Autism – The cultural immune system of human societies

If neurodiversity is the natural variation of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species, then what role do autistic traits in particular play within human cultures and what cultural evolutionary pressures have allowed autistic traits to persist over hundreds of thousands of years?

The benefits of autistic traits such as autistic levels of hypersensitivity, hyperfocus, perseverance, lack of interest in social status, and inability to maintain hidden agendas mostly do not materialise at an individual level but at the level of the local social environment that an autistic person is embedded in.

  1. Hypersensitivity allows autistic people to perceive details and to recognise patterns that escape non-autistic people, but at the cost of behaviour that often clashes with established cultural norms.
  2. Hyperfocus and perseverance allow autistic people to develop levels of understanding and domain specific skills that surpass the abilities of non-autistic people, but at the cost of disregarding other skills that are regarded as basic life skills by the local culture.
  3. Lack of interest in social status and lack of inclination and ability to self promote greatly reduces social distractions and further amplifies the ability to hyperfocus and persevere, but at the cost of being perceived as non-cooperative, problematic and disrespectful.
  4. The inability to maintain hidden agendas enables autistic people to develop and maintain trusted relationships and very effective long term collaborations, but this ability is crippled in psychologically unsafe environments, and it makes autistic people dangerous from the perspective of anyone who is seeking to maintain and enhance their social status, resulting in the systematic side-lining of autistic people in competitive social environments.

Within the bigger picture of cultural evolution autistic traits have obvious mid and long-term benefits to society, but these benefits are associated with short-term costs for social status seeking individuals within the local social environments of autistic people.

The neurochemistry of autism

Regardless of whether specific autistic traits have a genetic basis or are the result of early learning experiences made by autistic children in their local social environment (we don’t play “the right way”, we are absorbed in “our own world”, we ignore social status, we show little or no interest in participating in competitive games, etc.), the hypersensitivity and pattern recognition abilities of autistic people shape the specific experiences and situations that trigger neurochemical rewards in ways that differ significantly from cultural norms.

Many autistic people intuitively avoid copying the behaviours of non-autistic people. Life teaches autistic people that culturally expected behaviour often leads to sensory overload, and furthermore, that cultural practices often contain spurious complexity that have nothing to do with the stated goal of the various practices, such that a little independent exploration and experimentation usually reveals a simpler, faster, or less energy intensive way of achieving comparable results.

In contrast, non-autistic people receive significant neurochemical rewards from conforming to cultural expectations, such that they are often incapable of recognising spurious cultural complexity when they encounter it in established “best practices”.

Pre-civilised societies

Available archaeological and anthropological evidence points towards highly egalitarian social norms within human scale (i.e. small) pre-civilised societies. In such societies social norms against wielding power over others will have allowed the unique talents and domain specific knowledge of autistic people be recognised as valuable contributions.

In a psychologically safe environment at human scale (up to Dunbar’s number of around 150 people) the inability to maintain hidden agendas becomes a genuine strength that creates a collaborative advantage for the entire group. In fact autistic honesty will also have made autistic people prime candidates for maintaining trusted collaborative relationships with other groups.

In pre-civilised societies adversarial encounters with other groups would have been the only situations where the non-autistic human capability to deceive others would have been advantageous for the group. But such situations and costly conflict could easily be minimised by migrating and carving out a new niche in a different ecosystem.

The unique human ability to adapt to new contexts, powered by neurodivergent creativity and the development of new tools, enabled humans to minimise conflicts and establish a presence in virtually all ecosystems on the planet. This level of adaptability is the signature trait of the human species.

“Civilised” societies

“Civilised” societies are the result of increased human population densities and increased levels of inter-group conflicts. As the number of small scale human groups increased and as local resources became scarce, the ability and inclination to “out-compete” other groups became valuable, but this capability came at a cost – an appreciation of the ability to deceive other groups.

The people who are successful in maintaining hidden agendas to out-compete other groups are the same people who are capable of maintaining hidden agendas within their own social group.

Whilst cultural norms can successfully minimise the immediate or short-term collective cost that comes with granting social powers to competitive and deceptive individuals in the context of inter-group conflict, over the longer term hierarchical social structures dampen feedback loops, and thereby induce a collective learning disability – replacing cultural adaptability with cultural inertia.

Social power gradients became a permanent feature once the frequency of external conflicts increased to the point that such conflicts were considered a “normal” part of the human experience.

It is easy to see that autistic people are continuously at risk of being marginalised within “civilised” societies in which “collaboration” mainly refers to “negotiating social status & power gradients, and competing against each other using culturally defined rules”.

The creative capacity of autistic people continues to be relevant in “civilisation”, but the resulting capabilities and tools tend to be exploited for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening social power gradients.

Cultural immune systems

The competitive social environments that characterise “civilised” cultures systematically disable autistic people. However, whilst autistic people are usually not interested in social status and are therefore considered “socially naive”, they are very astute observers, and learn to decode competitive social motivations – not intuitively, but intellectually, via careful analysis of social interactions and behavioural patterns observed over longer periods of time.

Often autistic children are traumatised by their experiences with culturally “well adjusted” parents, peers, and the education system.

Depending on the extent to which autistic children are prevented from developing their unique interests and are forced to comply with social expectations, their trauma may lead them into extreme levels of social isolation or prompt them to seek out a low visibility role within society that minimises their need to participate in the “civilised” social game.

Those who have grown up in relatively safe environments with at least one autistic parent, and have been encouraged to let their unique autistic cognitive lens shape their interests and activities, initially retain the courage to explore the world on their own terms, but then often run into major challenges in the social environments at work.

Within “civilisation” autistic people tend to be highly concerned about social justice and tend to be the ones who point out toxic in-group competitive behaviours.

Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society.

This would have been obvious in pre-civilised societies, but it has become non-obvious in “civilised” societies. To retain their sanity, autistic people consistently work against in-group competition, and they often suffer the consequences for doing so. Autistic people within human societies counteract what Steve Silberman has fittingly described as the “truth dysfunction” in non-autistic people.

Societies with disabled cultural immune systems

Michael Moore’s new documentary Planet of the Humans makes the claim that humans are losing the battle to stop climate change because so-called “leaders” have taken us down the wrong road. “Civilisation” seems to have reached a dead end:

  1. Without a radical reduction in our level of energy and resource consumption a transition to renewable energy sources will not lead to a sustainable human presence on this planet.
  2. Projects that shift energy production to large-scale wind and solar farms are easily co-opted by corporate interests. The drive for profit extraction creates strong incentives for corner-cutting and often overrides environmental concerns.
  3. The development of local micro-grids and new ways of living that involve much less consumption are paramount for scaling down the human ecological footprint to sustainable levels.

