Adapting Peggy McIntosh’s paper on “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of privilege” to accommodate and reveal how Neuro-Typicality constructs its own unspoken system of privilege in our society.


“As a “neuro-typical person”, I realized I had been taught about discrimination as something which puts others at a disadvantage, yet at the same time, I had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, which are that “neuro-typical privilege” puts me at an advantage.



I think “neuro-typical people” are carefully taught not to recognize their privilege, in much the same way that males are taught not to recognize male privilege.


So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have “neuro-typical Privilege.”


I have come to view “neuro-typical privilege” as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.


“Neuro-typical privilege” is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.


In a sense it affords those who are “neuro-typical” all of the automatic advantages and access to the world that those who are “non neuro-typical” do not have.


Thinking about privilege in this way I began to understand why we are seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way.


I began to count the ways in which I enjoy an unearned sense of privilege and of how I have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.


My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person or as a participant in a damaged culture.


I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.


My schooling followed the pattern in which “neuro-typicals” are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them“ to be more like “us.”


I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of “neuro-typical privilege” on my life.


As far as I can see, my “non neuro-typical” co-workers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.


1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my own “neuro-typical status” most of the time.


2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can afford and in which I would want to live.


3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.


4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.


5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my “neuro- typical status” widely represented (in positive ways).


6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my ilk made it what it is.


7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their “neuro-typical validity”.


8. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.


9. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my “neuro-typical behaviour” not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.


10. I can go into a supermarket or into a hairdresser’s without risking “being over whelmed by sensory stimulation”.


11. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to bad morals, poverty, or the inadequacies of  “having a non-neuro- typical status”.


12. I can speak in public to a powerful group without putting my “neurological status” on trial.


13. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my “neuro-typical” class.


14. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my “neuro- typical” group.


15. I can remain oblivious of the “sensory needs and issues of non-neuro-typical persons” without feeling any cultural penalty for doing so.


16. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as an outsider.


17. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my own “neuro-typical status”


18. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my own “neuro-typical status”.


19. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.


20. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my “neurological status”.


21. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my “neurological status” will be mistreated in the place I have chosen.


22. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my “neurological status” will not work against me.


23. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has “discriminatory” overtones.


I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote them down.


For me, “neuro-typical privilege” has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject.


The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy, for if these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.


In unpacking this invisible backpack of privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience which I once took for granted.


I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some these varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and for others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.


I see a pattern running through the matrix of “neuro- typical privilege”, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a “neuro-typical” person.


My “neurological status” has been an asset for any move that I’m educated to want to make.


I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for me.


I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms.


Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.


In proportion, as my “neurological status” made my group confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated.


My “neurological status” protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of “different neurology”.


For this reason, the word “privilege” now seems to be misleading.


We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically over empower certain groups.


Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s “neurological status”.


I want, then, to distinguish between earned strength and unearned power conferred systematically.


Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate.


The expectation that your neighbors will be decent to you, or that your “neurological status” will not count against you in court, should be the norm in a just society.


For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as a privilege for the few.


Ideally it is an unearned entitlement.


At present, since only a few have it, it is also an unearned advantage for them.


This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power which I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the U.S. consisted in an unearned advantage of conferred dominance.


I have met very few “neuro-typical” people who are truly distressed about their systemic, unearned advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged about unearned “neuro-typical” advantage and conferred dominance and if so, what will we do to lessen them.


In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how these unearned advantages actually affect our daily lives.


Many, perhaps most of our “neuro-typical students”, think that “disablism” doesn’t affect them because they are “neuro-typical”, so they do not see being “non neuro-typical” as an identity.


In addition, it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage which rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex and ethnic identity than on other factors.


Still, all of the oppressions are interlocking and one factor that seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions is that they take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant group one is not taught to see.


In my class and place, I did not see myself as “discriminatory” because I was taught to recognize “discrimination” only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in the invisible systems conferring unsought “neurological” dominance on my group from birth.


Disapproving of these systems won’t be enough to change them.


I was taught to think that “discrimination” could end if individuals changed their attitudes.


(But) being “neuro-typical” opens many doors for those who are, whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.


To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions.


The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tools here.


They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects.


Most talk by “neuro-typicals” about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.


It seems to me that obliviousness about “neurological advantage” is kept strongly inculturated so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all.


Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.


Though systemic change takes many decades there are pressing questions for me and I imagine for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being “neuro-typical.”


What we will do with such knowledge is an open question?


Whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage or whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to reconstruct power systems on a broader base, is up to us.”


This reworking of the classic article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” By Peggy McIntosh, an Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research for Women, was initially written to challenge racism  by looking at it through the lens of “whiteness” and the unspoken level of privilege that whiteness confers upon those who hold it. The vast majority of her article as represented here, continues to remain the work of Peggy McIntosh almost verbatim. The only changes I have made have been to replace the terms “white privilege” with “neuro-typical privilege”, “whiteness” or ‘white/fair skinned” with the word “neuro-typical’ and “race” or “racism” with terms “discrimination”, “neurological status” or “non neuro-typical status”.

6 thoughts on “Adapting Peggy McIntosh’s paper on “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of privilege” to accommodate and reveal how Neuro-Typicality constructs its own unspoken system of privilege in our society.

  1. I’ve been toying with the possibility of applying a Queer Theory approach to a deconstruction of “Autism” as a category. I think it could be very interesting. I’d love to know if anyone else knows what I’m talking about or is interested.

  2. this could work for attractive people versus unattractive people as well…I have seen attractive people go and have other people tripping all over the place trying to help them get the, best table, room, service, etc…simply because they are attractive. Human nature is not a very “nice” thing sometimes..but we flock towards what we perceive ourselves to be…or what we want to see ourselves to be.

  3. I am (nurotypicail enough to count) as oppose to low cognition (Or formally mentaly ill).

    This article speaks to me and my personal situation as well as all the people of the (Supreme and elite control suite).

    I was completely nurotypicail for 30 years and now as the old crow medicine show song title explains “we are in this together”.

    Id like to get in touch with the person that wrote or altered this article.

    Does anyone else have information that maybe helpful?

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