What CAN be misunderstood WILL be misunderstood

When I read this Tweet from Ted Nelson it occurred to me that he has articulated the fundamental axiom of autistic social experience.

ted nelson.pngAutistic social motivation is deeply rooted in the desire to share knowledge and in the desire to learn, and this has big implications for the protocols that are used in autistic communication.

Challenges

Linear verbal or written language is a poor medium for reliable transmission of knowledge. Being aware of the limitations of language is highly frustrating and reduces the desire to initiate conversation in all contexts where it is obvious that the communication partner or audience lacks big chunks of the context that is essential for avoiding major misunderstandings.

When making a conscious effort to structure and sequence communication so that relevant context is included in the reasoning and the flow of statements, it easily results in long and elaborate expositions that conflict with typical expectations of the level of interactivity or “chattiness” of the typical human communication protocol.

The situation is often further complicated by a likely mismatch in social motivation. Especially in the case of verbal communication the listener’s primary motivation may be cultural, influenced by the listener’s conception of the perceived group identities and social hierarchies that frame the context of the conversation. Cultural expectations can largely negate all efforts by the autistic speaker to convey context information in a culturally agnostic format to assist the transmission of personal experience and domain knowledge.

If the autistic speaker is familiar with the cultural context of the listener, she may go to great lengths to weave culturally expected phrases into the transmission of knowledge and context. She may even allow for some level of interactivity – conscious of the risk that it

  1. may completely derail the transmission,
  2. introduces a significant potential for misunderstandings, and
  3. may take a herculean effort to get the conversation back to the point where the intended transmission of experience or knowledge can be closed off.

All this conscious communication effort can be summed up as the linguistic part of autistic masking.

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Coping strategies

From an autistic perspective the extreme energy input required for any reasonably successful communication leads to the development of a number of complementary coping strategies for various situations. My approach is the following:

I have developed a strong preference for written communication, which is a very effective strategy for avoiding the need for linguistic autistic masking.

I have always been attracted to formal systems of reasoning and to mathematical formalisms, which provide a system for making all assumptions explicit, and for articulating domain knowledge in compact and unambiguous notations.

To minimise the energy cost of successful transmission of knowledge, and also as a way of connecting with the few people that have any genuine interest in the bodies of knowledge that I am interested in expanding, I often write in the public domain or talk at relevant conferences. This is a great strategy for mutual learning and for discovering others who are working on related bodies of knowledge.

Roughly 18 years ago I discovered Open Space Technology. Since then I have been relying heavily on this format for setting up and running workshops for sharing, validating, and expanding bodies of knowledge. It seems as if the Open Space principles and the Law of Two Feet have been designed specifically for autistic communication and collaboration needs. Even the way of initiating conversations in Open Space feels highly intuitive from an autistic perspective: (1) write down and briefly explain a problem statement, (2) listen to other problem statements, and then (3) allow participants to self-organise around specific topics of interest.

I make heavy use of whiteboards and conversations around whiteboards. This allows for interactive knowledge validation and elaboration. The content on the whiteboard acts as a tool for articulating semantic links in a format that is much more compact and less ambiguous than linear language. Pointing to elements on the whiteboard helps to connect lines of verbal reasoning to the semantic models that are evolving on the visual canvas. As an added bonus from an autistic perspective, focus on the whiteboard largely eliminates typical cultural expectations around eye contact.

I avoid networking events and conversations with random strangers about random topics like the plague. I gain nothing from such encounters, and others may walk away with snippets of information that will in all likelihood be misinterpreted due to a lack of essential context.

I make use of online tools to seek out what other autists with compatible interests are reading and writing. This creates great opportunities for mutual learning, and it leads to trusted relationships with peers who also tend to be acutely aware of the pitfalls of communication, who do not over-complicate communication with cultural expectations, and who do not have any hidden agenda.

I have become very concious of the energy budget needed for communicating with typical people, and I consciously limit the number of non-autistic people I interact with. I invest my energy into building deep relationships with specific people, and I avoid wasting energy on creating large number of shallow “relationships”. This strategy is essential for survival and for keeping sane. Investing in relationships allows the incremental construction of shared context, and it allows the construction of an optimised communication protocol for each relationship based on mutual trust and shared understanding.

Knowledge creation, validation and dissemination, as well as collaboration in neurodivergent teams have become my core areas of expertise.  The combination of all of the techniques above have culminated in the MODA + MODE meta-paradigm for interdisciplinary research, design, and knowledge engineering, and have led to the development of a corresponding formal meta language (the Cell meta language) and related graph based visual representations of formal models and semantic domains (the MODA + MODE human lens).

