People management and bullying

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It is interesting that the mainstream media occasionally does get concerned about  manipulation techniques used in people management, and is much less concerned about the common use of bullying and manipulation techniques such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) as “therapies” for autistic children. Many autistic people who have been subjected to ABA and similar “treatments” end up with PTSD:

Nearly half (46 percent) of the ABA-exposed respondents met the diagnostic threshold for PTSD, and extreme levels of severity were recorded in 47 percent of the affected subgroup. Respondents of all ages who were exposed to ABA were 86 percent more likely to meet the PTSD criteria than respondents who were not exposed to ABA. Adults and children both had increased chances (41 and 130 percent, respectively) of meeting the PTSD criteria if they were exposed to ABA. Both adults and children without ABA exposure had a 72 percent chance of reporting no PTSD. At the time of the study, 41 percent of the caregivers reported using ABA-based interventions.

Management by fear

The following extract is from a current article about sales techniques / training / management at the Commonwealth Bank Australia. The techniques are similar to ABA techniques – only that small children are subjected to ABA for up to 40 hours per week!

Bank staff had to attend meetings each morning and give a commitment to the group to achieve their targets. A “debrief” meeting was held each afternoon. Some former CBA employees later reported that when staff didn’t achieve their targets they were belittled in front of colleagues.

One bank employee says managers patrolled the work area like stormtroopers to make sure staff were pushing products to customers at every opportunity. Some bank staff felt the training was a form of brainwashing...

The question “I don’t feel pressured to make inappropriate sales to try and meet my targets” produced a result of 33 per cent disagreeing and 32 per cent strongly disagreeing, which was higher than the average across all banks. Even more worrying was the response to a question about whether ‘targets bring out the best in me’ – 83 per cent of respondents disagreed. Furthermore, 26 per cent of those surveyed admitted they were aware of inappropriate lending practices being undertaken to achieve targets.

I first came across the impact of Cohen Brown in 2013 when I wrote a series of articles about the aggressive sales at CBA. The series triggered hundreds of responses from CBA staff. Many described it as a cult-like sales technique that placed staff under intolerable pressure and resulted in serious mistakes

Some CBA staff suffered nervous breakdowns and some started taking anti-depressant medication. The Cohen Brown method featured so heavily in CBA’s strategy during Norris’s reign that I decided to contact the company’s co-founder and CEO, Marty Cohen, in late 2018.

I wanted to talk to him about the Cohen Brown method, including a patent filed in 2006 titled, “Systems and methods for computerised interactive training”, which contains an example of a telephone script that physiologically conditions staff to respond in a certain way.

The patent talks about supplying a positive tone and visualisation when the right answer is achieved and a negative tone and visualisation when the answer is wrong. “A positive tone is generated and/or a text acknowledgement appears, indicating that the correct phrase was identified by the trainee,” the patent says. “Then a ‘negative tone’ is played, and a graphic and/or text message is provided, indicating that the answer was incorrect.”

The user is scored “based in part on the number of errors and/or opportunities that the user identified and optionally on the user’s response to the question”. In an email exchange, Cohen told me he is no longer using this type of “methodology”, but he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the practice of “negative reinforcement”.

Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration

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Ultimately all forms of “management by fear” amount to bullying, and autistic people are highly sensitive to such attempts of manipulation.

On a positive note, I have recently read The Trust Factor, and was surprised to have stumbled across a good management book, after concluding many years ago that most management books are useless to harmful. If I read a management book, then usually to remind myself about all the manipulation techniques that many people are subjected to.

Paul Zak, the author of The Trust Factor, is both an economist and a neuroscientist. Most of what he writes is self-evident, but I think his book should be essential reading for all managers. The book does not cover the possibilities opened by NeurodiVentures and other forms of employee owned companies, but that topic would go beyond the scope of the book. I learned two things from The Trust Factor:

  1. Confirmation that (especially non-autistic) people thrive when the achievement of significant goals is celebrated. Many autistic people I know are uncomfortable with receiving praise or with celebrations such as birthdays because the associated social stress (when social conformance expectations from non-autistic people apply) and/or the sensory overload may outweigh the positive aspects of celebration. I was not aware of the neurochemical connection to oxytocin in relation to celebration and praise. The author also points out that routine celebrations of “employee of the month” and celebrations of trivial tasks have the opposite effect, they reduce trust – exactly the things that many organisations tend to focus on.
  2. Around 5% of people don’t seem to produce any significant amounts of oxytocin in situations where trust is extended, and hence they don’t extend trust the other way and the concept of trust is foreign to them. My conclusion is that from the perspective of such people management by fear must seem to be the only way to “collaborate” with other people and that large hierarchical organisations are the natural habitat for such people. In an egalitarian human scale environment such people simply don’t get the chance to “manage people”.

Rather than talking about “management by creating trust” I much prefer to talk about nurturing trust to catalyse collaboration at eye level. As long as an organisation describes itself with a pyramidal organisational chart it projects a not-very-subtle-at-all signal that management by fear is to be tolerated by and is expected of anyone who joins.

The misguided idea of managing people

hierarchy.jpgThe idea of managing people is fraught with difficulties. In many contexts it causes direct harm. Autistic people in particular neither want to be managed nor need to be managed, and they are also uncomfortable / reluctant when expected to manage other people. In contrast, many non-autistic people, once indoctrinated by the education system of a WEIRD culture, believe that all people must be managed or led in order to prevent society from descending into complete chaos, and correspondingly they also have a desire or expectation to be managed. The notions of management and leadership are entangled with the anthropocentric conception of civilisation.

In a hierarchical structure most people abandon their sense of agency and the need to think critically on a daily basis. Instead they adopt an energy saving survival strategy by making sure that whatever they do conforms (or seems to conform) with what their “superior” has requested them to do at a superficial level, even if the superior clearly has less relevant insight or knowledge. People avoid the energy needed to ask questions, to point out gaps in understanding, risks etc. because in the vast majority of cases their efforts would be punished rather than appreciated. These are the toxic social hierarchical power dynamics that induce an organisational learning disability.

Our education system has a big gaping hole when it comes to teaching people how to coordinate complex activities without resorting to so-called leadership and management skills, which are effectively the same skills that other primates (baboons, chimpanzees, etc.) use to establish and maintain dominance hierarchies. Humans would not have become so successful on this planet just by focusing on these skills.

Humans became more successful than other primates by recognising the limitations and social learning disabilities induced by maintaining dominance hierarchies. It is no surprise that for hundreds of thousands of years humans lived in small and highly egalitarian groups. That’s what has made them more successful than other primates. As I outline in this article, things started to go downhill with humans with the invention of “civilisation” around 10,000 years ago.

Bullying can be made to look like management

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Our society has been constructed such that certain forms of bullying are deemed acceptable / legal / necessary and such that other forms of bullying are deemed as unacceptable and illegal. Upon closer examination the boundary, which is inevitably fuzzy, is an arbitrary one. This is why I consistently prefer to talk about coordination and trusted collaboration at eye level rather than management.

In civilised society “collaboration” is conceptualised as follows:

  • negotiating social status and power gradients
  • competing against each other using culturally defined rules

If a victim of bullying at work approaches the human resources department to complain, there will be no evidence of bullying behaviour – or even of inappropriate treatment. The people who are competing against each other take great care to be seen to be sticking to all the culturally defined rules. The social game of “successful management” and leadership is all about pushing the boundaries of what can still be interpreted as acceptable application of the culturally defined rules.

Our organisations work (more or less) not because of good leadership and management, but in spite of it – because there are always a few people who don’t play the social game and who don’t care about social status. There is a lot that society could learn from these people.

Typical people have the capability to behave much like typical primates if their culture does not have strong social norms that condemn typical primate behaviour. In our culture we celebrate people “who get ahead”, this is a social disease that W Edwards Deming correctly identified and described very eloquently nearly 40 years ago. People who enjoy “managing” people are rather unlikely to be autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, with the exception of a few psychopaths who lack empathy and the ability to trust others, who are drawn to the social game playing opportunities that our culture affords them.

The challenge with management culture is that managers have been indoctrinated by our culture and see management by fear as essential and valuable. Notions like servant leadership don’t go far enough to address the root causes of bullying. Managers need to unlearn a lot of what they have been led to believe.

Reframing and relearning collaboration

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A good start to learning about the creation of healthy cultures is to replace the toxic language of management. Managers need to become aware of the extent to which the old language they use is a language that encourages competitive social gaming.

Language frames people’s thoughts and emotional response. 
It is time to start consistently talking about concepts that can improve our lives:

  1. Niche construction and symbiosis rather than competition 
– to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community
  2. Company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy
  3. Values rather than value – to avoid continuously discounting what is priceless
  4. Physical waste rather than wealth – to focus us on the metrics that do matter
  5. Human scale and individual focus rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable
  6. Competency networks rather than leadership – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides
  7. Coordination rather than management 
– to address all the stuff that can increasingly be automated, management is often the biggest obstacle to automation
  8. Creativity and divergent thinking rather than best practices 
– when facing the need to innovate and improve

It would be terrific step for an organisation to replace all manager job titles with coordinator job titles etc. This could go a long way to enable knowledge sharing and collaboration at eye level. Somewhere along the line however the often astronomical hierarchical pay differentials would also have to be reduced quite significantly to avoid the change from deteriorating into a window dressing exercise.