A viable future of transportation won’t include heavy 1.5 to 2 tone electric cars and large numbers of electric air planes, and will likely include much less travel, and many more electric bikes, velomobiles, and trains. Capitalism systematically favours capital intensive – and hence energy intensive – investments. The world is awash in ads for Tesla and lacks awareness of alternative technologies like the following.

This extensive interview with Daniel Schmachtenberger offers an excellent introduction to the root causes of social dysfunction within our “civilisation”. It is interesting that even without considering the cultural implications of neurodiversity Daniel Schmachtenberger arrives at the following conclusions:

  1. There have always been non-competitive societies and subcultures, but such subcultures are marginalised within civilisations.
  2. The disorders identified by Western psychology are a refection of cultural bias rather than a reflection of human potential.
  3. The level of competitiveness and collective delusion within our civilisation has led to existential risks.
  4. The scope of trusted relationships is constrained by human cognitive limits (according to Robin Dunbar’s research, a human can maintain a maximum of 150 relationships at any point in time) and the ability to scale trusted collaboration beyond these human scale limits depends on using and developing communication technologies that assist us in maintaining trusted relationships between groups.
  5. The survival of the human species now depends on evolving new collaborative social operating systems that are based on mutual support rather than on social power gradients and a myth of meritocracy.

Note that it takes Daniel Schmachtenberger 3.5 hours to explain the rationale for developing a new collaborative social operating system. He is explaining what is self-evident to most autistic people who have spent three or four decades on this planet.

Eric Weinstein, the interviewer, offers good insights into the level of cultural indoctrination that underpins our “civilisation” – what I refer to as the collective learning disability of our society. It is fascinating how cultural bias has prevented an otherwise intelligent person from ever thinking about the full implications of the glaringly obvious truth dysfunction induced by competitive human behaviour.

Both Daniel and Eric seem to be unfamiliar with the concept of neurodiversity, and the one casual reference to autistic traits via a mention of “spectrumy people” indicates a very limited of understanding of the cultural role of autistic people.

The web of life

Agency at super-human scale (groups larger than 150 members) is an emergent phenomenon that can not be attributed to any specific individual. If we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of human “civilisations”, the emergent rules for coordinating at super-human scale will have to allow for and encourage a rich diversity of human scale organisations.

Human organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus is the genus that includes all cultural species.

NeurodiVentures are a concrete example of an emerging cultural species that provides safe and nurturing environments for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.

NeurodiVentures are built on timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating trusted collaboration that predate the emergence of civilisation. All members share a commitment to:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock the tacit knowledge within the group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

Digital communication and collaboration technologies enable NeurodiVentures to act as a catalyst for trusted collaboration between groups. This is particularly relevant in a world of growing existential risks, where the energy and resource demands of competitive “civilised” social operating models, precisely for the reasons outlined by Daniel Schmachtenberger and documented in detail by historian Joseph Tainter, are exceeding the productive capacity of the biosphere.

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that we have created a global digital network for sharing knowledge and misinformation. It apparently takes a virus like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift cultural norms away from sharing misinformation and towards sharing knowledge.

Competitive autists?

I have yet to meet an autistic person who is capable of maintaining a hidden agenda. This means that autistic people are ill equipped for the competitive social game of “civilisation”.

However, in all domains that require specialised skills and deep knowledge, some of the best professionals (in terms of their level of experience and problem solving abilities) have strong autistic traits. It is very likely that these people will be misunderstood by their colleagues on a regular basis, and may be perceived as “competitive”, simply because they may not stick to all the social rules of politeness at all times.

A relevant extract from an earlier article on bullying:

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)

The future role of autistic people

Hierarchical social structures stand in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale. In the face of existential risks, the cultural inertia of “civilisation” will either lead to the extinction of the human species, or humans will rediscover an interest in genuine collaboration (without hidden agendas) at human scale.

In the latter scenario autists are uniquely equipped to act as catalysts and translators between different cultures and groups, because (a) they have to spend conscious effort on understanding each individual, and (b) they are trustworthy due to their inability to maintain hidden agendas.

My favourite example to illustrate the potential for autistic people to act as catalysts for collaboration is Paul Erdős. In a psychologically safe environment, an autist is enabled and not disabled:

  • Erdős utmostly believed mathematics to be a social activity, living an itinerant lifestyle with the sole purpose of writing mathematical papers with other mathematicians.
  • He was known both for his social practice of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle.
  • He spent most of his life as a vagabond, travelling between scientific conferences, universities and the homes of colleagues all over the world.
  • He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.

Autistic analysis of COVID-19

covid-illness

You may have read articles like this one that point to different ways of recording COVID-19 mortality in different jurisdictions. The concerns raised about variability in data collection are mirrored in commentaries by pulmonologists and other clinicians who have observed many flu seasons. This perspective is easily missed by those who focus on the characteristics of the specific virus rather than the bigger picture of the global patterns of flu infections.

A few people, including some clinicians, are dismissing the notion of a pandemic on the basis that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease) is just one small part of the annual cocktail of influenza like viruses and nothing to worry about is misleading. I find it interesting that even some pulmonologists can get caught up in this level of siloed reasoning, along the lines of “we’ve always had different strains of the flu, and this is simply yet another bad flu season”. This line of reasoning does not explain why locally, in some places, thousands of people are severely ill and dying, to the point where healthcare services are completely overwhelmed.

The WHO on influenza

Seasonal influenza is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, cough (usually dry), headache, muscle and joint pain, severe malaise (feeling unwell), sore throat and a runny nose. The cough can be severe and can last 2 or more weeks. Most people recover from fever and other symptoms within a week without requiring medical attention. But influenza can cause severe illness or death, especially in people at high risk (see below).

Illnesses range from mild to severe and even death. Hospitalization and death occur mainly among high risk groups. Worldwide, these annual epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 290 000 to 650 000 respiratory deaths.

In industrialized countries most deaths associated with influenza occur among people age 65 or older (1). Epidemics can result in high levels of worker/school absenteeism and productivity losses. Clinics and hospitals can be overwhelmed during peak illness periods.

Overall, globally, the COVID-19 mortality thus far is only a small part of a much bigger picture of respiratory deaths – but only because China, and now more and more countries, are adopting “extreme” measures to reduce the spread. The interesting question is, why are these measures necessary? Why have they not been necessary in earlier bad flu seasons?

I think the answer to that question has three parts:

Part 1

Some flu seasons are not only bad, they are very bad, as the history of pandemics teaches us.

The people alive today simply have not experienced any really bad flu season in their lifetimes, and hence the “surprise”. Modern medicine has left people in the false belief that there is a pill or vaccine for every possible dangerous infectious disease, or that one can always be developed just in time.

UPDATE (22 March 2020): To understand the difference between a flu season and a pandemic, watch this advice from Prof John Ashton, a UK public health expert.