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Languages that are better than all linear languages

Using linear language to communicate experiences and knowledge involves hard work that mostly goes to waste. It 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, it is impossible to paddle over the small wave into which the tip of the kayak is pointing. No matter how much effort you put into communication in linear language, there is always going to remain a sizeable residue of misunderstandings.

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As part of the S23M team I am designing and building technology that supports more and more aspects of the MODA + MODE meta-paradigm, to create a visual human scale language system that allows humans to reduce the level of misunderstandings by one or more orders of magnitude.

Such language tooling not only benefits autists, it can also assist us in putting machine learning to good use and assist us in designing better systems of collaboration. A shift towards more visual and genuinely human scale languages goes a long way towards improving the ability of any group of humans to develop a greater level of shared understanding of each other’s needs, and of the environment that the group lives and operates in.

The dynamics resulting from the interplay of neurodiversity and culture

Why do humans cooperate?

solidarity

This week Nature published a focus issue on human cooperation that brings together research from evolution, anthropology, ecology, economics, neuroscience and environmental science — to spark interdisciplinary conversation and inspire scientific cooperation.

Cooperation lies at the heart of human lives and society — from day-to-day interactions to some of our greatest endeavours. Understanding cooperation — what motivates it, how it develops, how it happens and when it fails to happen — is therefore an important part of understanding all kinds of human behaviour.

We know that children acquire notions of fairness from a surprisingly early age. However, coordination among adults often fails. Adult participants apparently contribute more when establishing a new collective good, but contribute much less to maintain an existing resource. This should remind us of the comments on teamwork made by  W. Edwards Deming more than 30 years ago.

Furthermore, typical anti-corruption strategies may have negative impacts on cooperation that depend on the cultural context. There are no universally applicable recipes that offer a quick fix.

Cooperation often fails when individuals are uncertain about the relative importance of their own effect on a critical, environmental threshold.

Hence, to avoid counter-productive levels of in-group competition, and to encourage cooperation, economic ecosystems and organisations must provide incentives that make cooperation the more attractive option.

Some powerful theories and empirical insights have expanded our knowledge of cooperation over the past few decades — but much remains to be understood. Integrating questions and approaches from different fields may provide fertile ground to achieve this.

What becomes apparent is that mainstream research into human cooperation (so far), with very few exceptions, ignores the influence of neurodiversity.

The damage caused by hyper-competitive cultures

Research into the effects of inequality shows that the frequency of bullying is 10 to 15 times higher in highly unequal societies.

Growing levels of social inequality correlate with a rise in mental health issues throughout the population. The root cause may well relate to the formation of increasingly absurd group identities and associated signals of social status that make it acceptable to exclude the less fortunate. From evolutionary biology we know that in-group competition has negative survival value – it is the opposite of intelligent behaviour.

Apparently the following little anecdote is highly relatable.

hyper-competition

Multiple studies confirm that the suicide rates for autists are are several times higher than in the general population.

Elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide apply across the entire autism spectrum. These co-morbid conditions are a reflection of experiences made in the social environment rather than a reflection of autism specific neurology. The latest research confirms that bullying plays a major role:

“Autistic people and families have told us that mental health is their top priority for research. This is not surprising as we know autistic people experience high rates of chronic mental health problems which lead to tragically high rates of suicide. Yet, our knowledge of autism and depression has remained poor. This excellent study tells us that symptoms of depression are elevated in autistic adolescents. The authors found that it was bullying rather than genetic differences which drove an increase in depressive symptoms in autistic people. We now urgently need to carefully understand bullying and other traumatic experiences in autistic people as we’re now finding they can have devastating impact.”

Why do autists often become the targets of bullying?

Due to differences in social cognition neurotypical people are less willing to interact with autistic peers based on thin slice judgements.

judging

… 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 …

There is a strong consensus within the autistic community that bullying is one of the most important issues that needs to be addressed.

