Today I want to introduce you to a concept Saleh Abdel Motaal came up with: the idea of a pseudotypical. What is that, and why is it a meaningful concept?
Before I explain what a pseudotypical is, we need to briefly talk about another term that it relates to, neurotypical. As you may or may not know, it means neurologically typical, which is to say without a defined neurological difference. For more information on the term and its history, read the post below.
Neurotypical is a bit of a strange classification, since everyone is presumed neurotypical until proven otherwise. So if you think about it, that makes it the most misdiagnosed condition on the planet! Most neurodivergent people (including autistic people) were at one point presumed to have typical neurology, long before many of them got properly assessed by a qualified clinician—or indeed misdiagnosed by a less qualified one. So what happens if you’ve lived your life thinking you were neurotypical?
That brings us to the term pseudotypical, and at this point, you might have guessed what it means. It describes a person who may appear to be neurotypical, but is actually autistic or neurodivergent.
Now, this can technically describe many autistic people, since we tend to feel a lot of pressure to be socially appropriate or camouflage/mask our autistic traits to prevent being excluded. But pseudotypicality is not just about what you might call “closeted autism”, but the negative consequences of being unable or unwilling to acknowledge your autistic or neurodivergent neurology and personality.
There are also some parallels between pseudotypicality and camouflaging, though in other ways they are almost opposites. An autistic person that camouflages will experience negative consequences to their own wellbeing, because the mask prevents them from showing up authentically and being accepted and appreciated for who they truly are, rather than the persona they present. The mask is intentional, and self-destructive. The pseudotypical also wears a mask, but it’s one borne out of ignorance about who they are, or a denial of it. The pseudotypical has internalized other people’s judgments so completely that they are unable or unwilling to see who they truly are, and those judgments leak out and start playing a role in interactions with others. Here, the mask is unintentional, and destructive to others as well as the self.
What autistic masking and pseudotypical masking have in common is that they both camouflage the authentic self, and they both negatively impact personal wellbeing. Now let’s talk about a few different conceptions of pseudotypicality.
The secondary pseudotypical is the kind that will likely resonate most with you if you are autistic. If your experience is anything like mine, then you would have felt different for most of your life. As a kid, I was too young to understand that I was different in any meaningful way. But certainly as a teenager, I felt there was something categorically different about myself and how I related to others. It seemed others naturally behaved in social ways which were not instinctive to me, and required a conscious effort on my part to emulate those behaviors for the sake of fitting in. I would follow social etiquette because it was expected, and because the idea of going against those expectations and facing people’s disapproval felt too uncomfortable. This awareness of how I was actually emulating others in order to fit in really solidified in my teens, but I actually have a much older memory of an experience that made an impact on me, as it might have been one of the first where I understood the need to camouflage.
When I was 6 years old or so, I received a birthday present from my parents, which made me very happy, but my parents couldn’t tell. They asked me if I liked it, and I could see my parents were confused by my lack of a response. Through situations like these, I learned that I had to be more expressive of my emotions and really act them out for the sake of others. For instance to make my parents happy when they give me a birthday present. It’s strange to think about, that very early on I understood I had to perform in order to meet other people’s expectations.
Assuming a neurotypical identity
After years of performing like that—of camouflaging—we can assume that identity. Many autistic people report having camouflaged for so long and so extensively, they have forgotten who they are. For some, post-diagnosis they have to untangle themselves and rediscover what they actually like, want, and need, rather than what they have been conditioned to like, want, and need. As a teenager, I mentally patted myself on the back when I said “Good morning!” to an older person I passed while walking in the forest. It’s funny, but I remember thinking that the other person must have thought of me as such a gentleman. It was very significant to me, because it was so unlike who I am to greet someone like that. From the other person’s perspective, it was probably just an ordinary greeting, holding no special significance whatsoever. I think I was at my most pseudotypical during this time, because this is when I was most concerned with fitting in and being liked, and would put in a lot of effort into trying to be socially appropriate and adhering to people’s expectations.
Unlearning an internalized identity
After I discovered I’m autistic—but still a few years before I got diagnosed—I started to unlearn some of the social conventions I internalized. Simple things like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes, or saying “Thank you” when someone says it to you. I unlearned these things because they brought me frustration every time they occurred, as it didn’t make sense to me that we were still acting out these rituals that emerged out of religious superstition. That’s not important though. The point is that I felt I had to stop living my life according to other people’s expectations, and instead, start living more authentically. If some people perceive me as rude as a result, so be it. Initially, it actually felt painful to not say “Thank you” every time my dad blessed my sneeze again. It’s hard to unlearn things you’ve internalized, and even harder when other people still expect you to follow what you’ve internalized. But I had to liberate myself. I know that sounds quite dramatic when we’re talking about blessing a sneeze. But really, I had to free myself from all those expectations and social rituals that ended up draining me every day. I’m really glad I did that.