Now people are waking up to the fact that health professionals are not always “in control”, and that their own behaviour actually matters, i.e. contributes to or can reduce risk exposure.

This is scary for “civilised” people who believe in “leaders” and “authorities”.

The positive effect is that the current situation is one of the rare moments where neurotypical people get a glimpse of the collective delusion known as civilisation and the dangers associated with faith in “leaders” and “authorities”, including the myth of “being in full control” typically peddled by such people.

Part 2

Our technological capabilities provide us, including health professionals, with more data than ever.

covid-spread

Our analytical tools allow us to ‘see’ many of the pathogens that make us ill, and modern media delivers the images into every office and into every home.

COVID19

This again is very scary for “civilised” people, in particular if you can see and read about dying people on a daily basis.

covid-19-lungs

The positive effect is that people are made aware of the fact that all humans are more or less equally exposed to the risks of many pathogens, and that wealth and money may not offer much if any protection – and may actually increase some risk factors. According to the laws of probability, we might see a few heads of state or heads of corporations die, to reinforce the message.

Part 3

The hyper-social busyness of civilisation has far outpaced our capacity to comprehend the effects of our behaviour,

… and it has turned what was perceived as a “competitive advantage” in relation to other species into a relative disadvantage in relation to viruses in particular. So far I am not seeing this framing amongst the medical experts, but there is no shortage of people who see the virus as a welcome relief from busyness as usual. Mental health and suicide statistics point towards social/cultural environments that are in conflict with human biological needs.

Beyond the increasingly visible destruction of the non-human natural environment and significant increases in severe weather events and ocean acidification, what has changed? I think there are several factors that come together, with a collective effect not dissimilar to the multiple stressors that contribute to the species extinction rates of insects, birds, and various marine species:

  1. Human population growth, roughly doubling every 50 years, and now starting to flatten, indicative of the extreme pressure we exert on our ecosystems.
  2. A 10-fold increase in air travel over the last 50 years; just watch the activity at Flight Radar to get an intuitive feeling for the level of busyness, even with the current reductions/restrictions in place.
  3. Increasing levels of urbanisation, exemplified by the mega-cities in China, resulting in hyper-social busyness related to work and commuting.

It would be highly surprising if these conditions do not lead to increased collective intelligence and evolutionary success amongst viruses that have discovered humans as a habitat. These viruses are not out to get us, they are developing symbiotic relationships with humans. Note that SARS-CoV-2 is provoking deaths and a human response that works directly against the three trends above.

UPDATE (28 March 2020): This interview with Prof Kim Woo-Ju, South Korea’s leading COVID-19 expert, provides an excellent overview of the latest understanding of SARS-CoV-2, and it also mentions the global increase in air travel as a major challenge in dealing with pandemics.

His warning: “The moment we become arrogant, we´ll lose”.

Given current human population numbers, any attempt to bring back air travel and busyness to pre-COVID-19 levels will be increasingly suicidal for the human species.

The positive effect of the cultural changes induced by COVID-19 in record time is that pollution levels and green house gas emissions are sinking at record rates, far beyond what environmentalists and climate activists would have imagined possible even a few months ago. The fear induced by the data our technological capabilities serve us on a daily basis (part 2 above) acts as a strong force against reverting to busyness as usual, and the risks will increasingly lead to (a) an appreciation/re-discovery of human scale, including strong social norms against super-human scale groupings of humans, and (b) strong social norms against all forms of deception and manipulation of data, because at the limits of planetary capacity deception is a recipe for collective suicide within a single generation.

What makes viruses so intelligent relative to humans?

The answer may surprise civilised humans but it might not have surprised pre-civilised humans.  Viruses are not organised hierarchically and they do not pretend to be in control of anything – they don’t suffer from a collective learning disability. Instead they can be considered experts at mutation and creation of diversity at rates that the genomes of “higher level” life forms can’t. SARS-CoV-2 has figured out a very effective combination of infectiousness, incubation period and mortality.

The intelligence of complex life forms that manifests in neural networks is usually quite limited. Only the human capacity for complex material cultures, which depends amongst other things on the dexterity of human hands and on the anatomical features that enable human language, have allowed this intelligence to accumulate and scale to collaborating groups of humans in ways that are impossible for other primates.

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, and driven by the suicidal busyness of civilisation (cancerous myths of superiority that have infiltrated human societies around 10,000 years ago), we have created a global network for sharing knowledge and misinformation. We now learn that it takes viruses like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift cultural norms away from sharing misinformation and towards sharing knowledge. There will be many further learning opportunities beyond COVID-19.

Planetary intelligence is achieved by creating a feedback loop of mutual learning between the rapid learning cycles at the smallest scales and learning cycles at human scale, which are now amplified via a global digital network at super-human scale. We are learning the hard way that messing with that network for misinformation and attempts of hierarchical control works against humans and the entire planetary ecosystem.

What’s next?

As humans start to re-familiarise themselves with human scale, a new generation of children will be taught corresponding values, and the interest in super-human scale control and hierarchical power structures will fade and will become a taboo. It will be important to preserve accurate recordings of what happened to “civilisation”. As a result, the risks of “civilisation”, and in particular the risk of super-human scale conflict will be reduced significantly. It takes “leaders” to persuade and manipulate people into going to war, and once people with “leadership aspirations” are again recognised as the biggest threat to society, our capacity for culture may once again make us more intelligent than the other primates – but still not as smart as our little invisible friends.

There is no competition for collaboration at human scale 😀.

Together with our viral and microbial friends we are not that stupid after all 😜.

We are starting to experiment with ways to reduce interactions to human scale and are starting to learn. We may even learn that there are many different ways to contain the virus, but a focus on human scale and a bias against super-human scale busyness will be the common thread through all these approaches. When I wrote this article on collaboration for life six months ago, I could not have imagined how close we are to the proliferation of new human scale cultural species.

To close off, here is some good advice on staying safe from an [obviously autistic?] clinician with a special interest in material science and engineering, who is now doing a video series on COVID-19:

In search of psychological safety

The objectives of the autism and neurodiversity civil rights movements overlap significantly with the interests of those who advocate for greater levels of psychological safety in the workplace and in society in general. To appreciate the significance of the overlap the following working definition of psychological safety comes in handy:

Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo- all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.

Timothy R Clark

psychological safety

In the workplace the topic of psychological safety is relevant to all industries and sectors.

innovation is almost always a collaborative process and almost never a lightbulb moment of lone genius. As the historian Robert Conquest once said, “What is easy to understand may have not been easy to think of.” Innovation is never easy to think of. It requires creative abrasion and constructive dissent—processes that rely on high intellectual friction and low social friction.