Autists are often noted for their their honesty, their naivety, and their inability to be exploitative. Autistic neurological differences manifest in significant differences in social motivation, setting the scene for a mismatch with cultural expectations. From personal experience, the following situations easily lead to profound misunderstandings:

  • Reliance on personal competency networks and ignorance of social hierarchies is easily interpreted as arrogance and not as a critical scientific approach to learning.
  • Unwillingness to agree with specific assumptions or conclusions is easily interpreted as having a strong ego and a desire to be right, and not as a cautious reluctance to jump to conclusions or reluctance to endorse assumptions in the absence of adequate supporting evidence.
  • Giving others full autonomy over how they do their work is easily interpreted as a lack of management skill, and not as a form of trust based non-hierarchical collaboration that welcomes creativity and individual agency.
  • Providing others with clear and detailed description of expected results of a piece of work is easily interpreted as a form of micro-management, and not as a clean separation of concerns based on deep domain knowledge.
  • Pointing out unknowns and uncertainties is easily interpreted as a lack of relevant experience or a lack of confidence, and not as an honest assessment of the situation at hand based on deep domain knowledge.

Neurodiversity at the core of anti-bullying initiatives

The lack of social competition in predominantly neurodivergent teams affords such teams a distinct collaborative edge, especially when compared against typical teams within a highly competitive socioeconomic context.

Neurodivergent teams are uniquely positioned to identify spurious cultural complexity within organisational systems and interaction patterns. This creates interesting learning opportunities for organisations that are plagued by counter-productive in-group competition.

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Establishing one or more predominantly neurodivergent teams can act as a catalyst for cultural change in neighbouring teams.

Everyone can relate to the toxic effects of bullying, yet only few people are familiar with neurodiversity and autistic cognition from a first-hand perspective.  Launching an anti-bullying initiative is a great opportunity to frame neurodiversity in a positive and non-pathologising way, and to educate people about the social model of disability. 

Further steps towards appreciation of neurodiversity

In Auckland, I am currently planning the following activities:

  1. Regular Meetups to offer mutual support for neurodivergent 
families and individuals.
  2. A series of public discussion between autistic people, to present a realistic non-pathologising picture of autism and of living in a neurotypical world from an autistic perspective. Dialogues between autists are one of the most powerful forms of sharing autistic experiences. Otherwise we tend to be dismissed as individuals with amusing opinions. If you know of aspies and autists in Auckland who might be interested in participating please let me know. 

The aim is for students, academic staff, teachers, parents, and the general public to learn more about neurodiversity and autism, and also about the connection between neurodiversity and human creativity.  These activities are a further practical step to reduce workplace bullying.

Celebrating neurodiversity in your organisation

Organisations that claim to be supportive of neurodiversity must shift from a pursuit of a competitive edge to the pursuit of a collaborative edge.

Recommended steps include:

  1. Focus on organisational / team based performance, and abolish of all forms of individual performance reviews as advocated by W. Edwards Deming, to establish an environment that does not encourage in-group competition.
  2. Establish teams with a clear autistic / neurodivergent majority, to prompt the development of specific collaborative practices that are aligned with the purpose of the organisation.

If you have questions, consult the autistic community, for example one of these autists, who are committed to autistic collaboration.

Taking ownership of the label

Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant that can not be understood without the social model of disability.

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Members of the autism rights movement adopt a position of neurodiversity that recognises autistic traits as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species, and a liberation from the socially constructed pathology paradigm. Major goals of the movement include the following:

  1. Acceptance of autistic patterns of behaviours
  2. Education that teaches neurotypical individuals about autistic cognition and motivations, including communication skills for interacting with autistic peers; as well as education that teaches autistic individuals about typical cognition and motivations, including communication skills for interacting with neurotypical peers
  3. Creation of social networks, events, and organisations that allow autistic people to collaborate and socialise on their own terms
  4. Recognition of the autistic community as a minority group

In the absence of a comprehensive neurological and genetic description, the best way to describe the essence of autism is in terms of first hand experience of autistic cognition and autistic motivations. The highlighted parts of this article focus on the core of autistic experience rather than on other features that are not unique to autistic experience and are therefore better described separately.

Autists must take ownership of the label in the same way that other minorities describe their experience and define their identity.

All autists experience the human social world significantly different from typical individuals. The difference in autistic social cognition is best described in terms of a heightened level of conscious processing of raw information signals from the environment, and an absence or a significantly reduced level of subconscious filtering of social information.

The best way for non-autistic people to understand lack of social filtering is by analogy. Before a human child learns to read letters and words, it perceives written text in terms of complex shapes and patterns. A young child may be intrigued by all the commonalities and variabilities between shapes, and may easily perceive the differences between two “i”s in different fonts to be greater than the difference between “i” and “l” in one specific font.

