Nick Walker, PhD
I originally wrote and published this piece in the Spring of 2015. This is an updated version, slightly revised and expanded in the Summer of 2021.
The definitive, citable version of this essay, along with supplementary comments, can be found in my book Neuroqueer Heresies.
If you’re an academic seeking definitive reference material on Neuroqueer Theory and the meaning of the term neuroqueer, please note that this is just a quick layperson’s intro. The definitive explanation of Neuroqueer Theory is my considerably longer essay “A Horizon of Possibility: Some Notes on Neuroqueer Theory,” which appears in Neuroqueer Heresies. That’s the essential source if you’re writing any sort of scholarly work on the topic.
When referencing my work, please remember that my pronouns are she/her.
I coined the term neuroqueer in a paper I wrote for a grad school class in the Spring of 2008. Over the next several years, I played with it in further grad school papers, in private conversations, and in the ongoing development of my own thoughts and practices. The concept of neuroqueer, or of neuroqueering (I’ve always seen it as a verb first and an adjective second), increasingly came to inform my thinking, my embodiment, and my approach to life.
When I first started publishing pieces of my writing on neurodiversity in 2012, I wasn’t ready to put the term neuroqueer out into the world yet. I wanted more time to let it simmer, to think and feel my way into its nuances and implications. In early 2014, though, I mentioned it in in a small private Facebook group for autistic bloggers, and discovered that my friend and colleague Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon had also come up with the term independently and had also been playing around with it, letting it simmer, and thinking about putting it into publication eventually. Another dear friend and colleague, Remi Yergeau, who was also in that discussion, revealed that although the term neuroqueer was new for them, they’d been thinking along quite similar and compatible lines in playing with the concept of “neurological queerness.”
The three of us—Athena, Remi, and I—emerged from that conversation freshly inspired to begin introducing the term, and the set of concepts and practices it describes, into our public work and into our communities and the broader culture. Athena and I, along with our friend B. Martin Allen and others, founded the independent worker-owned publishing house Autonomous Press, and its imprint NeuroQueer Books, to publish books with neuroqueer themes (including the annual Spoon Knife multi-genre neuroqueer lit anthology).
Meanwhile, a couple of other members of that little Facebook group, who were involved in the discussion where Athena and Remi and I first discovered we’d each been playing with the same concept, became so excited about this new term that they immediately ran out and started spreading it around on various social media platforms. The word caught on like wildfire, much faster than its creators had imagined and much faster than we could keep up with. Soon it was showing up not only all over queer and neurodivergent social media spaces, but also in academic papers and conference presentations by people we’d never heard of.
(The day before I wrote this piece, I was at California Institute of Integral Studies teaching a new course on neurodiversity. I was introducing my students to basic neurodiversity-related terminology like neurotypical and neurodivergent, when a young undergraduate excitedly asked me, “Have you ever heard of the term neuroqueer?”)
It was nice to see it catch on like that. There’s a special kind of joy in bringing something new into the world and seeing it become meaningful to a lot of other people whom one hasn’t even met. On the downside, the word was almost instantly appropriated by people whose understanding of it was far more narrow and simplistic than its creators had intended. I’ve seen a lot of interpretations of neuroqueer and attempts at definition from folks who’ve adopted the term, and sometimes those interpretations miss the point in ways that are truly facepalm-worthy. Other interpretations are a bit more on-point but overly narrow, and I find myself responding with, “Yeah, well, I suppose that’s part of what we were getting at…”
So what were we getting at? What is neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering)?
I should first of all acknowledge that any effort to establish an “authoritative” definition of neuroqueer is in some sense inherently doomed and ridiculous, simply because the sort of people who identify as neuroqueer and engage in neuroqueering tend to be the sort of people who delight in subverting definitions, concepts, and authority.
That said, the eight-point definition that follows is the closest thing to an “authoritative” (or at least creator-authorized) definition as is ever likely to exist. I wrote it with the input and approval of the other originators of the concept––so it’s the one definition out there that all of the originators have agreed is not only accurate, but also inclusive of all of the various practices and ways-of-being that any of the three of us intended the word to encompass.
I originally conceived of neuroqueer as a verb: neuroqueering as the practice of queering (subverting, defying, disrupting, liberating oneself from) neuronormativity and heteronormativity simultaneously. It was an extension of the way queer is used as a verb in Queer Theory; I was expanding the Queer Theory conceptualization of queering to encompass the queering of neurocognitive norms as well as gender norms––and, in the process, I was examining how socially-imposed neuronormativity and socially-imposed heteronormativity were entwined with one another, and how the queering of either of those two forms of normativity entwined with and blended into the queering of the other one.
So neuroqueer was a verb first, and then, like its root word queer, it was also an adjective. Even in that first paper in which I used the term in 2008, I used it as both a verb and an adjective. As a verb, it refers to a broad range of interrelated practices. As an adjective, it describes things that are associated with those practices or that result from those practices: neuroqueer theory, neuroqueer perspectives, neuroqueer embodiments, neuroqueer narratives, neuroqueer literature, neuroqueer art, neuroqueer culture, neuroqueer spaces.
And, just like queer, the adjective form of neuroqueer can also serve as a label of social identity. One can neuroqueer, and one can be neuroqueer. A neuroqueer individual is any individual whose identity, selfhood, gender performance, and/or neurocognitive style have in some way been shaped by their engagement in practices of neuroqueering, regardless of what gender, sexual orientation, or style of neurocognitive functioning they may have been born with.
Or, to put it more concisely (but perhaps more confusingly): you’re neuroqueer if you neuroqueer.
So what does it mean to neuroqueer, as a verb? What are the various practices that fall within the definition of neuroqueering?
Being both neurodivergent and queer, with some degree of conscious awareness and/or active exploration around how these two aspects of one’s being entwine and interact (or are, perhaps, mutually constitutive and inseparable).
Embodying and expressing one’s neurodivergence in ways that also queer one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and/or other aspects of one’s identity.
Engaging in practices intended to undo and subvert one’s own cultural conditioning and one’s ingrained habits of neuronormative and heteronormative performance, with the aim of reclaiming one’s capacity to give more full expression to one’s uniquely weird potentials and inclinations.
Engaging in the queering of one’s own neurocognitive processes (and one’s outward embodiment and expression of those processes) by intentionally altering them in ways that create significant and lasting increase in one’s divergence from prevailing cultural standards of neuronormativity and heteronormativity.
Approaching, embodying, and/or experiencing one’s neurodivergence as a form of queerness (e.g., in ways that are inspired by, or similar to, the ways in which queerness is understood and approached in Queer Theory, Gender Studies, and/or queer activism).
Producing literature, art, scholarship, and/or other cultural artifacts that foreground neuroqueer experiences, perspectives, and voices.
Producing critical responses to literature and/or other cultural artifacts, focusing on intentional or unintentional characterizations of neuroqueerness and how those characterizations illuminate and/or are illuminated by actual neuroqueer lives and experiences.
Working to transform social and cultural environments in order to create spaces and communities – and ultimately a society – in which engagement in any or all of the above practices is permitted, accepted, supported, and encouraged.
So there you have it, from the people who brought you the term. This definition is, again, not an authoritative “last word” on the subject, because that would be a silly thing to attempt. Rather, I hope this will be taken as a “first word” – a broad “working definition” from which further theory, practice, and play will proceed.