Timothy R Clark

Creating and maintaining a psychologically safe environment is fundamental for the flourishing of all staff, yet in most organisations psychological safety is the exception rather than the norm. Observations from a study of redesign projects in the UK on improving the capabilities of organisations in the NHS illustrate why the importance of nurturing psychological safety can not be overstated:

“Our analysis suggests that while engaging experts it is also necessary to manage ongoing collaborations between them as the service redesign process unfolds. Interprofessional health-care work is high-stakes and ‘fraught with tension and anxiety’. Individual jobs, contracts, issues of governance, compliance and patient care are simultaneously in question. The transformation manager describes: ‘challenges, disagreements, debates, … change is frightening, it can make you feel a bit insecure’. Stakeholders were well aware of the challenges, describing how vested and competing interests mean that having everyone ‘around the table had got that sort of political aspect to it’. These concerns could prevent ‘properly discussing’, interpreting and critiquing different forms of evidence, Moreover, during these redesign efforts, experts came and went. This meant that ongoing attention to managing collaborations appeared to be very critical.”

Further examples from:

  1. The education sector
  2. The software industry
  3. The healthcare sector

Given our first hand experience with innovation in these sectors and our involvement in autistic self advocacy and neurodiversity activism, the S23M team has decided to conduct a global survey on psychological safety in the workplace. The resulting data will be of particular interest for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people who are experiencing bullying and more or less subtle forms of discrimination at work.

We will share the results and collaborate with researchers who focus on psychological safety, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The survey data will also be a valuable source of relevant background information for the Neurodiversity Documentary project.

psychsafe

You can assist our effort by participating in the survey, and by encouraging your friends to participate in the survey. The survey only takes between 2 to 5 minutes to complete and is accessible here.

survey

Please note:

  • The survey is completely anonymous, without requesting any identifiable information about specific companies or individuals, so there is no risk for organisations or individuals to find themselves exposed in “below average” territory.
  • The most effective way to encourage participation in the survey may be via informal channels and trusted personal relationships that sidestep top level management and human resource departments, which are often forced to perpetuate the party line that “everything is under control”.

Celebration of interdependence

The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”.

Autists depend on assistance from others in ways that differ from the cultural norm – and that is pathologised. However, the many ways in which non-autistic people depend on others is considered “normal”, or rather it is brushed under the carpet.

Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative groups, with strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between groups.

In our pre-civilised past all human groups were small, and interdependence and the need for mutual assistance was obvious to all members of a group.

The tools of civilisation, including money, have undermined our appreciation of interdependence, and within the Western world have culminated in a toxic cult of competitive individualism, which amongst the non-autistic population ironically leads to extreme levels of groupthink.

The myth of meritocracy

Wherever autistic people go, they expose social power games.

Pathologisation is the push back from a sick society. Autistic people should be recognised as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human societies.

The concept of social status improvement for blacks. A miniature black man standing in a pile of coins.

 

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 is an arbitrary one.

Specifically, all societies that construct money as interest bearing debt and endow money with a quasi-ubiquitous fungibility to enable economic activity rely on the following four economic drivers or ways of “making money”:

1. Creation and lending of money for a return on investment

We use interest-bearing debt issued out of thin air by banks to prime the economic pump, and to provide professional bankers with a reliable source of significant income.

2. Speculation with land and real estate, and allowing people to inherit money

This enables people to “make” more money through lending for a return on investment, similar to banks, only that the means of individuals are more limited.

3. Hierarchical structures of organisations in various sectors that offer extreme monetary rewards at the top

This encourages people to systematically take credit for the work of others to get to the top.

4. Creation of pyramid schemes that allow people to “extract value” from the work of others.

This endorses and encourages harmful behaviours which benefit the individual over the group.

The common theme across these economic drivers is the willingness to exploit other people for personal gain, including the audacity to take personal credit for the results of others or for the results achieved as part of a team.

Such exploitative interdependencies between people are considered “normal”, and we consider anyone who is able to survive comfortably by extracting money from other people “independent”.

The four ways of making money are justified by a myth of meritocracy and circular reasoning – that people with a lot of money have “earned” the money and are entitled to a “fair” return on investment to cover their “risk” when lending some of it to others.

For someone without significant amounts of money, land or real estate to begin with, the economic options are limited:

1. Acting as an investor without significant money to start off with.

This path is a pure game of luck.

The very few who happen to be lucky tend to develop a sense of entitlement that allows them to feel at home amongst bankers and the money making class, and adopt corresponding behaviours and beliefs of superiority – supporting a system that only benefits a small minority.

2. Starting a charity organisation that taps into people’s social conscience to donate some of their money to those who are disadvantaged by the system.

On the one hand many charities provide valuable assistance to vulnerable people. On the other hand charities conveniently allow the people engaged in “making money” to feel better about themselves and the “externalities” that they create, further enhancing their sense of entitlement and commitment to the status quo.

The need for charity organisations is a symptom of a society that systematically produces economic “externalities”.

3. Collaborating with others to create knowledge, products, and services that are highly valued by others.

Without significant amounts of money, acquired via one the four means above, it is not possible to employ a team of people for more than a few months.

Alternatively, taking on external capital immediately hands over key levers to the money making class. And lastly, attempting self-employment without a supporting team, whatever you create will be heavily discounted by treating you like an employee or contractor – you only get paid the equivalent of a wage, and the money making class extracts the value.

Thus by virtue of the design of the economic system, the option of entrepreneurship is largely a dead end.

People with a compromised moral compass discard these three options as ways of contributing to society, and rather see them as sources of people that can easily be exploited.

Realistic paths to “success” involve career climbing in hierarchical organisations or the related option of the creating and running a more or less legal pyramid scheme.

Organisations within a poorly regulated financial sector provide ideal training grounds for pyramid scheme builders, and along the way, provide on the job training in the busyness of money creation and in riding the waves of economic bubbles.

“There’s huge political pressure to create jobs coming from all directions. We accept the idea that rich people are job creators, and the more jobs we have, the better. It doesn’t matter if those jobs do something useful; we just assume that more jobs is better no matter what. We’ve created a whole class of flunkies that essentially exist to improve the lives of actual rich people. Rich people throw money at people who are paid to sit around, add to their glory, and learn to see the world from the perspective of the executive class.”

“A lot of bullshit jobs are just manufactured middle-management positions with no real utility in the world, but they exist anyway in order to justify the careers of the people performing them. But if they went away tomorrow, it would make no difference at all.And that’s how you know a job is bullshit: If we suddenly eliminated teachers or garbage collectors or construction workers or law enforcement or whatever, it would really matter. We’d notice the absence. But if bullshit jobs go away, we’re no worse off.”David Graeber

People with an intact moral compass tend to learn the hard way that all their attempts of investment, running charities or entrepreneurship only strengthen the status quo and amplify the economic inequalities.