As a child learns the alphabet, it develops subconscious cognitive filters to recognise specific characters and to associate them with corresponding sounds, without having to consciously decode and map from perceived shapes to familiar sounds. As the child then progressively learns to read, the development of subconscious cognitive filters for written language progresses to the point where familiar words and even common sequences of words are mapped onto familiar sounds and corresponding mental representations (“mental models”) without any conscious effort.

Typical children develop similar subconscious filters for decoding non-verbal signals from the social world.

Autistic children tend to take longer to learn how to decode non-verbal signals from the social world, in particular signals related to abstract cultural concepts related to the negotiation of social status.

It is a common misconception that autistic people do not register social signals such as facial gestures. We do see all the movements, but we must consciously process most of the inputs instead of subconsciously mapping them to corresponding meanings.

Autists are easily overwhelmed in social situations, and may need to be explicitly taught the purpose of specific social gestures and rituals. Once specific social signals have been understood, autists can decode them with conscious effort. The cognitive load can be compared to attempting to read a book in very low light conditions or to attempting to understand someone over the phone when the connection is bad.

Given the increased cognitive load in social situations, autists have to choose between either focusing on a literal interpretation of the verbal content of a conversation or on attempting to decode the non-verbal social context of the conversation. In many cases attempting to do both at once leads to the worst possible outcome. Focusing on the verbal content is by far the easiest option from the autistic perspective.

Eye contact is experienced as an unneeded and sometimes stressful distraction. Focusing on the mouth of the person speaking tends to be a good compromise, leading to the appearance of maintaining eye contact whilst further assisting the decoding of the verbal content, especially in noisy environments.

Many autists are also hyper- and/or hypo-sensitive to certain sensory inputs from the physical environment. This further complicates social communication in noisy and distracting environments. With respect to autistic sensory sensitivity there are huge differences between autists. Some autists may be bothered or impaired by a broad range of different stimuli, whereas others are only impacted by very specific stimuli.

Some autists remain non-verbal, and others may become selectively mute in specific situations, but this in no way is any indication of the level to which the individual is able to process and understand incoming information, or an indication of intellectual impairment. Self-reflection and thinking is much older than human language.

Individually unique cognitive autistic lenses result in individually unique usage patterns of the human brain, and often in unique levels of expertise and creativity within specific domains of interest and related autistic inertia and perseverance.

Autistic inertia is similar to Newton’s inertia, in that not only do autists have difficulty starting things, but they also have difficulty in stopping things. Inertia can allow autists to hyperfocus for long periods of time, but it also manifests as a feeling of paralysis and a severe loss of energy when needing to switch from one task to the next.

Further related factors are the difficulty autists have devoting attention to tasks that are outside the range of personal interests and getting enough sleep when in hyperfocus mode. It is common for autists to work on ideas that others would consider a waste of time or impossible, and not uncommon for them to succeed.

“The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness.”Nick Walker

“You see things that others don’t; you miss things that others see. Intricate detail and social signals are given different priorities in the autistic brain. I have an insatiable passion for knowledge, understanding and ‘projects’ – I’m not called ‘the Oracle’ for nothing.”Sarah Hendrickx

Differences in the experience of being human

The autistic experience involves the following set of cultural artefacts:

  1. Language(s), including various idiosyncratic forms of communication
  2. Written rules for interaction, in particular in relation to interacting with the physical and biological world
  3. Tools of all kinds
  4. Knowledge related to the making and use of tools

In contrast, the neurotypical experience involves the following set of cultural artefacts:

  1. Language(s), including an understanding and appreciation of abstract cultural status symbols
  2. Written and unwritten rules for social interaction, in particular in relation to status symbols
  3. Tools of all kinds
  4. Knowledge related to the making and use of tools

Differences in social motivation and experience

The autistic mind is motivated by understanding how some aspects of the world work, whereas the neurotypical mind is significantly motivated by compliance with cultural expectations. These differences in motivations exist alongside the universal innate human motivation to assist others regardless of external rewards.

Autistic social motivations:

  • Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs, in particular love, access to food and shelter, and autonomy over own mind and body, as well as unique needs
  • Truth – as it appears through the lens of our current level of human scientific understanding
  • Recognition – attribution of creative agency

Autistic social motivations are intrinsic and navigate the tension between mutual assistance and the acquisition of new levels of knowledge and understanding, including access to specific objects of study and any required tools.

In summary, autists don’t have hidden agendas, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation in competitive social environments.

