain function among people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These words can be applied to other neurodevelopmental conditions like dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

This article describes the characteristics of a neurotypical person and explains how they differ from a neurodivergent person. It also explains how neurodiversity is expressed in autistic people and why it is not the same thing as a “disability.”

Neurotypical personality traits.
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin for Verywell Health


What Is a Neurotypical Person?

A neurotypical person is an individual who thinks, perceives, and behaves in ways that are considered the norm by the general population. Institutions such as schools, sports leagues, and places of employment are typically designed to accommodate people who fit into these norms.

Neurotypical does not mean “normal.” It simply means that the behaviors fall within expected boundaries, which can differ from one culture to another. (Direct eye contact, for example, is considered rude in some cultures and expected in others.)


Examples of Neurotypical Characteristics

Neurotypical characteristics are broadly characterized as those that are expected within a given culture. Examples include:

  • Developing verbal, physical, social, and intellectual skills at an expected pace, order, and level
  • Communicating in an expected way by listening and responding in a give-and-take manner
  • Being able to pay attention and look someone in the eye while speaking
  • Communicating at the appropriate volume and speed for the situation you are in
  • Communicating nonverbally with facial expression and body language
  • Ability to show interest and empathy
  • Being able to recognize and respond to someone else’s facial expression and body language
  • Knowing the difference between a literal meaning (like “he jumped off a bridge”) and abstract meaning (like “go jump off a bridge”)
  • Being able to shift your attention from one task or subject to another
  • Ability to work collaboratively
  • Navigating multiple stimuli like sounds, sights, and smells by “tuning out” certain ones and focusing on others


What Does Neurodivergent Mean?

Neurodivergent means that a person’s brain works in a way that is not expected. It is commonly used when the behavior or response differs from what is expected socially, physically, or verbally.

The term was first coined as an alternative to “atypical” in autistic people. It was considered a more accurate description given that “atypical” can be regarded as “abnormal” by some.

“Neurodivergent” today can be applied to any neurodevelopment disorder. These are conditions in which a person’s brain function differs from how others in a society or culture normally think, function, or perform.

Examples include:


Examples of Neurodivergent Characteristics

Neurodivergent characteristics are neither bad nor good. While some behaviors may be considered disruptive, others may be considered positive strengths. The term describes differences in the way a person’s brain works.

These are just some of the challenges and strengths an autistic person may express.


  • Doesn’t engage in verbal communication
  • Doesn’t express emotions, feelings, or empathy
  • Doesn’t show interest or response when spoken to
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm
  • Difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues
  • An intense focus on a particular object or subject
  • Repetitive movements, like rocking or flapping
  • Inability to adapt to a change of routine or focus
  • Inability to engage in abstract thought or make-belief
  • Difficulty engaging in group activities
  • Overreaction to specific sounds, sights, textures, tastes, or smells


  • Ability to focus intensely on a specific topic
  • Being honest and straightforward
  • Being observant
  • Being detail-oriented or goal-focused
  • Having exceptional memory skills with facts and figures
  • Being good with puzzles and problem-solving
  • Having above-average skills in math, music, or art
  • Excelling with repetitive tasks
  • Ability to work effectively in isolation
  • Highly motivated by topics or activities that are of interest
  • Having a high degree of accuracy when performing tasks


The Neurodiversity Movement

Neurodiversity is not the same thing as being neurodivergent. The term was first coined to describe the diversity in how autism is expressed from one person to the next. It recognized that there was not one form of autism and that autism traits were neither “abnormal” nor inherently indicative of disability.

The neurodiversity movement focuses on the idea that developmental differences that may be seen in autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other conditions should not be considered traits of a disorder. These traits are seen instead as typical expressions that don’t require treatment.1

By 2014, the term “neurotypical” had become common enough to become the title of a PBS documentary. This film featured autistic individuals who describe their views of themselves in relation to “normal” society, who they often refer to as “neurotypicals.”

In 2015, Steve Silberman wrote the book “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.” It argues that ASD has been a part of the human condition throughout history. By understanding their autism, he argues, some adults are discovering their “neurotribes”—that is, their neurological kin.

Is Neurodiversity a Disability?

While everyone with a brain-based disability is considered neurodivergent, not everyone who is neurodivergent is considered disabled. The neurodiversity movement is a celebration of the vast differences in people’s thought processes and behavior. The movement advocates for acknowledging and accommodating those differences.



The word “neurotypical” may be used to refer to individuals who think, learn, and behave in ways that are considered the norm. Institutions like schools and workplaces are often designed to best suit those who fit into these norms.

The word “neurodiversity” describes the idea that there are many ways to think, learn, and behave. The neurodiversity movement supports the idea that developmental differences should be embraced and seen as typical, instead of treated like traits of a disorder.

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Lisa Jo Rudy

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Rudy is a writer, consultant, author, and advocate who specializes in autism. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and Autism Parenting Magazine.