The multiple crises that civilisation is facing today give me some level of optimism that the timing is right to break out of the familiar and ultimately self-destructive patterns of civilisation building.

Anti-bullying policies and processes

In a bullying culture a very common problem is that organisations develop so-called anti-bullying policies and processes – which managers insist on following, which in and of themselves are intolerant, dismissive and disparaging of the staff who bring an issue forward.

Any credible anti-bullying initiative must offer alternative approaches that involve external assistance. The introduction of regular Open Space workshops can create bullying free zones in time and space that allow people to rediscover their individual sense of agency. Toxic command and control hierarchies don’t disappear over night, and regular Open Space workshops, complemented with relevant education in neurodiversity and critical thinking tools, are a bit like a bicycle with training wheels on the road of transformational change.

Education in neurodiversity is fundamental to create the feedback loops needed to minimise misunderstandings and to replace management by fear with mutual trust and the courage to bring individual agency and all available knowledge and insights to work. In a good company coordination and organisational learning happens via a simple advice process, without any need for social power structures.

Some of the best professionals (in terms of their level of experience and problem solving abilities) in various knowledge intensive industries have strong autistic traits, and it is very likely that these people will be misunderstood by their colleagues on a regular basis, because they may not stick to all the social rules of politeness at all times.

In particular the questions that autistic professionals ask may be very direct and their answers short and to the point, and they may praise outcomes achieved instead of the contributions of individuals, because they recognise that all good work takes a team and because they consider social status to be irrelevant. This easily gets autistic people into trouble with “superiors” as well as with “subordinates” who they are expected to manage. These autistic professionals are not bullies!

The key differences between an autistic professional and a professional bully:

  1. The autistic professional does not have a hidden agenda (may get angry in the moment but will never hold a grudge or follow a plot to “get ahead”)
  2. The autistic professional is highly competent in her / his core areas of expertise (which can easily be interpreted as arrogance)
  3. The autistic professional does not exaggerate (or brush inconvenient things under the carpet) and will openly talk about uncertainties, risks, and mistakes made (a good indicator to clear up any perception of arrogance)
  4. The autistic professional is not interested in exerting power over other people (but will tend to use direct language which can be interpreted as authoritarian)
  5. The autistic professional cares a lot about and goes to great lengths to achieve optimal work results (this again may involve asking for appropriate actions from others in direct language)

An anti-bullying initiative that does not take the above into account may only add fuel to the bullying problem.

Trusted collaboration and coordination at eye level

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Of course the activities within teams, projects, service delivery processes, product development initiatives need to be coordinated, and whilst with the right kind of technology the coordination of routine tasks can be automated, the coordination of creative activities with emergent outcomes can benefit from a person in a role dedicated to the coordination task.

But that does not in any way imply the use of command and control style techniques by the coordinator, and it also does not imply that the coordinator should make decisions that affect other people in isolation. A coordinator is neither a privileged maker of decisions on behalf of the group nor someone entitled to tell others how to do their work.

Activities need to be coordinated, shared understanding needs to be validated, and priorities and paths of actions need to be agreed, and this can be achieved by bringing all relevant domain expertise together and by arriving at suitable decisions using the techniques outlined in this article.

In large organisations my colleagues and I have occasionally seen neurodiversity friendly teams that are run by closet autists, who go to great lengths to act as a “BS-deflector” for their team. As a result the managers or team leaders in question tend to struggle with autistic burnout and various health conditions.

I see the great work that these people are doing and it hurts to know that they suffer, that their efforts are not recognised,  and that they are not even able to openly ask for accommodations. That urgently needs to change.

Today we are at an early stage of educating organisations about the full potential of neurodiversity. What I notice is that psychological safety only tends to exist in small pockets within larger organisations, and that psychological safety is often compromised in scenarios that require collaboration across organisational silos.

Organising for neurodivergent collaboration

Collaboration as an evolutionary force

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If autistic people can’t always see the depth of the “bigger picture” of the office politics  around us it does not in any way mean that we don’t see the big picture. In fact we are aware of the big picture and often we zoom in from the biggest picture right down to our immediate context and then back out again, stopping at various levels in between that are potentially relevant to our context at hand. Office politics only distract from the genuinely bigger context. Accusing autistic people of not seeing the bigger picture perhaps illustrates the social disease that afflicts our society better than anything else.

Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration hold the potential to transform pathologically competitive and toxic teams and cultures into highly collaborative teams and larger cultural units that work together more like an organism rather than like a group of fighters in an arena.

Evolution has mastered a number of similar phase shifts in the past. Consider the evolution of multi-celled life forms. Single-celled micro-organisms have not been replaced, but they have been complemented with a mind-boggling variety of more complex multi-celled life forms. We now know that our bodies harbour of more bacteria than human cells, and the vast majority of these bacteria are in a symbiotic relationship with our human cells. Consider this masterpiece of evolution for a moment. Many billions of collaborating cells and micro-organisms form what you experience as “you”. Statistically speaking our bodies are highly collaborative ecosystems of microscopic entities.

Yes sure, we still need an immune system that protects us from less friendly bacteria, but even such microbial invaders that make “us” sick can also be seen as being part of a bigger collaborative picture. The interactions between “hostile” microbes and our bodies represent a feedback loop of mutual learning, and over longer periods of time, sometimes over many generations, we learn enough about each other to not only coexist, but to even depend on each other in symbiotic ways for ongoing survival.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes that small groups are the organisms of human societies. This should provide all of us with food for thought and it has massive implications for the gene-culture co-evolution that characterises our species.

Humans are not the first hyper-social species on this planet. Insects such as ants offer great examples of successful collaboration at immense scale over millions of years. Charles Darwin and other early proponents of evolutionary theory appreciated the role of collaboration within species and between species, but many of these early insights including related empirical observations have been suppressed within the hyper-competitive narrative that has come to dominate industrialised civilisation.

Autistic collaboration vs non-autistic collaboration

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At a fundamental level, the ability to communicate is limited by the factors outlined in this article. Developing shared understanding is hard work. Always. For all people.

Autistic forms of communication within a neurodiverse team and within a psychologically safe environment actually impart a collaborative advantage to the entire team. The fact that most (all?) autistic people are incapable of holding a hidden agenda and don’t play social games minimises (if not eliminates) large and small sources of deception that afflict all traditional hierarchical organisational structures.

Non-autistic communication protocols make life bearable from a non-autistic perspective by injecting plenty of culturally expected pleasantries (exaggerations and small deceptions) and social cues into conversations, and thereby make it very hard to identify the larger deceptions that a minority of people weave into their social game. Resulting mismatches in expectations are easily explained away as unintended misunderstandings.

Non-autistic people seem ill equipped to recognise how all the little exaggerations they use on a regular basis, such as “you look great” (when you look and feel sick), and small deceptions such as “sorry, I have an important meeting to attend to” (when someone prefers not to help you and hoards information for personal advantage) or “I helped develop a great product” (when the person was not involved and only got to know the finished product and never contributed any feedback to the development team) over time add up to a non-collaborative and potentially toxic culture.

The result is depressing, not only for autistic people. It is time to recognise the key role of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people in cultural evolution and in recovery from collective insanity. This does not mean that autistic people don’t have communication challenges, Samantha Craft has written an excellent article on this topic. However it pains me to live in a broken “civilisation”. I am working on educating people about the thinking tools at our disposal that can assist in minimising suffering and in paving the path into a more humane social world.

The role of technology

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The technologies we develop and use tend to reflect the level of collaboration and competitiveness within our culture. In our role as conscious designers of technology, humans have the potential to influence the level of collaboration in our culture in profound ways, especially in a highly networked digital world. This recent interview between Douglas Rushkoff and Cory Doctorow offers a good overview of our current relationship with technology.

In a world that is dominated by global proprietary platforms the linear language we use for communication is rendered useless by biased algorithms and perversion of potentially valuable concepts. For corporate and government politicians who are drunk on the drug of social power life is a popularity contest. The need for learning and deeper levels of understanding is minimised, and the lives of others become secondary considerations.

Time and trusted collaboration are our scarcest resources. The former is a hard constraint and the latter is the critical cultural variable on which our future depends.

We have reached a point where human societies can choose between a “collapse of human ecological footprint” based on a conscious and significant reduction of cultural and technological complexity or an “ecological collapse, including human population collapse” resulting from a perpetuation of the behaviours that are slowly but surely killing us all. Realistically both kinds of collapse will occur in parallel, and some communities may be able to avoid the latter form of collapse to a larger extent than others.

The only way of avoiding bias and dangerous oversimplification is to perform ecological accounting in terms of relevant physical units. We can continue to live in cities and rely on science and specialisation to develop complementary skills, bodies of knowledge, and technologies, but we will have to rethink how we collaborate and manage genuinely scarce physical resources at a fundamental level.

Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise accordingly.

Human scale vs super-human scale

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One important dimension of human cognitive limits relates to the number of relationships that humans are capable of maintaining,

“Study after study confirms that most people have about five intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances. This threshold is imposed by brain size and chemistry, as well as the time it takes to maintain meaningful relationships”, Dunbar says.Scientific American, September 2018

These numbers guide my thinking on human scale  and have shaped the NeurodiVenture operating model that limits the size of good company to 50 people.

Unpopular fact: Super-human scale organisations of more than 50 people are collective delusions. In particular larger organisations that contain structures of command and control are not only learning disabled, they are also also detrimental to mental health and trusted collaboration.

When people complain about living in a filter bubble the problem is home-grown, the result of toxic levels of enforced cultural uniformity at super-human scales.

The NeurodiVenture operating model not only raises neurodiversity as a top level concern for good company but by imposing a hard limit on group size (in the case of S23M enforced by our company constitution) it also ensures that every member of the team has spare cognitive capacity for building and maintaining trusted relationships with the outside world, whilst at the same time encouraging creative collaboration for life.

The more we help each other to question in ways we otherwise wouldn’t – and correspondingly discover new insights about the world and ourselves, the more we are able to learn from each other, and the more we start to understand each other. The gift that members of NeurodiVentures bring to the world is the (re)generative potential of all the trusted relationships that they co-create.

Now contrast the NeurodiVenture setup with a traditional hierarchical organisation with several thousand employees.

Firstly the hierarchical social power structure imposes a top-down approach to declaring the organisation’s purpose and organisational values – in ignorance of what the people that make up the organisation are actually interested in and care about, leading to a cultural straightjacket of what is possible – a tiny Overton window that limits the conversations within the organisation.

Secondly, the “career opportunities” offered by the organisation by definition imply a hierarchical career ladder and send a strong signal to all employees that in-group competition is the route to professional success, and since – again by definition of the pyramidal structure – ladder climbing opportunities are limited to a minority, many employees will only stay a limited time and then choose to seek opportunities in other organisations (usually within three years and often within less than two years), with disastrous implications for the organisation’s ability to build up and retain valuable tacit knowledge.

I could compile a long list of advantages of the NeurodiVenture operating model supported by 7 years (and counting) of operating experience (following 10 years of lessons with various other operating models), but many of these advantages are simply corollaries of the cognitive limits highlighted by Dunbar’s research, which by the way are intuitively understood and adhered to by “uncivilised” societies.

Dunbar’s numbers (5 intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances) focus on the numbers of relationships that an individual can maintain. From this we can deduce that 50 people is an upper limit for a good company. In fact if the members of a company want to maintain strong trusted relationships with the external world, then it is a good idea for every member to maintain some of the 50 general friend relationships with people in other companies.

Let’s assume on average every member has 10 general friend relationships with people in other companies. Then collectively a good company can maintain a very impressive number of strong trusted relationships with other good companies. For example a company of 40 people would have a mind-boggling capacity of up to 40 * 10 = 400 general friend relationships with other companies. Of course the number is lower if people have many shared general friends, but the actual number will still be quite impressive. The important observation here is that we are talking about genuine and trust based relationships between people and not about superficial and untrusted transactional interactions. Collaborating in good company, even across the organisational boundary, is genuinely enjoyable!

A company of up to 50 people contains up to (50 x 49)/2 = 1225 general friend relationships. The possible collaboration patterns within the company are correspondingly complex. In order for individuals to collaborate effectively and in order to effectively coordinate activities across the organisation it makes sense for emergent groups of regular (daily) collaborators to be given recognisable labels – the result is a structure of teams.

A theoretical debate over whether teams should be allowed to overlap completely misses the point. What matters is that high performing collaborative teams tend to have 7 +/- 2 members. A team’s boundary is defined by the existing team members. A new team member joining is an obvious event, prompted by a new need for daily collaboration.

Good companies

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Within a good company (smaller than 50 people) and especially within a team, everyone is acutely aware of the competencies of all the other members. Within traditional teams this knowledge about the distribution of available competencies tends to be tacit – locked up in peoples’ heads, it is not available in explicit form. In a NeurodiVenture  all members expose (write down and share) these so-called individual competency networks for the benefit of everyone within the company.

The result is an immensely valuable index of competencies consisting of up to 50 unique perspectives on the company. These perspectives are not merged into some absurd attempt to create a unique source of truth. All perspectives are considered equally valid. Collectively their presence allows the company to rapidly respond intelligently and with courage to all kinds of external events, by drawing on collective intelligence in a very literal sense.

To appreciate the significance, let’s assume that on average for each person in a company of 50 there are 10 to 20 externally or internally triggered categories of events (these events can be thought of as use cases) associated with a demand that relate to the person’s core competencies, and perhaps there are another 10 to 20 events that the person is also well equipped to deal with (beyond the core competencies). This leads to a collective set of 50 x 20 to 50 x 40 = 1,000 to 2,000 competency self assessments, and to a multitude of perspectives from others on a subset of these declared competencies. Having all this information available in explicit form within a company is an extremely valuable tool.

But of course hardly anyone in a traditional organisation with hierarchical power structures would openly share their individual competency network including their perspectives on the core competencies of other members of the organisation. Anyone who thinks about this obvious observation for a couple of minutes has to conclude that traditional organisations represent a form of collective stupidity – the result of inherent lack of mutual trust due to in-group competition.

Individual competency networks are one of the three ingredients of the collaborative (not secret) sauce of good company. The other two essential ingredients that define the NeurodiVenture model (follow the link for details):

  • The 8 trust-reinforcing organisational principles and rituals
  • The more generic tailored 8 pro-social core design principles

The NeurodiVenture model is the result of incremental evolution. The 8 trust-reinforcing principles and rituals are not unique to our approach and have proven their worth in various contexts. At S23M we started with these 8 complementary/orthogonal principles and rituals as an initial minimal viable operating model. Then several painful lessons prompted us to add the prosocial principles.

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Our established undocumented practices meant that we  already had implementations for 7 of the 8 prosocial principles identified by Elinor Ostrom, Michael Cox and David Sloan Wilson, but we were missing the 8th principle “Graduated responses to transgressions”. As as our small team grew beyond four people, the idea of explicit individual competency networks took shape and has since become more important and relevant with every new team member.

Learning companies

In a good company coordination and organisational learning happens via a simple advice process (one of our 8 trust-reinforcing rituals), without any need for social power structures. Before making a major decision that affects others in the organisation:

  1. A person has to seek advice from at least one trusted colleague with potentially relevant or complementary knowledge or expertise.
  2. Giving advice is optional. It is okay to admit lack of expertise. This enables the requestor to proceed on the basis of the available evidence.
  3. Following advice is optional. The requestor may ignore advice if she/he believes that all things considered there is a better approach or solution. Not receiving advice in a timely manner is deemed equivalent to no relevant advice being available within the organisation. This allows everyone to balance available wisdom with first hand learning and risk taking.
  4. The 8 prosocial design principles provide guidance for dealing with people who regularly ignore relevant advice (or consistently refuse to seek or give advice) and therefore regularly cause downstream problems for others as a result. Such situations are obvious for all involved. A persistent breakdown of collaboration either results in a significant change in behaviour once the downstream problems are recognised, or in the non-cooperative person leaving the organisation.

According to Frederic Laloux an advice process with the above characteristics is the one noteworthy commonality across all of the non-hierarchical organisations that he has researched. I can confirm that the advice process is an essential corner stone within the NeurodiVenture model.

The outlined NeurodiVenture model is a minimalistic implementation of a non-hierarchical organisation.

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Beyond eliminating formal hierarchical structures the NeurodiVenture model also removes all incentives for the emergence of informal “power-over” structures via transparency of all individual competency networks for the benefit of everyone within the company. This is perhaps the most radical idea within the NeurodiVenture model.

Transparency of individual competency networks enables meta knowledge (who has which knowledge and who entrusts whom with questions or needs in relation to specific domains of knowledge) to flow freely with an organisation.

The conceptualisation of meta knowledge flows via individual competency networks assists the coordination of activities via the advice process outlined above and via regular Open Space workshops, and it acts as an effective dampener on the informal hierarchies that can easily come to plague hierarchical and “non-hierarchical” organisations.

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Informal hierarchies tend to corrode trust and collaboration, often with particularly toxic effects for neurodivergent people. This is the one notable difference to the forms of self-organisation advocated by Frederic Laloux, which don’t mandate transparency of meta knowledge flows, and which rely on “natural” hierarchies.

Similarly the additional rituals and “circle” structures that are prescribed by recipes for operating non-hierarchical organisations such as sociocracy or holocracy are not needed in the NeurodiVenture model. Organically evolving small – and often overlapping – teams are created and dissolved as needed to achieve specific goals.

The NeurodiVenture model continuously strives to minimise spurious cultural complexity. It has evolved incrementally based on concrete needs, only relying on the timeless wisdom that has been captured in the prosocial principles that predate “civilised” societies.