Neurotypical social motivations:

  • Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs and cultural needs
  • Recognition – approval for compliance with cultural expectations
  • Truth – as it appears through the lens of human cultures

Neurotypical social motivations navigate the tension between mutual assistance and culturally motivated behaviour, especially the attainment of extrinsic cultural rewards, including money and other desirable concrete and abstract symbols of status. Star Ford has written an excellent book on this topic.

A lot of the misunderstandings and frustrations in collaboration between autists and neurotypical people can be explained in terms of different conceptions of acceptance, truth, and recognition.

“On the plus side, autism brings me a complete lack of regard for status, possessions, hidden agendas, point scoring and spite along with a deep, emotional, sensory connection to nature, animals and music.”Sarah Hendrickx

“I always used to say: There are two types of people in the world. Those who would never let the pursuit of social acceptance get in the way of the pursuit of Truth. And those who would never let the pursuit of Truth get in the way of the pursuit of social acceptance.”Judy Singer

“The motivational differences are not immediately noticeable from the outside. They become obvious when we think about how we develop trust and how we make friends compared to what is considered normal by the rest of society.”Jorn Bettin

Differences in ways of being social

Autistic collaboration involves sharing of knowledge and working towards a shared goal of generating new levels of knowledge and understanding. The individual innate moral compass mediates the tension between the desire to assist others vs the desire learn about the world.

  • These inclinations are reflected in the cultural transmission of new discoveries from children to parents
  • Education of parents by the children focuses on teaching about the focus and boundaries of individual areas of interest
  • Sharing of knowledge and asking probing questions is seen as a “natural” human behaviour
  • Adolescence is a period of intensive knowledge acquisition, where individual areas of interests are explored in great depth, and where in the absence of autistic peers with compatible interests new knowledge is often shared with parents

In contrast neurotypical collaboration involves competition at all levels of scale according to culturally defined rules, which mediate the tension between the desire to assist others vs the desire to gain or maintain social status symbols.

  • These inclinations are reflected in the cultural transmission of boundaries of acceptable behaviour from parents to children
  • Education of children by the parents focuses on teaching the cultural rules and acceptable boundaries
  • Ego and self-promotion is seen as a “natural” human behaviour
  • Adolescence is a period of socialisation, where the cultural rules transmitted by parents are incrementally replaced by the cultural rules encountered in peer groups

“The goal of understanding must not be to punish or reform the child. It must be to learn to love purely, and to nurture that precious, unique, individual spirit hiding within the autistic person. The person must be allowed to remain autistic. It is born into him, and is lifelong. There are no cures, nor should there be. I believe that is why autism has eluded science and baffled physicians. I believe autism is a marvellous occurrence of nature, not a tragic example of the human mind gone wrong. In many cases, autism also can be a kind of genius undiscovered. Autistic people are worth getting to know They are valuable just as they are. They can display innovative thinking.”Jasmine Lee O’Neill

Differences in the way of developing trust

The autistic way

  1. Based on experienced 
domain-specific competence
  2. When young assumes everyone is telling the truth
  3. When older can become very cynical
  4. Can be fooled by people who appear to be logical but who have no scruples fabricating evidence
  5. Is slow in learning to read social cues, and can’t do so in an environment of sensory overload

The neurotypical way

  1. Based on socially transmitted reputation
  2. Quickly learns that deception is part of the social “game”
  3. Is proficient in the social “game”, and may even enjoy it
  4. Relies on social [non verbal] cues to detect deception
  5. Can be fooled by fake social cues, even if these are in conflict with the evidence at hand

Depending on the personal experiences made with their family and cultural environment, some autists choose to completely withdraw from society, like this island recluse.

Differences in the way of making friends

The autistic way

  1. Search for people with shared interests, usually online
  2. Confirm a shared interest
  3. Start having fun by knowledge sharing
  4. Explore what can be achieved with joint capabilities and capacities
  5. Embark on significant joint projects to have more fun

The neurotypical way

  1. Approach people who look attractive or have a high social reputation, 
often in a group setting
  2. Use smalltalk to start a conversation
  3. If an emotional bond is established, spend more time together and do various things together
  4. Spending time together is more important than what the time is spent on

Evolutionary benefits of autistic cognition

Technically speaking, in the language of evolutionary biology, human traits are the manifestation of multi-level group selection in human societies, resulting in a form of gene-cultural co-evolution where culture plays a very significant role.