It is easy to see that honest people, and especially autistic people, are systematically disabled in modern society, economically as well as socially, as many social norms are adaptations to the dominant economic paradigm.

Autistic people continuously work at the edge of their performance limit, which is often much higher than what non-autistic people are capable of sustaining, whilst not making a fuss about it. This invites exploitation.

burnout

The social model of disability explains two of the most disabling aspects of autism. To a significant extent autistic experience can be described in terms of the downstream effects of:

  1. the inability to maintain hidden agendas, and
  2. hypersensitivities, including in the social realm, rejection of all forms of social status.

We know how to create egalitarian and inclusive societies, but we must leave behind the ideological shackles of civilisation. The indoctrination of our society is deep.

The conception of “intelligence” baked into Western culture and orthodox economic ideology is anaemic.

“I do believe we have to start thinking imaginatively about systems that are fundamentally differently organized. Shifts do happen in history. We’ve been taught for the last 30 to 40 years that imagination has no place in politics or economics, but that, too, is bullshit.”

“I think we need a rebellion of what I call the “caring class,” people who care about others and justice. We need to think about how to create a new social movement and change what we value in our work and lives.”

“People have a sense of what makes a job worthwhile; otherwise, they wouldn’t realize that what they’re doing now is bullshit. So we need to give this more articulation, and we need to unite with other people who want the same things. That’s a political project we can all get behind.” – David Graeber

Warning: Collaboration is contagious, even beyond the autistic community. There are some good segments in this documentary.

“Extreme inequality, as it turns out, is not an economic law or necessity: it is a design failure. Twenty-first century economists recognize that there are many ways to design economies to be far more distributive of value among those who help to generate it. And that means going beyond redistributing income to pre-distributing wealth, such as the wealth that lies in controlling land, enterprise, and the power to create money.”Kate Raworth

Building a new model, the autistic way

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― Buckminster Fuller

solidarity

Magic happens when you combine collaboration and neurodiversity, because then the result is diversity and creativity rather than groupthink.

We don’t need yet another complex template for organisational structure and not yet another complex or rigid process to follow within the established social order.

The path to escape the box of a sick society involves rediscovering timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating creative collaboration in the absence of capital and hierarchical structures:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock valuable tacit knowledge within a group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

People have known about these principles for millennia. Some of the principles have been rediscovered many times, by different groups of people in various geographies and in different cultural contexts. In particular, neurodivergent people are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.

“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” – Robin Dunbar, 2018

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, and transparency and mutual trust enables knowledge and 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. This allows the company to rapidly respond intelligently and with courage to all kinds of external events.

“It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. The keynote of Buddhist economics, therefore, is simplicity and non-violence.” – E. F. Schumacher, 1966

The observations made by E. F. Schumacher are very closely aligned with the intent of the NeurodiVenture model. Consider the following extract from his timeless essay on Buddhist economics:

“It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.”

“Thus, if the purpose of clothing is a certain amount of temperature comfort and an attractive appearance, the task is to attain this purpose with the smallest possible annual destruction of cloth and with the help of designs that involve the smallest possible input of toil.”

“The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. It would be highly uneconomic, for instance, to go in for complicated tailoring, like the modern West, when a much more beautiful effect can be achieved by the skillful draping of uncut material.”

“It would be the height of folly to make material so that it should wear out quickly and the height of barbarity to make anything ugly, shabby, or mean. What has just been said about clothing applies equally to all other human requirements.”

“As physical resources are everywhere limited, people satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other’s throats than people depending upon a high rate of use.”

“Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.”

It is important to understand that an emphasis on local-self sufficiency in terms of physical resource use is simply an effective way of minimising energy use and conflicts arising out of spurious cultural complexity, and does not preclude extensive global collaboration and prolific knowledge sharing.

Call for action and mutual support

Autistic people suffer at the hands of a sick society, and often this culminates in severe mental health problems. The pathway forward for the individual autistic person depends on the concrete context.

It is time to celebrate our interdependence!

Collaboration allows us to create genuinely safe spaces for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.

If you are interested in learning more about the NeurodiVenture approach, please get in touch. I am happy to share our experience with other teams.

We should expect society to support us in establishing autistic collaborations, and we should not be forced individually to be “included” in toxic exploitative environments.

The evolution of evolution

evolution2.png

Cultural evolution allows human society to evolve much faster than the speed of genetic evolution, which is constrained by the interval between generations. However, within any given society, the vast majority of people only experience a very limited sense of individual agency. Gene-culture co-evolution has led to a mix of capabilities in a group where:

  1. The beliefs and behaviours of the vast majority of people are shaped by cultural transmission from the people around them – the majority of people primarily learn by imitation.
  2. A minority of atypical people is much less influenced by cultural transmission – this minority learns by consciously observing the human and non-human environment, and then drawing inferences that form the basis of beliefs and behaviours.

Amongst the atypical people those who are capable of deriving pleasure from exerting power over others and are capable of maintaining hidden agendas are known as psychopaths, whereas those who are incapable of deriving pleasure from exerting power and are incapable of maintaining hidden agendas are known as autists.

In pre-civilised societies psychopaths tended to be subject to severe constraints via egalitarian cultural norms that penalised any attempts to gain power over others, whereas autists tended to be recognised as carriers of valuable knowledge and insights about the world (shamans, healers, teachers, artists, makers of specialised tools, etc.).

As part of the broader picture of neurodiversity, any cognitive difference that interferes with or weakens social learning (subconscious imitation) enhances creativity. Since autism is characterised by differences in social motivation and by weakened subconscious social learning, autistic people tend to be at the core of many deep innovations.

David Sloan Wilson observes that from an evolutionary perspective small groups are the organisms in human society. This has profound implications for the construction of healthy human scale societies.

The extremely important role that culture has played and still plays in human evolution represents a transformational change in the mechanisms available to evolution – it is a major step in the evolution of evolution, comparable to less than two handful of other major steps such as the emergence of the first cells, the emergence of multi-celled life forms, the emergence of sexual reproduction, etc.

Cultural evolution allows the behaviour of human societies to evolve much faster than the behaviour of other complex life forms, to the point that our collective knowledge and medical technologies allow us to engage in an evolutionary arms race with various strains of microbes that used to represent a serious threat to human health.

Whilst in some domains humans have been able to harness our capacity for culture for the benefit of all humans, in other domains our capacity for culture has been used to establish and operate highly oppressive and stratified societies.

“Civilised” humans

“Civilised” societies are characterised by an absence of egalitarian cultural norms, and by the construction of primate dominance hierarchies and perpetuation of supporting myths of superiority that tend to dehumanise outsiders and non-conformists.