Further implications of human cognitive limits

  1. People can understand the nuanced dynamics of teams of up to 10 people.
  2. Groups of more than 10 people must be organised in teams of teams for everyone to retain an understanding of the collaboration dynamics.
  3. An individual competency network that references more than 50 people leads to reductions in trusted collaboration and hence a reduction in organisational adaptiveness.
  4. Via peer-to-peer recommendations the potential for trusted collaboration can be expanded to 150 people, however at any point in time an individual can only collaborate effectively with up to 50 people.
  5. Collaborations involving more than 50 people produce emergent results and attempts of alignment are of limited effectiveness.
  6. All forms of social status are legacy technologies that create dangerous illusions of authority or understanding. Decisions made by an individual on behalf of more than 50 people are based on ignorance about the ways in which people will be affected.

Notes on cultural evolution and transformation

 

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When applying multi-level group selection theory of evolution (MLS) to human societies that are driven as much by culture (social norms) as by genetic biological programmes, the most relevant subjects of evolution are social groups at various levels of scale.

Learning how to create collaborative environments for small “human scale” groups (good companies) creates a collaborative edge over other companies as no effort is wasted on in-group competition. This in turn significantly reduces the need to spend time on “winning” direct competitions with other companies. What happens instead is that other companies are increasingly intrigued by the company’s capability.

Education is essential. When beliefs that represent evidence based facts are propagated via a critical self-reflective process of education that is at least one order of magnitude slower than the process of social transmission (imitation/copying without any deeper understanding),  recipients – to a certain degree – are immunised against influence from those with opinions that contradict evidence based understanding.

The journey of transformation of an organisation opens up three broad scenarios:

  1. Only a few individuals within the organisation recognise the full human potential for collaboration. These individuals will leave the toxic organisation and can be supported in forming or joining a good company with a NeurodiVenture compatible operating model. This is a form of palliative care for toxic organisations that allows organisations to die whilst providing an exit strategy for the inhabitants.
  2. A sizeable subgroup of individuals within the organisation recognises the full human potential for collaboration, but the majority of people within the organisation are not yet ready to shift perspectives. Such a subgroup can for example emerge / self-organise as a result of running regular Open Space workshops within the organisation. The subgroup may choose to separate from the organisation and then collaborate with the organisation (and potentially other organisations) from the outside. This is a form of transformational support that allows organisations to incrementally break up into smaller and healthier collaborative parts.
  3. The majority of individuals within the organisation recognise the full human potential for collaboration. Such a result may also emerge / self-organise as a result of running regular Open Space workshops within the organisation. This is a form of phase transition that allows organisations to rapidly shift to a much healthier collaborative operating model.

Note that in all scenarios above the organisational units and their configuration are the subjects of evolution.

Individuals can choose to remain in the original organisational structure / operating model as long as they wish, but as more and more of their colleagues vote with their feet and signal a preference for a collaborative cultural environment, more and more will find the courage to leave what at the beginning may still have been perceived as a somewhat toxic but at least as a familiar and therefore superficially “safe” environment (due to irrational fear of the unknown, i.e. “things are bad but they could be worse”).

The future is neurodiversity friendly 🙂

Beyond peak human standardisation

In some geographies the prevalence of autism within the population is now estimated to be 1 in 35. Overall, in the US, according to CDC data, 1 in 6 children has a “developmental disability”, and in the UK, according to the Department of Education, 15% (roughly 1 in 7) of students  have a “learning difference”.

I don’t have any issue with these numbers. In fact I am delighted that the extent to which people differ from one another is finally being recognised. But I do have an issue with the continuing pathologisation of people that don’t fit a standardised idealised (and hence fictional) human template. Even if we are seeing the first cracks in the pathology paradigm in relation to variances in neurocognitive functioning in the form of a partial shift from the language of disorder to condition and to difference, many of the traits associated with differences are still described in the pathologising language of diagnostic criteria.

Furthermore, even if the language of diagnostic criteria were to be completely overhauled, the social construct of having professional diagnosticians on the one hand and non-human-standard conforming people on the other hand creates an arbitrary social power differential where the level of humanness of the latter minority group is rated and judged by another minority group with privileged status in our society.

The desire to categorise and standardise human behaviours is the underlying force of civilised societies, which reached new heights over the last 250 years, first with the mechanistic factory model of the world that defined the early industrial era, and then more recently, with the development of networked computers and with the emergence of automated information flows that currently shape significant parts of our lives and our interactions with people and with abstract technological agents.

The illusion of the idealised standard human

Autistic people and otherwise neurodivergent people must take ownership of the labels. The way to do so is by collaboration and by rejecting pseudo science. Instead of normalisation therapies for neurodivergent people there is a need for developing yet to be conceived assistive technologies for improving communication and collaboration between people with significantly different cognitive lenses.

Is is as important to provide appropriate technologies to neurotypical people as it is to provide appropriate technologies for neurodivergent people. Thoughtful design of assistive technologies not only assists neurodivergent people to better relate to neurotypical people, but it also holds potential for assisting neurotypical people to learn about and better relate to neurodivergent people with a kaleidoscope of different cognitive lenses.

Our digital devices already come loaded with plenty of software tools that provide cognitive assistance in terms of

  • spell-checking,
  • speech to text,
  • text to speech,
  • image to text,
  • language translation,
  • synchronous and asynchronous communication,
  • management and filtering of social interactions,
  • project coordination and collaboration,
  • prioritisation and task management,
  • arithmetic calculation / spreadsheet,
  • statistical analysis,
  • computer algebra,
  • domain specific machine learning,
  • visual domain specific modelling,
  • visual drawing,
  • music and video production,
  • navigation,
  • noise cancelling and filtering headphones / ear plugs,
  • biological function monitoring and feedback,
  • visualisation and exploration of multi-dimensional data sets,
  • automation of routine tasks of various types,
  • general purpose programming,
  • augmented reality displays that can be configured to incorporate all kinds of visual information,

functionality, and the list continues to grow. A good way of understanding the concept of neurodiversity is to step back and to realise that all of us develop unique usage profiles of all these technologies. In fact, most of us end up focusing on using a particular subset of these technologies – because these provide us with the optimal assistance for our specific cognitive lens in the context of our preferred social and physical environments, which in turn are heavily influenced by our cognitive lens.

It is not an accident that autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people have been heavily involved in developing many (all?) of the above technologies.

The visceral experience of cognitive overload in various contexts experienced by neurodivergent people and the deep and highly domain specific areas of interests of autistic people have compelled people to dedicate much of their time and sometimes literally their entire life to the development and improvement of specific assistive technologies.

Just because the majority of people, once they are fully programmed by our culture, perceives a growing minority of people (1 in 6) as not fully conforming to cultural expectations, does not mean that there is anything biologically or mentally wrong with these non-conformists. From a sociological and biological perspective the rising numbers of cultural non-conformists may just as well be seen as an indicator of an increasingly sick society characterised by cultural norms that are incompatible with human biological and social needs.

The dynamics of culture and technology

How did society get to the point where the needs of 1 out of 6 people are not reflected in the evolution of social norms?

Social norms evolve and shift incrementally over time, often subconsciously, without any explicit intent at an individual level. Typical humans absorb the cultural norms around them without being aware of the extent to which this is influencing their world view and their judgements of other people.

We tend to believe that we consciously design the technologies we use. Whilst the development of technologies certainly involves an element of conscious intent, it is easy to overlook the implicit cultural assumptions and biases that are baked into the technological designs we create and implement.

Ted Nelson reminds us of the broad scope of technology in human cultures and of the social power dynamics associated with technology. Even the language we speak and the specific words we use are technologies.

A frying-pan is technology. All human artifacts are technology. But beware anybody who uses this term. Like “maturity” and “reality” and “progress”, the word “technology” has an agenda for your behavior: usually what is being referred to as “technology” is something that somebody wants you to submit to. “Technology” often implicitly refers to something you are expected to turn over to “the guys who understand it.

This is actually almost always a political move. Somebody wants you to give certain things to them to design and decide. Perhaps you should, but perhaps not.

Ted Nelson (1999)

We increasingly recognise that neurodivergent people and in particular autistic people are instrumental in the design and development of new technologies. But this does not imply that autistic people are interested in exerting power over other people. Usually the opposite is the case. Many autistic people are fierce advocates of egalitarianism and social justice.

Instead, autistic people primarily tend to design and develop technologies for personal use. In the era of computers and ubiquitous digital devices this has resulted in a mind boggling soup of diverse technologies for all kinds of use cases. In order to understand how technologies end up becoming co-opted for social power games we have to look at the bigger picture of the social context. Autistic people don’t operate exclusively in a social vacuum, and their social naivety in combination with the curiosity of the people around them leads to applications of new technology far beyond what an autistic inventor may have had in mind.

The resulting bigger picture of social dynamics illustrates how new knowledge and inventions can easily be co-opted, especially in sick societies that run on a hyper-competitive social operating system.