Depending on the specific culture an individual grows up in, the competitive aspect of “collaboration” may either be significantly reinforced (capitalism, older money based societies, some religions) or weakened (hunter gatherer societies, some religions).

Autistic human traits are the glue that enables new knowledge acquisition to be scaled to the level of groups and groups of groups, providing cultures with the ability to adapt in times of rapid environmental changes.

During times when the environment is experienced as highly stable, autistic traits are likely to be suppressed by the surrounding culture; whereas when the environment is experienced as highly dynamic, autistic traits will be appreciated as a source of essential new knowledge.

The limits of labels

To be clear, neurotypical and autistic are coarse labels. People can be more or less autistic, LGBTQ, etc. – but the more an individual experiences the world through an autistic cognitive lens, the less that person is going to be influenced by the surrounding culture and related subconscious social filters. And just as many people will clearly identify with one gender identity, many people will clearly identify as either being autistic or not. Depending on how autism friendly the surrounding culture is, an ambivalent individual with neurotypical and autistic traits may ultimately gravitate towards a culturally defined identity or towards a clearly autistic identity.

Those who identify as autistic operate on an internal moral compass that does not place much if any value on social status and related cultural rules, but this in no way means that autistic people do not have empathy or are not interested in interacting with other people.

Furthermore, given the strong influence of culture on typical people, it makes little sense to talk about neurotypical behaviour, and it makes much more sense to think and talk about culturally acceptable behavioural patterns – which vary from context to context.

In all social contexts, which relate to one or more of the group identities of neurotypical people, autistic people will be identifiable by their atypical behavioural patterns, and by the level of exhaustion they suffer by attempting to blend in to the local social context.

When autists attempt to blend in it is to avoid suffering the consequences of non-conformance – and not to gain or maintain social status.

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The social model of disability

What happens if a society forces people to either negate their autistic traits or to identify with a pathologising description of autism? The results are predictable:

  1. People who lack empathy increasingly gain influence and are able to shape the social status symbols and related rules of social interaction, leading to an increasingly competitive culture that overrides the innate human tendency towards mutual aid and cooperation.
  2. As society becomes more influenced by socially engineered wants and competitive games rather than by basic human needs, autistic traits become an obstacle to social acceptance, and the incidence of mental health problems and suicides within the population rises.
  3. As the exclusive pursuit of status symbols becomes normalised, the more competitive and less sympathetic society becomes towards autists and other neuro-minorities, who feel compelled to point out some of the symptoms of the collective social delusion.
  4. More and more people are systematically disabled by hyper-competitive social games, and end up being pushed towards a pathologising autism diagnosis.
  5. Rising autism diagnoses lead to the growth of an autism industry that caters more for the cultural expectations of parents than the needs and well-being of autistic people on the margins of society.

In earlier times autism was and in less competitive cultures autism is not necessarily pathologised. There is evidence that autists tended to occupy valuable functions in society as expert tool makers, healers, navigators, etc.

How can a society recover from toxic collective delusions?

Cultural factors, the diversity of autistic interests and the atypical ways of friendship and trust development amongst autistic people have immediate implications for optimising collaboration within and between teams.

Autists are the most productive if allowed to self-organise in teams with a clear autistic / neurodivergent majority, such that interactions with typical teams are limited to the mutual exchange of knowledge and tools in accordance with the agreed purpose of the team, and such that autists are not expected to continuously conform to the social expectations of the surrounding culture.

The lack of social competition in predominantly neurodivergent teams affords such teams a distinct collaborative edge, especially when compared against typical teams within a highly competitive socioeconomic context. Neurodivergent teams are uniquely positioned to identify spurious cultural complexity within organisational systems and interaction patterns.

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This creates interesting learning opportunities for organisations that are plagued by counter-productive in-group competition. In many cases the explicit values of an organisation and the implicit social norms within an organisation encourage rather than discourage in-group competition – resulting in economic inefficiency, poor quality of service, low levels of staff engagement, and high levels of bullying. Establishing one or more predominantly neurodivergent teams can act as a catalyst for cultural change in neighbouring teams.

Call for action

Two people deserve special mention as pioneers on the path towards de-pathologising autism: Judy Singer for coining the term neurodiversity in 1998, and Tony Attwood for his suggestion to reframe autistic traits in positive and encouraging terms in 1999. However, 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.