In “civilised” societies autistic people very easily become prime targets of exploitation, persecution and pathologisation. Once autistic people are sidelined, there is little to stop myths of superiority and progress from becoming the focus of cultural beliefs, resulting in ideologies that celebrate the growth of larger and larger primate dominance hierarchies – ultimately leading to super-human scale groups with cultures that are no longer understandable by any person nor by any group of people.

Historians refer to super-human scale groups as “states” and “empires”, usually without noticing that their own perspective and assessments of historic events is heavily shaped by the contemporary “civilised” ideology of their own culture.

It is akin to troops of chimpanzees and everything is mired in unwritten rules and social niceties specific to your place in the hierarchy. Shining excessively in terms of performance is often penalised because immediate superiors interpret it as a challenge to their dominance.

Hierarchical forms of organisation significantly limit and weaken the feedback loops within society, i.e. they induce a collective learning disability that reduces the ability of the organisation to adapt to rapid changes in its operating environment. This is not a problem during times of environmental stability but it can become a deadly threat during times of rapid environmental changes.

From within “civilisation” any critique of the unavoidable learning disability induced by hierarchical organisation is perceived as an act of dissent and as a potential threat to the “natural” order of society. In the past some empires managed to survive several hundred years, but ultimately collapse is unavoidable. The history of “civilisation” is the history of super-human scale groups (states and empires).

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.

Over the last 200 years, starting with the deployment of the first electrical telegraphs, human societies have been incrementally equipped with global zero-marginal cost communication technologies, culminating in what we now refer to as the web. This development, made possible by people with creative autistic minds, has fundamentally altered the social power dynamics within human societies.

On the one hand modern industrialised empires, states, and corporations have unprecedented abilities to influence and manipulate large populations, and on the other hand, there is nothing that can stop autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people from connecting and collaborating across spatial and cultural boundaries.

Wherever autistic people go, they expose social power games. Pathologisation is the push back from a sick society. Autistic people should be recognised as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human societies.

Strategic disablement of autistic people

The social model of disability explains two of the most disabling aspects of autism. To a significant extent autistic experience can be described in terms of the downstream effects of:

  1. the inability to maintain hidden agendas, and
  2. hypersensitivities, including in the social realm, rejection of all forms of social status.

The inability to maintain hidden agendas:

  • makes us prime targets for exploitation, and
  • induces fear by our tendency to expose the hidden agendas of others.

Hypersensitivities – including in the social realm, rejection of all forms of social status:

  • lead to the perception of just not trying hard enough or of being uncooperative,
  • result in frequent sensory overload, autistic burn-out, depression, suicidal ideation.

These two “disabilities” are also our greatest strengths. We are uniquely positioned to create good company for neurodivergent people.

NeurodiVenture : an inclusive non-hierarchical organisation operated by neurodivergent people that provides a safe and nurturing environment for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.

Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative small groups, which strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between small groups. In our pre-civilised past all human groups were small, and interdependence and the need for mutual assistance was obvious to all members of a group. The tools of civilisation, including abstract currencies, have undermined our appreciation of interdependence, and within the Western world have culminated in a toxic cult of competitive individualism, which amongst the non-autistic population ironically leads to extreme levels of groupthink.

This tweet brought to you by people arguing that autism should be cured because some autistics will never be independent. All humans are hard-wired to be interdependent on each other. There is nothing shameful about needing someone else. You’ve been duped by capitalists.

The NeurodiVerse : minority cultures created by neurodiversity within the human species

  • (a) the universe of NeurodiVentures
  • (b) the set of all neurodivergent people

Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time. Autistic people are finally connecting and establishing a social habitat on this planet that limits our exposure to insane super-human scale societies.

Autistic people are disabled because even in environments with many autistic people, the majority is still non-autistic, and those in the latter group are the ones with an interest in social status and in wielding power.

In pockets of academia, the arts, and in technology between 10% and 20% of people can be autistic, but that does not mean that their voices are being heard. Most autistic professionals are closet autists who recognise that openly identifying as autistic would amount to career suicide.

Enablement of autistic people

Autistic people must take ownership of the label in the same way that other minorities describe their experience and define their identity. Pathologisation of autism is a social power game that removes agency from autistic people.

Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus is the genus that includes all cultural species.

Autistic people are much better off self-organising on autistic terms. It is a toxic and incorrect myth that we are not good at collaboration. The opposite is true.

Our economy optimises for busyness and maximal energy use. Other results, whether positive or negative, are viewed as secondary or irrelevant. Organisations are continuously transforming themselves to keep people busy and to instil the fear needed to maintain hierarchical control. It is no coincidence that reorganisations are often cynically referred to as “rearranging the deck chairs”. The main objective is to be seen to be doing something “significant”, and then for the reorganisers to take “credit” for the “streamlined” organisation.

If autistic people lack “theory of mind” it’s only “theory of non-autistic mind” AND non-autistic people are DEFINITELY lacking in “theory of mind” when it comes to understanding autistic people.

The chasm that manifests as the double empathy problem can be understood in terms of fundamental differences in social motivation.

Typical social motivations:

  1. Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs and cultural needs.
  2. Truth – truth as it appears through the lens of a particular human culture.
  3. Recognition – approval for compliance with cultural expectations.

Autistic social motivations:

  1.  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.
  2. Truth – truth as it appears through the lens of our current level of human scientific understanding.
  3. Recognition – attribution of creative agency.

In “civilised” cultures the ability to fully understand the needs of someone whose social motivations are situated on the respective “other” side of the chasm is quite limited.

The main variable that we can work on to reduce the chasm is to collaborate in small teams that are powered by autistic culture. Non-autistic people in such teams will over time adapt to autistic culture, and they will re-discover what it means to retain individual agency in a team.

In contrast, autistic people are not “pliable” enough to adapt to a conformist non-autistic culture. We are incapable of continuous masking over extended periods of time, we quickly burn-out, and then must retreat from an environment that is toxic for our mental and physical health.

Autistic culture is minimalistic, able to accommodate profound differences in individual cognitive lenses, and it is the source of deep innovation.

Mental health statistics tell us that mainstream culture has diverged too far from autistic culture. In many organisations bullying has reached toxic levels. Trends in mental health statistics in the wider population hint at a problem far beyond the autistic community. Large parts of society are already paralysed by irrational fear of change, i.e. “the system is bad but at least it’s familiar”.

Techniques for creating shared understanding

To move forward we need a system of language tools and interaction patterns that allow the people within small groups to increase their level of shared understanding as outlined the section “Tools for creating learning organisations” in this article.

The challenge for autists is that “civilised” non-autistic people are not necessarily motivated to understand the autistic perspective. From their perspective there is very little to gain from understanding us. Nothing that they can learn from us will make them more popular with their peers. If however we provide tools that assists an entire group in reducing the level of misunderstandings within the group, we suddenly have something of value to offer.