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The accelerated automated information flows enabled via the internet  have magnified the risks of and have amplified the reach of technologies that have been co-opted to establish and perpetuate social inequalities by several orders of magnitude. It should come as no surprise that many of the assistive technologies listed above are both highly valuable to individuals and at the same time have been co-opted to perpetuate established social hierarchies and economic “externalities”.

The complexity of the feedback loops between cultural norms and technologies is comparable to the complexity in feedback loops in social-ecological systems. The main agents are:

  1. neurodivergent creators of technologies (autistic people and small neurodiverse teams),
  2. designers of social games (organisations or individuals with a lack of empathy),
  3. the potential user base (wider society including its institutions).

In our globally networked world individual inventors or small teams currently don’t have much if any control over the use of the technologies they create. Anthropocentrism and ignorance of human scale are the social diseases of our civilisation.

These diseases are obvious to most autistic people but they are only just beginning to be recognised by a growing number of people in wider society. Many signs are pointing towards a major cultural transformation based on a significant shift in values of younger generations that have grown up in an environment of continuous exploitation by technological monopolies.

Mono-cultures and social games

The biggest challenge of the Anthropocence is the collective mind shift needed to reverse the growing ecological footprint of the human presence on this planet. Time and trusted collaboration are our scarcest resources. The former is a hard constraint and the latter is the critical cultural variable on which our future depends.

The trend towards increasing levels of technological, social, and ecological mono-cultures creates a multitude of existential risks:

  1. Fragile globally networked mono-technologies that have potential failure points with severe global impact
  2. A global ideological mono-culture that systematically prioritises the imagined “needs” of capital before the needs of humans and the other biological creatures that make up the biosphere
  3. Fragile ecological mono-cultures that are not only vulnerable to pathogens and climate variability at global scale, but are also dependent on unsustainable energy and resource inputs (fertiliser), whilst being inherently  unsustainable in terms of soil degradation

It seems that autistic honesty and significantly reduced cultural bias are the only forces that may allow human societies to escape from a deadly spiral of increasingly absurd social games.

To understand why so many innovations are perverted into toxic social games we only need to look at the logic that powers the global economy. Any innovations that are unlikely to generate a return on capital are automatically discarded by investors of capital.

Our education system and institutions steer all young entrepreneurs with visions of improving some aspect of our world into the hands of potential investors. Entrepreneurs are not taught that there are alternative routes to bringing valuable innovations to life, and they are certainly not taught that anyone should be able to define their own criteria of success – and that aiming for a monetary profit or for global scale may work against the original vision of the entrepreneur.

Think about this for a moment. As an example, imagine someone invented a personal transportation vehicle that is twenty to forty times lighter than a conventional car, powered by an electric battery that only needs a fraction of the capacity needed to power an electric car. Imagine these lightweight vehicles would have a range comparable to electric cars and were capable of travelling at speeds of up to 80 km/h. We already know how to build and produce such vehicles, they cost much less than traditional cars and they hold the potential to replace traditional car fleets at a fraction of the energy and resource use needed to replace the ICE cars on our roads by electric cars.

The reasons why we are not yet seeing local production of such vehicles in all parts of the world are very simple:

  1. Conventional automotive companies have no interest in shifting to the production of ultra-light one or two person electric vehicles, because it would drastically reduce their revenue and profit margins.
  2. An entire web of energy, resource, and labour intensive suppliers of automotive parts and components is interested in maintaining their revenue and profit margins.
  3. The shift to electric vehicles is already causing major headaches for countries like Germany where significant parts of the economy in some geographic regions depend heavily on automotive companies. As a result governments are reluctant to impose any significant limits on traditional vehicle production.
  4. As long as peoples’ livelihoods are dependent on being busy in some kind of paid “job”, any innovation that reduces the need for human busyness will be perceived as a dangerous idea that has no legs. It is quite bizarre how much governments are concerned about providing “jobs” (i.e. busyness) and how little they are concerned about addressing increasingly severe existential threats. The “only” barrier that stands in the way of radical transformation is the absurd idea that only money and busyness generating activities are valuable to society. In a world of material abundance in developed countries, oil spills and other environmental disasters are welcome opportunities for keeping the stuttering busyness engine going.
  5. At a fundamental level all capitalistic economies are based on mistrust (guard labour). The constraints that the system imposes on individuals optimises for inequality and busyness (spurious cultural complexity). The system leaves no room for intrinsic value of biodiversity and of living organisms. Ultimately the machines we design will keep themselves busy and produce capital for themselves and their peers – humans along with all other life forms become completely redundant.
  6. Governance models that aim to address some of the perverse incentives and externalities created by the logic of capital, such as triple bottom line approaches and frameworks such as the Living Standards Framework currently being implemented in New Zealand, tend to suffer from the tendency of maintaining traditional monetary measures of economic activity as a core foundation and from treating other measures of well-being and ecological health as secondary dimensions. Thus whilst such frameworks may look attractive on the surface, their bias towards money generating busyness severely limits the potential for improvements of well-being and ecological health at a fundamental level.

This little thought experiment demonstrates how economic ideology gets in the way of a profound transformation.

Non-autistic people who have internalised most aspects of our culture at a subconscious level have extreme difficulty in reasoning about economic ideology from the outside and in coming up with alternative organisational principles that seem to defy “common sense”. Non-autistic people are incapable of fulfilling the role of Greta Thunberg (and many other autistic people) in educating young people about climate breakdown and about the dysfunctions of our economic ideology.

Most scientific and technological breakthroughs are made by people and teams of people with autistic minds. But throughout human history, as outlined above, the applications of such breakthroughs have been shaped by an entirely different group of people and by organisations that are mainly interested in maintaining and enhancing established social power differentials. In a networked world social power differentials have been amplified and scaled to a global level. Instead of the bizarre local power games played by baboons, chimpanzees and other primates, human civilisation now plays a global power game with much higher stakes.

Neurodivergent collaboration

Since autistic people are unable to hold hidden agendas and are not interested in holding social power over others, they hold great potential as translators between very different cultures and as arbitrators between stakeholders with competing interests.

Currently our societies are blind to this potential. Instead our culture pathologies those people who are best equipped to point out cultural bias and blind spots. Unless society starts to appreciate and celebrate neurodiversity and neurodivergent collaboration the future of humans looks bleak.

The following illustrations can assist in establishing trusted collaborations with neurodivergent people and with neurodiverse teams.

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.001

In the above illustration the relative surface areas of the red, green, and blue rectangles  represent the usage profile of a neurotypical brain, and the sum of the surface areas represent the total brain volume.

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An autistic brain has the same volume but a distinctly different usage profile. The range of domains that are of interest is much narrower and deeper, with the exception of intuitive (subconscious) social skills, which are much less deep than in a neurotypical “reference” brain. Also note that a significant part of the autistic brain is devoted to the development of exceptionally deep knowledge and skills in specific domains of interest (the example reflects my specific interests, each autistic person has a unique profile of core interests).

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.003

Attempts at collaboration between neurotypes suffer from the incompatible levels of intuitive social skills and from mismatches in the level of depth of knowledge and breadth of interests in other domains.

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Successful and mutually enjoyable collaboration across neurotypes focuses on shared or overlapping areas of deep knowledge and hinges on neurotypical adaptation to autistic levels of social skills.

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Beyond focus on shared areas of deep knowledge successful collaboration depends on mutual understanding of potential sources of misunderstandings. Autistic people carry around large numbers of open questions and only have beliefs that are backed up by personal experience or by scientific evidence. In contrast non-autistic people are much less comfortable carrying around open questions over long periods of time and tend to hold many socially constructed beliefs, i.e. opinions that are not backed up by personal experience or by scientific evidence.

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.001

Minimising misunderstandings involves significant work on both sides and hinges on mutual respect and patience.

Recovery from social disease

Members of the autism civil rights movement adopt a position of neurodiversity that extends the LGBTQIA+ kaleidoscope of identities by recognising autistic traits as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species. As an autistic person I can only hope that it does not take another 50 years for autism and other forms of neurodiversity to be depathologised. The next step towards depathologisation involves autistic people taking ownership of the label.

I am not worried about the survival of our “civilisation”. Our current form of social organisation is a legacy technology that will be viewed as a severe and highly infectious social disease by future generations.

The lifespan of individual humans is far too short and our minds may be far too limited for us to develop a deep and profound level of understanding of social diseases at super-human scale (nation states, corporations, and other large organisations that we interact with on a transactional basis rather than via long-term trust based eye level relationships with specific people).

There is no straight forward cure or treatment for social diseases. Given our knowledge about earlier civilisations, we may want to play it safe, and rediscover the beauty of human scale in the process, which served us well for many hundred thousand years – until we invented the technologies of civilisation (cities, written language, and money).

If we are lucky some of our technologies may help us to remember the level of collective insanity that humans and other primates are capable of, and they may prevent us from exterminating millions of species including our own. The following call for action extracted from an excellent analysis by Nafeez Ahmed is a medicine worthwhile trying:

‘Rebellion’ is not enough. We need to build new systems from the ground up, right now

It’s not that we shouldn’t protest or call for institutions to change. But far more than that, if we are really serious about this, the far bigger challenge is for each of us to work within our own networks of influence, to explore how we ourselves can begin changing the organisations and institutions in which we are embedded.