First steps towards ending the implicit and explicit discrimination against autists:

  1. Full recognition of the evolutionary value of autistic cognitive lenses, which can only be achieved if autists take ownership of the label. This article offers a non-pathologising definition from an autistic perspective.
  2. All cultures that claim to be autism friendly must provide adequate physical spaces that constitute a safe environment for autistic activities, including public spaces that provide protection from sensory overload.
  3. Governments must be encouraged to fund autism acceptance campaigns led by the autistic community, to educate the public about the social model of disability, to counteract the ill-informed and dangerous stereotypes that are associated with autism, and to position the autistic community as the primary source of knowledge about autism.
  4. Governments must stop funding research towards “cures” and “therapies” for autism, and must be encouraged to fund:
    • Educational programmes for non-autistic parents of autistic children
    • A  liaison function between parents and the autistic community
  5. Organisations claiming to be supportive of neurodiversity must shift from a pursuit of a competitive edge to the pursuit of a collaborative edge. Recommended steps include:
    • Abolishment of all forms of individual performance reviews as advocated by W E Deming more than 30 years ago, to establish an environment that does not encourage in-group competition
    • Establishment of teams with a clear autistic / neurodivergent majority, to prompt the development of specific collaborative practices that are aligned with the purpose of the organisation

“We probably sound militant and aggressive to a person who has not experienced the lives that we have. I was told the other day that telling neurotypical people what they are doing wrong regarding autistic people is hypocritical. That we should all be loving each other and holding hands for a better life for everyone. My response:

  • Hypocrisy would be autistic people locking neurotypicals up in mental institutions.
  • Hypocrisy would be autistic people looking for a cure for neurotypicalism.
  • Hypocrisy would be autistics neurologically training neurotypicals to change their personalities and physical manifestations to make us feel better.

Autistic cognition decoded for earthlings

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Just for a minute, imagine …

  • not getting pleasure out of successfully copying the behaviour of others, and instead experiencing discomfort when copying others;
  • and not getting pleasure out of social status or out of exerting power over others, and instead experiencing extreme discomfort when expected to exert power over others.

Then try to imagine how we experience everyday social behaviour of individuals and groups within society. One of us recently illustrated his experience of the social world as follows:

Want to understand autistic experience better? Here’s an insight: the way most decent, honest, rational human beings see Donald Trump and his stooges is essentially the same way I’ve always seen the vast majority of non-autistic people. #AutismAwareness

We have weaker social symbolic filters, resulting in a richer and more intense sensorial experience of raw information. As a result we can become easily overwhelmed in social situations, and may respond in atypical and unexpected ways.

As babies and young children we don’t tend to play “the right way” with others, which generates negative reactions, and which in turn shapes our first experiences of social interactions with other humans.

Because we notice small variations in sensory input streams, and because we are not instinctively compelled to imitate, decoding social cues can take significant conscious effort. Beyond the human social world, in the physical and biological realm, our hypersensitivity with respect to certain categories of stimuli means we are very astute observers and critical learners.

The non-social world provides us with a rich and interesting environment for exploration and experimentation.

Technically speaking, from within the established pathology paradigm, delayed or reduced habituation to new stimuli due to hypersensitivity, or needing time to distil a more nuanced mental model from the inputs, is considered to be a learning disability. The question of who is learning disabled is entirely a matter of perspective.

From our perspective anyone who trusts second hand human opinions from the social world more than first hand experiences from the physical and biological realm suffers from a learning disability.

As humans we can apply our intelligence and simulation powers (sometimes also known as mentalising powers) to two very different use cases:

  1. Understand the physical and biological realm we inhabit at all levels of scale, and explore how we can influence this realm
  2. Understand the human social world we inhabit, and and explore how we can influence this world

The second use case is highly problematic in the hands of anyone who gets a neurochemical reward out of social status and exerting power over others. This has been the curse of all human civilisations to date, and it brings up an interesting question: Why are humans still around?

I believe the answer clearly lies in neurodiversity. Humans have only been able to survive because neurodiversity within the human gene pool guarantees that there are always a few people who do not get any rewards out of social status and power.

At the same time, getting pleasure out of successfully copying the behaviour of others can be a great strategy for propagating valuable knowledge – but it only really works well during times when the environment is highly stable and not undergoing rapid changes within a single generation. Throughout human history periods of reasonably stable local environments over fifty to a few hundred years will have been quite common.

Evolutionary forces thus have honed the human ability to learn by imitation, but evolutionary forces have also kept alive the genes that are needed to survive during periods of rapid environmental change.