Autistic people can play the role of a catalyst, we assist, but we are not part of the social game. It usually takes explicit questions to confirm the level of shared understanding with respect to a particular topic within a given group. That’s where an autistic person in a catalyst role, ideally someone who is not a major stakeholder in the discussion, and with a mandate to interrupt and ask questions as needed, is extremely valuable.

When an autistic person is a major stakeholder in a group discussion and attempts to ask clarifying questions, the autistic person will usually be shot down – perceived as being difficult or trying to obtain an advantage. In groups of non-autistic people often there is very little genuine discussion and a lot of “talking past each other”. People don’t tend to notice miscommunication as long as their non-verbal cues provide them with the illusion of shared understanding within the group. Social perception is everything in non-autistic cultures.

Why autistic people continue to suffer

So I’m studying neuroscience at a prestigious UK University and many of the papers we read are very offensive, backward, and just plain wrong with regard to neurodiverse populations (autistics included). Indeed my own tutor refers to us (autistics) as “diseased patients”.

The notion of “understanding autistic people” amongst autism “professionals” is anaemic to say the least. The level of ignorance is often toxic and endangering the mental health and lives of vulnerable autistic people. The level of over-confidence of “professionals” in their ability to assess autistic people and their situations is staggering. Not to mention the complete lack of understanding of autistic culture and autistic community.

Autistic minds come with a high performance engine and an accelerator (autistic agency) but inadequate brakes (self care). We need trusted peers who help us decelerate and take the corners on our journeys without crashing.

The last thing an autistic person needs is is advice along the lines of “you will succeed if you try harder” when there is a fundamental mismatch of social motivations and notions of “success”.

Autistic people continuously work at the edge of their performance limit, which is often much higher than what non-autistic people are capable of sustaining, whilst not making a fuss about it. This invites exploitation

aba-torture.png

Torture of autistic people is not only legal, it is sold as the ultimate busyness opportunity and money making machine, to the extent that they’re even fighting over who gets to exploit us. I am lost for words.

Your neurotypical person has a natural language disorder. Rather than using language to convey ideas, they may focus on its strategic & manipulative function to get other people to do what they want.

In an unsafe environment we operate under burn-out conditions, resulting in mental and physical health problems. Additionally, autistic ways of developing trust and making friends differ from the norm. This creates significant challenges for autistic individuals without a strong support network.

Pathways to good company

pathways

For an autistic person the pathway towards good company is distinctly different from the life trajectory mapped out by the expectations of mainstream culture.

The most appropriate pathway for an autistic person depends significantly on the surrounding social environment and the stage of life:

Isolated adult who is unaware of being autistic

Amongst the adult population of those currently over 30 years old, this is probably the largest category of autistic people. People in this category are often depressed, possibly burnt-out or even suicidal, and potentially misdiagnosed and medicated.

Potential hints:

  • Never truly understanding why people are interested in cultural status symbols and in pursuing social status
  • Idiosyncratic ways of  performing specific activities or jobs, usually based on extensive experimentation with different approaches, and resistance to simply  following the ways in which others perform similar activities or jobs
  • Valuing truth much more than the need to be seen as successful or popular by others
  • An innate sense of individual agency that is much stronger than any desire to conform to social norms
  • Always interested in sharing knowledge, and not understanding why anyone might be reluctant to share knowledge
  • Many experiences of being surprised by the level of dishonesty of other people
  • When in traditional leadership or managerial positions, experiencing strong feelings of never really fitting in anywhere, struggling to cope in general, and experiencing severe physical symptoms of stress
  • Feeling extremely exhausted following all meetings with three or more people, especially if the people in question are not familiar friends or colleagues, or when being forced to engage in smalltalk

For this group of people the Communal Definition of Autism can be a first step towards recognising their own autistic traits and related experiences.

Isolated adult who learns about potentially being autistic

People in this category have learned about autism either via a diagnosis or via hints from colleagues, friends and family. Some people react with disbelief or denial, to avoid having to acknowledge many traumatising experiences in society.

Autistic people in this group tend to try hard to mask their autistic traits well enough to meet cultural expectations in many situations – they may not even know what masking is, and may confuse the effort of masking with the effort of applying hard-won social skills.

However the effort of masking comes at a high cost, and can only be maintained continuously for limited periods of time. Individuals in this category are on their way to autistic burn-out. People at this stage are particularly vulnerable to relationship breakdowns, as their frustration starts to show, often increasing the isolation.

For this group of people engaging with the autistic community and comparing notes can be a first step towards learning to appreciate their own autistic traits.

Isolated autistic adult

Isolated autistic adults tend to avoid social interaction to retain sanity and to minimise the mental energy loss of masking. Many people within the adult autistic population fall within this category.

People in this category may have never tried to reach out to the autistic community, or they have had a few disappointing experiences in connecting with other autistic people, perhaps surprised by the level of diversity amongst autistic people.

Isolated autistic people no longer seek to meet all cultural expectations, and minimise autistic burn-out by avoiding places or social contexts that may trigger sensory overload. They are at great risk of economic exploitation and bullying at work.

If you are being bullied at work, you can use the Bullying Alert System on this website to report your situation in anonymised form to the autistic community.

Some people in this category have internalised the pathology paradigm, and a few feel threatened by the neurodiversity paradigm, as it suggests that it may actually be possible for autistic people to develop healthy trusted relationships with other people, and this suggestion contradicts their own experience.

For this group of people the only way forward is to find the courage to again reach out to the autistic community, by contacting helpful openly autistic autism rights advocates and members of the neurodiversity movement, either directly, or in small and welcoming non-public online groups, and away from the often toxic public places on online social media platforms.

Autistic adult who has found autistic community

collab-tech

A growing minority of autistic adults have learned to developed enjoyable relationships with autistic peers, but many do not dare to openly identify as autistic due to widespread discrimination in wider society.

People in this group have understood the fundamentals of autistic cognition, mask only when critical for survival, are actively learning about autistic culture, and incrementally start to develop an individual peer-to-peer support network, a multi-year journey that likely involves some successes but also many failures along the way.

A useful next step for people in this category is to compare notes about autistic forms of collaboration and about the ways in which autistic people find ways of developing and maintaining trusted relationships.

Autistic adult engaged in autistic collaboration

good-company

Amongst the adult autistic population, at this point in time (2019), this is probably still the smallest category.

People within this category will have discovered some of the principles for building trusted relationships that underpin the NeurodiVenture operating model, in particular techniques for creating a collective interface to the wider society that

  • optimises for collaboration between autistic people, and
  • minimises the need for interacting with wider society on terms that are detrimental to the mental and physical health of autistic people.

Autists are acutely aware that good company is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity. Autistic people relate to specific people, and primarily to other autistic people, and not to group identities. All groups that are genuinely inclusive of relationships with autistic people are small in size – they are human scale.