And it means grounding this effort in completely new frame of orientation, one in which human beings are inherently interconnected, and inter-embedded within the earth; where we are not atomistically separated from the reality in which we find ourselves as technocratic overlords, but are co-creators of that reality as individuated parts of a continuum of being.

Whatever happens out there in the world, the crisis out there is calling unto each of us to become who we need to be, truly are, and always were. And on the basis of that internal renewal, to take radical action in our own place-based contexts to build the seeds of the new paradigm, right here, right now.

Let us not simply go to a protest. Let us build our own capacity as individuals and members of various institutions to think and do differently within our own consciousness and behaviour, as well as across energy, food, water, culture, economics, business, finance. By doing so, we plant the seeds of an emerging paradigm of life and reality that redefines the very essence of what it means to be alive.

This is the conversation we need to begin having, from our boardrooms, to our governing councils — for those of us who have woken up to what is at stake, the real question is, how can I actually mobilise to build the new paradigm?

Guidelines for future autism research

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From the perspective of the autism rights movement ownership of the definition of autism is a practical question of human rights and social power relationships in the here and now, and not an abstract philosophical problem.

Across the board most autistic people recognise the disabling characteristics of autism, which are socially constructed, exactly in the same way that left-handedness, female sex, or atypical gender identity used to be significantly disabling characteristics in our society.

Toxic social power relationships and bullying in society and in the workplace arise out of the pathologisation of autism and other neurological variants that influence the ability to conform to local cultural expectations in one or more areas of social behaviour.

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Here are two concrete examples of how social power relationships in relation to neurodiversity currently play out within academic research organisations:

  1. “There is no staff member in our organisation who is interested in participating in an active role in the context of celebrating and de-pathologising neurodiversity”
  2. When asking about a safe space (a time slot and small venue) that allows neurodivergent people to meet, I was informed that “the organisation has already settled on five priority areas of diversity and that the organisation does not want to add any more [support]”

In order to be of value to the autistic community, and in order not to further endorse and perpetuate the use of the pathology paradigm by researchers, it is essential that future autism research builds on the communal definition of autism and takes care to use non-pathologising language in all resulting publications.

The Autistic Collaboration community curates autistic perspectives and links to research that is deemed relevant from the perspective of the autistic community. The links between neurodiversity and creativity and the mental health implications of systematic discrimination and pathologisation are of particular interest.

This article is a sad reminder of the mainstream culture we often find ourselves in. This culture is the inevitable result of pathologising autism and other neurological variants; it makes invalid and highly toxic assumptions about human nature that become self-fulfilling prophecies:

Let’s begin with two principles:

  1. People are status-seeking monkeys
  2. People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital

I begin with these two observations of human nature because few would dispute them …

I can’t comprehend how anyone wants to live in this kind of world. I would like to see research that explores how “status-seeking monkeys” can unlearn some of their assumptions about human nature and become more aware of their cultural programming.

From an ethical perspective, the following guidelines should be mandatory for all future autism research:

Non-pathologising language

Autism is a very broad umbrella term for a multi-dimensional set of traits. In our current society both autistic people with more complex support needs as well as those with less complex support needs suffer from discrimination.

  • A pathologising label such as “Low Functioning Autism” negates and belittles the capabilities of a group of people, simply because they are non-verbal (here is a good example) or learning disabled.
  • A pathologising label such as “High Functioning Autism” negates and belittles the support needs of a group of people, simply because they are verbal and not learning disabled. Bullying and autistic suicide statistics are a strong indicator of a lack of support that actually meets the needs of autistic people.

The rationale for using non-pathologising language is straight forward. It is the same rationale that prompts left-handed people, women, the LGBTQIA communities etc. to rightfully demand the use of non-pathologising language. In case non-pathologising language leads to concerns about the ability to publish in influential journals, then the problem clearly lies with the journals and not with the research and the language used.

My work involves the diligent use of language and formal semantic models. I am acutely aware of the power and the limits of language in the context of knowledge transfer, and the role of language in the context of power politics and deception. Our company is not going to be involved in any research that uses pathologising language to describe autism.

The use of pathologising language is fine in relation to physical or mental ailments where a person wishes for a cure or amelioration that is focused on their own body and mind. The use of pathologising language is inappropriate for physical or mental ailments that are caused by the environment.

If someone experiences pain in their foot because I stand on their foot, the person does not have a foot pathology but their environment is a source of pain that needs to be addressed. If an autistic person experiences mental and emotional pain due to sensory overload or due to cultural demands for conformance with culture specific arbitrary rituals (eye contact is a great example of a cultural ritual that is painful or stressful for many autistic people, and small talk can be similarly stressful), the person does not have a mental disorder but their environment (including cultural expectations) is a source of pain that needs to be addressed.

There is no doubt that many autistic people (just like non-autistic people) have ailments that are experienced as a disease or disorder, which people would prefer not to have. People do not enjoy having epileptic seizures, migraines, asthma, and many other ailments. All of these health conditions have formal labels that describe related symptoms. None of these health conditions are unique to autistic people, even though some autistic people have some of these co-concurrent conditions more frequently than other people.

Resorting to pathologising language in autism related research that focuses on autistic cognition but not on co-concurrent health conditions amounts to systematic discrimination.

Autism related research that investigates co-concurrent health conditions in the context of autism may use pathologising language in relation to the co-concurrent health conditions, but not in relation to autism.

Social power relationships

Social power relationships are not an intrinsic feature of all societies, even though they are part of all societies that consider themselves (considered in the case of historic societies that have collapsed) to be “civilised”.

We live in times where the very foundations of civilisation have become a major problem. Even non-autistic people are starting to realise that power relationships are a major root cause in this context. Human social behaviour across all levels of scale can not be understood through the lens of any single discipline. The research of Herbert Gintis is an excellent starting point.

Cultural evolution is a topic that “culturally well adapted” (non-autistic) people are ill equipped to discuss, as cultural bias easily creates significant blind spots. A culture without neurodiversity and without an adequate distribution of autistic traits is unable to evolve.

Humans have become more successful than other primates not because we are better at constructing social power hierarchies but because we have recognised the danger of the collective learning disabilities induced by all social power relationships. This allowed pre-civilised humans to collaborate very effectively and to reproduce and more successfully than other primates.

The era of human civilisations and anthropocentrism is a little detour or temporary disruption in the evolution of life on this planet.

It is the role of science to apply a critical lens to our understanding of the world, and in the case of human researchers this means being cognisant of the potential for cultural bias to induce culture-specific implicit assumptions when framing research objectives and when attempting to analyse the social world.

Disability

In the context of autism co-concurrent health conditions – rather than autistic cognition – can be disabling.

Most importantly however, for all autistic people the cultural environment and cultural expectations in most societies are disabling to some extent (see the social model of disability).

This article by Robert Chapman provides serious food for thought on the origins of the pathologisation of autism.

Ethical research objectives

Since autism is not a pathology, research objectives must not include:

  1. The search for a cure for autism
  2. Genetic tests that screen for traits that are common in autistic people, with a view of reducing the prevalence or strength of these traits
  3. Therapies for autistic people that focus primarily on changing the behaviour of autistic people, rather than assisting autistic people to shape their environment in accordance with their unique individual needs

Instead, given the shocking historic track record of autism research and therapies, all autism related research must be subject to ethical approval by a board of autistic people, and must consider the needs of all autistic people, including autistic adults.

It is time to significantly raise the ethical bar for autism research.

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The initiative below illustrates the beginning of a new era of autism research.

The Participatory Autism Research Collective

The Participatory Autism Research Collective (PARC) was set up to bring autistic people, including scholars and activists, together with early career researchers and practitioners who work with autistic people. Our aim is to build a community network where those who wish to see more significant involvement of autistic people in autism research can share knowledge and expertise.

PARC are following in the footsteps of previous autistic-led projects, such as the Autonomy Journal and the Theorising Autism Project, who have been campaigning for more participatory autism research.

The project was initially based at London South Bank University, where PARC has held a number of events, contributed to research projects and to publications. The group is has since expand activities to other Universities such as Birmingham, Sheffield Hallam and Nottingham.

The Neurodiversity Reader – Call for Submissions
Twenty years on – tracing the influence of the neurodiversity movement on theory and practice.

The future is neurodiversity friendly!

The topics that generate conversations around the Autistic Collaboration  community increasingly overlap with the topics that participants are bringing to the quarterly CIIC unconferences in Auckland and in Melbourne, which draw in many people with autistic cognitive lenses.

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I have recently summarised the multiple crises of civilisation on the CIIC website, so there is no need to repeat theses observations as part of this article. I would rather like to highlight the deep levels of indoctrination that stand in the way of addressing the root causes of what is best described as extreme anthropocentrism or as “civilisation disorder”.

Cultural indoctrination

Human civilisations have incrementally produced more and more sophisticated tools for inducing and maintaining collective delusions. The increasing level of pathologisation of neurodiversity over the last century (measurable in the rise in diagnoses of “neurological disorders”) is a good indicator of deepening levels of indoctrination rather than an indicator of an evolutionary shift in human neurocognitive functioning.

