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
- 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,
- 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.
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:
- neurodivergent creators of technologies (autistic people and small neurodiverse teams),
- designers of social games (organisations or individuals with a lack of empathy),
- 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:
- Fragile globally networked mono-technologies that have potential failure points with severe global impact
- 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
- 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:
- 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.
- An entire web of energy, resource, and labour intensive suppliers of automotive parts and components is interested in maintaining their revenue and profit margins.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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.
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.
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 an 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).
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.
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.
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.
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?