The only catch is that getting pleasure out of successfully copying the behaviour of others is on a slippery slope to getting pleasure out of exerting power over others. If the latter trait is combined with a lack of empathy, the result is the human capacity for unlimited propagation of harm in the social world and beyond.

Autism professionals have yet to understand that we have a capability for advanced mental simulations, but are simply not compelled in any way to deploy this capability in the social world in the typical way.

We have to learn in very painful ways what happens if we do not oppose or at least ignore demands by others who ask us to do things that are only designed to let them or others enhance their position of power.

We are very helpful if people tell us in clear language what their genuine needs are. But there are two factors that can get in the way:

  1. Via painful application of conscious simulation powers to the social context we conclude that your perceived need is part of a social power game. In this case don’t expect us to “help”.
  2. We are in a situation of sensory overload, or you are asking us to do something that would likely trigger sensory overload.

Suppressing autistic cognition may not be such a smart idea, even in case all you really care about is the human social world!

What society can learn from autistic culture

Aspies and autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.

cultureSociety must start to move beyond awareness and acceptance towards appreciation of cognitive diversity. The topic of culture is a double edged sword. On the one hand a shared culture can streamline collaboration, but on the other hand, the more open and diverse a culture, the more friendly it is towards minorities and outsiders.

It is very easy for groups of people and institutions to become preoccupied with specific cultural rituals and so-called cultural fit, whereas what matters most for collaboration and deep innovation is the appreciation of diversity and the development of mutual trust. This is obvious to many on the autistic spectrum, but only very recently has cognitive diversity started to become recognised as genuinely valuable beyond the autistic community.

cognitive diversity.png

I prefer to talk about collaborative advantage.

Inclusive culture is minimalistic. Adopting a small backbone of explicit first principles that have a track record of encouraging trust building and learning helps. In contrast, relying on the social transmission of hundreds of unspoken rules via “osmosis” is not only distinctly autism unfriendly – but also stands in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale.

It is precisely because autists and aspies have to spend conscious effort on understanding each individual that we are well equipped to act as a catalyst and translator between very different cultures.

The catch is that this unique capability only becomes apparent if the cultures in question are open to potential collaboration with the rest of the world, and are not learning disabled by in-group competition and fear of the unknown.

Autists learn very early on that the only way to confirm shared understanding is by asking explicit and sometimes probing questions. This behaviour is not rude, it is the only way to establish bridges across cultural boundaries.

Autists are like the canary in the coal mine of mainstream society. We are amongst the first who are affected by pathologically hyper-competitive cultures.

gamification2

Whilst in this recent interview I intentionally highlight the great potential of autistic collaboration, the full extent to which society currently still discriminates against autistic perspectives and behaviours must not be forgotten.

Only last week I met an aspie who had lost three friends to suicide and I heard stories about psychologists who are afraid of openly identifying as autistic because such disclosure still represents a significant risk to their careers. This presentation on the link between neurodiversity and creativity contains references to the suicide statistics that affect the entire autism spectrum. Here is a concrete example from last year that should provide serious food for thought. There is an urgent need for changes in society.

It is time for society to acknowledge the level of mutual interdependence between all humans. By being able to effortlessly and subconsciously adopt and benefit from unspoken rules and socially constructed beliefs – regardless of whether these beliefs create negative social and environmental externalities, those with a rather typical cognitive lens are ill equipped to recognise the level of support that society affords them, and the level to which their survivals depend on assistance by others.

In contrast, those with an autistic cognitive lens have to rely on explicit questions to discover unspoken rules and are instinctively inclined to critically assess socially constructed beliefs in terms of systemic impact before embracing them. A critical perspective on the status quo and entrenched beliefs is a prerequisite for progress across all human endeavours.

progress

Social – The big misunderstanding

The stereotype that autists have difficulty with collaboration is the result of a fundamentally different perspective on the purpose of social interaction.

The autistic understanding of “social”

  1. Naive assumption: “social” refers to 
interaction to learn from each other
  2. Naive assumption: “social” refers to 
collaborating with others towards a shared goal
  3. An autistic individual may take decades to decode the typical meaning of “social”

The prevalent neurotypical understanding of “social”

  1. Unspoken assumption: “social” refers to negotiating social status and power gradients
  2. Unspoken assumption: “social” refers to competing against each other using culturally defined rules
  3. A typical individual may take decades to appreciate non-social interests

Aut Collab has been set up as a platform for autistic collaboration and as a platform for sharing the results of autistic collaboration.

solidarity