Another good indicator of the multi-generational depth of cultural indoctrination becomes visible when examining shifts in the meanings of the words we use to describe human social behaviour within groups and between groups.

In the English language words that originally referred to companionship, ways of life, skilled handicraft, and track (I love how that relates to autistic focus and perseverance!) are used interchangeably with words that originally referred to anxiety, being busy, and marking of ownership with a burning iron. As part of the neoliberal capitalist agenda the words “business” and “brand”  have found their way into many other languages in Europe and beyond.

  • The origin of “brand”: Old English brand ‘burning’, of Germanic origin; related to German Brand, also to burn. The verb sense ‘mark with a hot iron’ dates from late Middle English, giving rise to the noun sense ‘a mark of ownership made by branding’ (mid 17th century), whence brand (the noun) (early 19th century).
  • The origin of “business”: Old English bisignis ‘anxiety’ (see busy, -ness); the sense ‘state of being busy’ was used from Middle English down to the 18th century, but is now differentiated as busyness. The use ‘appointed task’ dates from late Middle English, and from it all the other current senses have developed.
  • The origin of “trade”: Late Middle English (as a noun): from Middle Low German, literally ‘track’, of West Germanic origin; related to tread. Early senses included ‘course, way of life’, which gave rise in the 16th century to ‘habitual practice of an occupation’, ‘skilled handicraft’. The current verb senses date from the late 16th century.
  • The origin of “company”: Middle English: from Old French compainie; related to compaignon (see companion).

Today those who object to branding and busyness are pathologised. To top it off, many people are so brainwashed that they are afraid of the collapse of civilisation.

The term “civilisation” traces back to notion of “city”, labels which also carry baggage related to wielding social power beyond human scale that people no longer think about.

Origin of “city“: Middle English: from Old French cite, from Latin civitas, from civis ‘citizen’. Originally denoting a town, and often used as a Latin equivalent to Old English burh ‘borough’, the term was later applied to the more important English boroughs. The connection between city and cathedral grew up under the Norman kings, as the episcopal sees (many had been established in villages) were removed to the chief borough of the diocese.

Of course the label of “city” entails many functions beyond the old connection to social power. Valuable aspects of cities include all the other infrastructure functions of cities beyond the provision of a substrate for social power games.

Beyond civilisation

Creating more humane societies involves surgical removal of social power games from our institutions and relationships.

Without self-awareness about the depth of cultural indoctrination and without many years of practice in the use of [critical] thinking tools any attempt to consciously construct a different and more humane society is destined to fail.

Whatever changes well intentioned cultural designers have in mind will quickly be picked up and co-opted by established power structures, leading to watered down objectives and activities that create an illusion of change, whilst actually reinforcing power gradients and an anthropocentric concept of civilisation, where civilised humans represent the pinnacle of valuable life forms, and where lesser humans and other species are relegated to lower rungs on the ladder of life, deemed unworthy of influencing the future of life on this planet.

The only potential avenue to escape the patterns of collective insanity known as civilisation is an educational approach that delivers compelling evidence that all civilisations have a dark side that eventually becomes the dominant characteristic, and thereby leads to the abuse and disillusionment of the “inmates” of civilised society.

Only those who have understood in their minds and who feel in their hearts that civilisation is not a worthwhile objective for human society are able to see the alternative that is waiting for us: a life within small (human scale) collaborative groups, embedded in a planetary network of life that includes all species.

Prior to the short era of civilisations, humans have spent several hundred thousand years in human scale egalitarian groups. This capability – the potential to develop and maintain egalitarian norms over many generations – distinguished us from other primates, and it enabled us to become more successful than all other primates.

What civilisation has taught us is that humans still have the potential to fall back into cultural norms that reinforce primate dominance hierarchies. This potential in combination with the relatively large size of the human brain enables

  • super-human scale social groups,
  • super-human scale cities,
  • and spurious cultural complexity that manifests itself in dominance hierarchies and in increasingly energy intensive and self-destructive competitive social games.

From my discussions with other autistic people it seems that many of us would happily trade civilisation for life at human scale. Some of us are desperate to leave “civilisation” behind.

Life in human scale collaborative groups is possible today, and the number of non-hierarchical organisations is growing. In contrast to our pre-civilised ancestors we now have ubiquitous access to technologies that enable global peer to peer communication. The opportunity at our disposal consists of localised human scale organisation (minimising our ecological footprint) and global peer to peer sharing and validation of knowledge (maximising our learning opportunities).

Life at humane scale is life in a post busyness society. How much longer will it take for the majority of humans to reject the failed busyness of civilisation?

We don’t need to give up the infrastructure functions provided by our cities and technologies, we only need to give up super-human scale (inhumane) social structures and group identities.

The catch is that this may be easy for autistic people on the fringes of society, but it seems to be far from easy for most non-autistic people. Typical humans have a very hard time to differentiate culturally transmitted beliefs and desires from basic human needs and the innate human preference for peer to peer collaboration at eye level.

My conclusion: anthropocentric “civilisation” is a dead end. Humane neurodiversity friendly collaboration may hold the key to the future of human cultural evolution – not as a way of building a new civilisation, but as a way for identifying a viable niche for our descendants within the context of a thriving living planet.

The trigger for cultural change has been pulled

It is heartening to see Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power.

Established institutions will continue to use their powers and propaganda machines to create the illusion of change, in an attempt to turn climate breakdown into yet another big busyness opportunity.

But like many other autistic people Greta sees right through the attempts of social engineering. Her real achievement lies in reaching a global audience by riding on top of the media machines that work on behalf of the establishment, and by simply pointing out the obvious truth to everyone – that the emperors have no clothes.

Now the global public knows that everyone else knows that the emperors have no clothes. From now on all established institutions are operating on borrowed time.

From now on autistic people will be appreciated for an innate trait that has been systematically engineered out of our societies and institutions: our deep aversion to lying and our inability to maintain hidden agendas.

Over the course of several hundred thousand years evolutionary forces have honed the human ability to learn by imitation, but evolutionary forces have also kept alive the genes and levels of neurodiversity that are needed to survive during periods of rapid environmental change.

Employee-owned, non-hierarchical companies like the one I founded 16 years ago illustrate that neurodiversity is a collaborative advantage.

It is encouraging to see that we are not alone, and that more and more people and organisations are rejecting hierarchical forms of organisation.

The future is already taking shape.

Either humans have no future or the future is neurodiversity friendly!

Myths that help keep the autism indu$try in bu$yne$$

Currently the most visible way in which autism contributes to the economy is by providing a substrate from which a growing autism industry can extract profit.

What CAN be misunderstood WILL be misunderstood. Unless you are autistic there is no difference between “cure” and cure. Sadly, there is no shortage of “autism professional advice” and “cures” that amount to a sarcophagus for autistic individuals. The result is a bullet proof technique for creating mental health problems and selling further “treatments”. The first step towards progress could not be simpler:

Let the set of cures remain empty, and reduce the set of “cures” to the empty set.

To identify the “cures” it is important to understand the myths that are still perpetuated by the autism industry or by individual “autism professionals”.

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Myth 1: Autists lack empathy

Reality: There is a double empathy challenge.

It is not only the autistic person who struggles to read the intentions and motivations of non-autistic people, but the same can also be said in reverse.

Myth 2: Autists are bad at teamwork

Reality: Many of us can be great at teamwork.

One of the persistent negative stereotypes is that we are poor at collaboration. I am on a mission to demonstrate the opposite. Collaboration can take many forms, and different people have different needs and preferences. Autists learn and play differently, and only have a limited if any interest in competitive social games. We communicate and enjoy ourselves by sharing information and knowledge, and not by negotiating social status.

Myth 3: There are only very few female autists 
– and autists have an “extremely male” brain

Reality: There may be as many female as male autists, and quite a number of us struggle to identify with a gender identity.

Looking into the Autistic Spectrum has given us more insight into how we humans think, and how our brains are wired differently. We have various ways of thinking that can be perceived as odd to neurotypical’s. Looking into gender identity is no different, as various autistic’s prefer not to follow traditional gender labels.

Myth 4: All autists are introverted

Reality: Some of us are extroverted.

I’m an extrovert Aspie. You’re a what now? Yes, you read it correctly, I’m an extrovert Aspie.

Now I can see you all frowning at your screens. Isn’t autism supposed to be all about being shy, and not talking to others and such? Indeed the common belief is that women with Asperger’s Syndrome tend to keep to themselves, only speak when spoken to, and are more observers than participants.

So how does this work when you have a very outgoing personality? I will make a list of things that might help you understand…

Myth 5: Crippling anxiety and depression are an inevitable aspect of being autistic

Reality: Anxiety and depression are often the result of bullying and discrimination.