If there is one good thing you can do for your sense of wellbeing, it’s to drop that neurotypical mask, to stop assuming the pseudotypical role. For more information on the insidious effect of camouflaging on the sense of self, read the post below.
The primary pseudotypical is the more insidious type, as it is often borne out of ignorance, and so they are unable to admit their true nature. They tend to be from earlier generations, from the time before Asperger syndrome was even introduced in the DSM—let alone the concept of the (multidimensional) autism spectrum. Autism awareness was very low, and autism acceptance wasn’t a thing. In the absence of both a diagnosis and any information on autism at all—generally speaking—these people grew up being conditioned as neurotypicals early on, and have assumed that role for so long that taking on a different identity brings up too much discomfort. I hypothesize that many of our parents are autistic but cannot accept that. They have seen us struggle in ways they (think they) have not, and thus conclude they couldn’t possibly be autistic. Or they do resonate with our struggles but find it too painful to acknowledge.
Because they are unable to acknowledge their true nature, they often use deflection and displacement. They may see autism as a disorder or pathology, and will often attribute any interpersonal conflict to that—unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their part of the cycle. They find it very hard and uncomfortable to acknowledge the dynamics they get involved in. Simply put, their ego often gets in the way, thus preventing them from experiencing growth and generating insight.
I don’t think this term will catch on. I don’t think it’s a very meaningful category, but it’s a valid thing to think about. Autism is characterized by hundreds to thousands of genes, and which genes are active varies greatly between autistics, as well as the number of genes implicated in autism. So as you can imagine, there is more or less a smooth gradient between autistic (with the presence of a significant number of “autism genes”) on one end of the scale, and neurotypical (with virtually no autism genes) on the other. However, most neurotypicals probably do have some autistic genes. And so there is a range where a person may not qualify for an autism diagnosis, but nevertheless have distinct autistic traits. Closer to the autistic end of the gradient but still subclinical, this is called the Broad(er) Autism Phenotype (BAP), which is what describes some of the family members of autistic people.The Broader Autism Phenotype and Its Implications on the Etiology and Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders (Gerdts & Bernier, 2011) My parents and siblings all seem to have traits, although less pronounced than in my case.
But that part of the spectrum is quite interesting, in part because it’s not often talked about. One of the main reasons it’s not often talked about, I think, is because it’s not a very visible group, and they don’t have a strong group identity. I mean, it constitutes the middle ground between autistics and neurotypicals, so what would the threshold even be? And what group identity would they have that sets them apart from either end of this scale?
But just because it’s not often talked about, and just because the people on that part of the gradient between autism and neurotypicality don’t really unite under one identity, doesn’t mean they don’t have a unique set of experiences—a mix of both autistic and neurotypical ones. Which side you foster will depend both on how many traits you have, as well as what is most conducive for you in your environment. For example, if you are BAP and hang out with other autistic people a lot, I can imagine you are more aware of your autistic traits, and let that side of yourself come to expression more often. If you are BAP and hang out exclusively with neurotypicals, I can imagine you may not be aware of your autistic traits, as you are less confronted with them by your environment.
And it’s that latter case, where someone with some autistic traits assumes a neurotypical identity, that could be considered a borderline pseudotypical. Essentially it’s a quasi-neurotypical, believing and acting as if they are thoroughly neurotypical—whatever that might mean. Like I said at the start, this is a murky concept, with very limited utility, but I thought it was interesting to think about.
And so that concludes an introduction to the concept of pseudotypicality. In summary, then, here are the proposed subtypes:
- Primary pseudotypicality — A neurotypical identity is assumed since birth. You may have autistic or non-neurotypical attributes, but a lifelong experience of assuming the neurotypical role has effectively rendered you a neurotypical.
- Secondary pseudotypicality — You’ve always known you were different, but through parental, peer, and societal pressure you’ve assumed a neurotypical identity in order to fit in.
- Borderline pseudotypicality — You may have some autistic traits, but since you have plenty of neurotypical traits as well, it’s easy and comfortable for you to simply foster the neurotypical identity.