… first impressions of individuals with ASD made from thin slices of real-world social behavior by typically-developing observers are not only far less favorable across a range of trait judgments compared to controls, but also are associated with reduced intentions to pursue social interaction. These patterns are remarkably robust, occur within seconds, do not change with increased exposure, and persist across both child and adult age groups. However, these biases disappear when impressions are based on conversational content lacking audio-visual cues, suggesting that style, not substance, drives negative impressions of ASD …

Myth 6: Those autists who are able to mask their autistic traits are “cured” or don’t need support

Reality: Masking takes significant amounts of mental energy and requires recovery time.

Masking and trying to communicate can feel like paddling downwind in a sea kayak, in a small swell that has been whipped up, where the speed is limited to the speed of the waves. No matter how hard you paddle and how much effort you put in, it is impossible to paddle over the small wave into which the tip of the kayak is pointing.

The energy loss associated with masking is best described as autistic burnout.

It’s taken me six weeks to start writing an article about Autistic Burnout, because I’m going through Autistic Burnout… If you saw someone going through Autistic Burnout would you be able to recognise it? Would you even know what it means? Would you know what it meant for yourself if you are an Autistic person?  The sad truth is that so many Autistic people, children and adults, go through this with zero comprehension of what is happening to them and with zero support from their friends and families.

Myth 7: Learning to mask autistic traits is the key to a successful autistic life

Reality: Continuous masking is a major contributor to autistic suicide.

Adults with autism who camouflage are eight times as likely to harm themselves as those who don’t.

This statistic tells us more about the severe illnesses that afflict our society than about autistic people. In our society hardly anyone is familiar with the social model of disability. Below a timely slide from a recent talk by Judy Singer on this topic.

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Myth 8: Autism is a one-dimensional spectrum that ranges from mild to severe

Reality: The autism spectrum is multi-dimensional.

My inspiration for this project comes from the multi-lens structure found in the compound eyes of insects, where each lens captures a unique perspective. The objective is to create a library of authentic autistic voices as a counterbalance to the diagnostic language used by the medical profession and the autism industry.

Myth 9: Autists are looking for partners who can replace their mothers

Reality: We choose autistic partners at rates that are 10 times greater than random choice.

autistic-mating

The pathologising language used by the researchers illustrates where society currently is at in terms of fully appreciating the value of neurodiversity. In spite of the growing body of evidence – and in spite of the double empathy challenge that is well recognised within the autistic community, some of the most visible figures in the autism industry like Tony Attwood think nothing of perpetuating a myth that likely sets up many autists for severe disappointments in forming trusted relationships and partnerships.

Myth 10: Autists are manipulative

Reality: We are incapable of maintaining a hidden agenda, but in certain environments sensory issues or anxiety may impact on our ability to interact or function

…The strip lights overhead, flickering constantly in pulsing waves, each one shooting through my eyes and down through my body; I can physically feel each pulse humming and vibrating…

… So we take more and more on, we allow our plates to get fuller and fuller, our anxiety heightens, our sensory processing becomes more difficult to maintain, our Executive Functioning abilities spin out of control and again this attributes to burnout.  We aren’t generally terrific at juggling plates.

Jeanette Purkis, who is an Australian Autistic, an absolutely wonderful writer and a Member of my network organisation, The Autistic Cooperative, has written an excellent piece called “‘Too Nice’: Avoiding the traps of exploitation and manipulation.” In it Jeanette says:

“There is an actual concrete reason that we tend to be taken advantage of and it starts with the difference in communication between autistic people and neurotypical people. Autistic communication is generally on one level. We are honest, up front and do not often do things like manipulation and deceit. We generally do not lie although many autistic people are capable of lying if they feel the need but usually it doesn’t come naturally.

Note : This list of myths is not exhaustive!

Autistic life beyond the myths

the last 20 years have seen the rise of an “autism epidemic” and a profitable “autism industry”. Social progress in relation to autistic rights is overdue.

autistic-role

 

Genuine appreciation of neurodiversity

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Society should be moving beyond autism awareness and autism acceptance towards  appreciation of all forms of neurodiversity. However, the label of neurodiversity is being co-opted. I cringe when I read statements and absurd goals like this one:

“SAP has announced an intention to make 1% of its workforce neurodiverse by 2020″—a number chosen because it is less than the percentage of autistic people in the general population.

Co-opting of neurodiversity is the flag of convenience for exploitation. The reality: SAP, Microsoft et al. make a big deal out of aiming at 1% of “proper, certified by the autism industry” autists within their workforce, whilst at least another > 9% of their workforce don’t dare to openly identify as autistic, because they know what it would do to their career prospects.

This is Autwashing and not the celebration of neurodiversity. Autism awareness has translated into a proliferation of stereotypes. Autism acceptance has translated into the realisation that we are not going away. is the opposite of .

Social diseases

Our culture is sick. We don’t even have a good language to talk about diseases of society. Instead our society cultivates a language for describing ways in which individuals are “deficient” and “deserve to be rejected”.

The theme of the upcoming CIIC workshop on 22 September in Auckland is the Anthropocene. I wonder when our culture will start to acknowledge the link between mental health problems and social diseases – diseases of society that negatively impact people and the environment. “Treating” individuals is only addressing symptoms and not any of the root causes.

Mental health professionals have developed an increasingly rich diagnostic language to talk about individual mental heath, but we do not have any nuanced framework to talk about social / cultural / environmental diseases.

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Rather than being scientific disciplines, marketing and large parts of psychology are the twin children of the Western ideology of capitalism and industrialism that has conquered the world.

The underlying assumption of neoliberal psycho-marketecture is that human behaviour at all levels of scale can be explained as competition according to culturally defined rules.

This ideology nurtures instead of curbs the latent human tendency develop an arbitrary socially constructed sense of entitlement and to construct deep social power hierarchies.

The social norms that operated in small stateless societies and in hunter gatherer societies prior to the advent of large scale civilisations and empires did exactly the opposite, and curbed any attempts to gain power over others. Such egalitarian social norms allowed human primates to become much more successful than all other primates, and being very much compatible with autistic social motivations, they allowed neurodivergent creativity to flourish.

There is every reason to believe that contemporary human societies survive in spite of neoliberal psycho-marketecture and thanks to the exploitation of neurodivergent people, and especially those with autistic traits.

The catch is that non-autistic people have a big emotional attachment to status within their culture and social groups, whereas autists usually don’t. Therefore, whenever we say or do something that questions the established social order we are perceived as not having empathy. Until the 1980s most of us were simply seen as weird, and some people even genuinely appreciated the qualities that came with our weirdness.

If you find yourself in a work environment where you frequently have to mask or tend to be penalised for taking risks, making mistakes, raising problems, asking questions, or disagreeing with your colleagues, you are in an unsafe environment.

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You can use the Bullying Alert System on this website to report the context of your situation in anonymised form.

The wider population is still ignorant and is completely unfamiliar with the social model of disability. Pathologising stereotypes keep getting circulated, leading to the perpetuation of support for organisations that advocate Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and research on the slippery slope towards eugenics like this New Zealand branch of the autism industry. No autistic person is in sight, only geneticists and “normalisation” therapists.

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This article provides an excellent summary of the level of appreciation afforded to neurodivergent individuals:

“Too many depictions of autistic people rely on tired clichés. The neurotypical world needs to take note of our own voices… Imagine describing an organisation as institutionally black, institutionally female or institutionally Muslim … Yet, somehow, intelligent people can drop ‘autistic’ into conversation whenever they want to draw a contrast between the unfeeling, insensitive, uncreative parts of this world, and their bright, emotional, magnificent selves.

Autistic culture

Judy Singer was one of the first people to write about the rise of autistic culture and community in her thesis in 1998:

For me, the significance of the “autism spectrum” lies in its call for and anticipation of a “politics of neurodiversity”. The “neurologically different” represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class / gender / race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability. The rise of neurodiversity takes postmodern fragmentation one step further. Just as the postmodern era sees every once too solid belief melt into air, even our most taken-for granted assumptions: that we all more or less see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and sort information, in more or less the same way, (unless visibly disabled) are being dissolved.

From “Odd People In: The Birth of Community Amongst People on the “Autism Spectrum”: A personal exploration of a new social movement based on neurological diversity”

The internet has enabled autistic people to connect, share knowledge and collaborate at scale. A large number of closet autists play key roles in the sciences and in all kinds of industries and pursuits that depend heavily on deep bodies of knowledge and on specialised skills.

One of the most obvious and visible results of autistic collaboration is the Open Source software movement and the fact that most parts of the internet run on Open Source software.

The role of Open Source in our society provides a good example of exploitation of neurodivergent people. Our economic paradigm does not recognise the value of the majority of contributors to Open Source and instead attributes most of the value to corporations that wrap Open Source software into commercial software products and related professional services.

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Autistic people are power users of online tools, but significant numbers of us also prefer to collaborate and interact with autistic peers in the physical world. Statistics on mating preferences within the autistic community clearly highlight the preference for interactions with autistic peers, with the odds of autists choosing an autistic mate being more than 10 times higher than a random choice.

Full appreciation of neurodiversity and social progress in relation to autistic rights is overdue. To get involved, and to fully embrace neurodiversity, engage with the neurodiversity movement, for example via these projects, these people, and these neurodiventures.