Collectives of collaborating autistic people can benefit significantly by connecting with other groups of autistic people and from knowledge sharing and building trusted relationships with other autistic people. The future of autistic collaboration involves establishing a collaborative network of NeurodiVentures.

Isolated youngster who is unaware of being autistic

Children and adolescents in this category are traumatised by their experiences in the social world, often including by the expectations placed on them by parents and teachers. Unless someone picks up on their autistic traits, they are on track to becoming isolated adults who are unaware of the existence of other people experiencing similar challenges with sensory overload and with bullying in the social world.

Isolated youngsters may be baffled by the socially constructed gender identities of their peers, and they may neither identity with male nor with female gender “norms”.  Isolated autistic adolescents are at risk of drug and alcohol abuse, seeking calm, and not really understanding how they can possibly fit into an apparently insane social world.

For this group, developing areas of deep interest and expertise, and receiving support on their journey towards discovering autistic community can be life saving.

Autistic youngster with non-autistic parents

When non-autistic parents seek assistance from the autism industry, and as a result subject their autistic child to various normalisation “therapies”, especially under the heading of “early intervention”, they are subjecting their child to additional trauma and institutionalised bullying, resulting in depression, suicidal ideation, and PTSD.

Rather than therapies to “reduce autistic behaviours”, autistic children need to be supported in the full development of their unique autistic potential, and need to be encouraged to follow their intrinsic motivations to explore the world.

The most valuable step that non-autistic parents of autistic children can undertake is to connect with and learn from the adult autistic community – and without any delay, to facilitate access of their child to autistic peers and adult mentors.

Autistic children can be introduced to autism via the Communal Definition of Autism, and via age appropriate related learning resources developed by the autistic community rather than by the autism industry.

Autistic youngster with at least one autistic parent

Autistic children and adolescents with one or two autistic parents are ideally positioned for becoming thriving autistic adults – provided that their parents have the financial resources to provide a healthy home and educational environment.

There are many examples of multi-generational autistic families. Autistic adults choose autistic partners at rates that are 10 times greater than random choice. This perhaps is the strongest indicator that social progress in terms of autistic rights and self-determination is overdue.

Autistic collaboration for life

Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity. Autistic people relate to specific people, and primarily to other autistic people, and not to group identities.

In contrast, contemporary human societies are characterised by abstract group identities, from local communities, to favourite sports teams, employers, professions, social class, languages, dialects, tribes, countries, online groups, brand loyalty, etc. Every identifiable group identity is characterised by specific behavioural cultural norms, only some of which are explicitly stated and acknowledged. People who identify with a group are expected to conform with the explicit and implicit behavioural code.

This difference in constructing social relationships has profound implications. Autists understand a group of people to consist of the set of pairwise relationships between individuals – autistic people don’t “belong” to any groups, but the idiosyncratic relationship between two autistic people, including their idiosyncratic ways of interacting, may belong to one or more groups.

If all relationships in a group are based on mutual trust and respect, then the group can be considered to be good company. If some of the relationships lack mutual trust or respect, then the group is in an unhealthy state.

Mutual trust and respect can also mean a mutual recognition and acceptance of significant differences in needs and preferences – simply allowing the other person to be themselves, without undertaking any attempts to coerce the other person to do certain things in certain ways, or to respond to a question or situation immediately, without any time allowed for reflection and unique ways of information processing.

Psychological safety means being surrounded by (familiar) trusted peers, not by “being part of” an amorphous abstract group like being “human”, being “male” or “female”, being “part of organisation xyz”, or being an “Antarctican” – national identities are amongst the silliest inventions, and one learns to be careful not to offend the millions of (insane?) non-autistic believers in the various cults of nationality. Organisation xyz only needs one unsafe relationship for an autistic person for the entire group to become an unsafe environment. This is a practical working definition of psychological safety for autistic people.

All groups that are genuinely inclusive of relationships with autistic people are small in size – they are human scale.

I define autistic community as follows:

If you are wondering whether you identify as autistic, spend time amongst autistic people, online and offline. If you notice you relate to most of these people much better than to others, if they make you feel safe, and if they understand you, you have arrived.

Thanks to

autistic people are finally connecting and establishing a social habitat on this planet that limits our exposure to insane super-human scale societies.

An autistic model of the living planet

What is only rarely talked about in mainstream society is the effort that it takes non-autistic individuals to conform to a multitude of abstract group identities, especially if the social norms associated with different identities are incompatible, and to some extent contradict each other. One could say that non-autistic people have a pathological capacity for cognitive dissonance and self-deception, and unfortunately there is no cure for that.

As  a result, the social experience of a given culture by non-autistic people differs significantly from the  social experience of the same culture by autistic people. The differences can be described in terms of differences in the construction of social identities and relationships at various levels of scale as illustrated in figure 1.

living-planet
Figure 1: Human societies in the context of the living planet

Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus (homo) is the genus that includes all cultural species. The semantics of the colour coding in the diagram are as follows:

  • Green: healthy relationships and group identities and human scale organisations
  • Orange: challenging relationships and group identities with potential for conflict
  • Red: adversarial relationships and group identities that consume significant energy and super-human scale organisations that negatively affect their members and their social and ecological context

The numbers in the diagram illustrate different kinds of relationships and group identities:

  1. Healthy relationships between specific individuals that are based on  mutual trust
  2. Healthy group identity between a neurotypical person and a human scale organisation; note that neurotypical people are capable of maintaining several group identities in parallel
  3. Adversarial group identity between a neurotypical person and a super-human scale organisation; the extent to which such group identities have a negative impact on mental health can be deduced from the empirical evidence compiled by David Graeber in his book Bullshit Jobs
  4. Adversarial relationship between a culturally “well-adjusted” neurotypical person and an autistic person, as illustrated by the rates bullying and suicide of autistic people
  5. Healthy set of relationships between neurodivergent people that have agreed to long-term collaboration based on (a) a small set of shared values, in particular an appreciation of neurodiversity and (b) a shared inability to maintain hidden agendas – and therefore an inability to play competitive social games
  6. Adversarial relationship between a small, human scale group or enterprise and a super-human scale organisation, or between members of different genera, characterised by a significant imbalance in power and a resulting lack of mutual trust
  7. Challenging relationship between an organisation constructed via an abstract social identity and a NeurodiVenture constructed as a set of trusted relationships between individuals; the members of the NeurodiVenture need to continuously watch out for social games and hidden agendas when engaging in external relationships
  8. Healthy set of relationships between two NeurodiVentures that have agreed to long-term collaboration based on complementary capabilities and capacity
  9. Healthy cultural context of a human scale organisation, based on shared beliefs and rituals, commonly underscored by a shared language
  10. Interdependencies between levels of scale; interdependencies between a large-scale network of living entities and either smaller-scale networks or relationships between individual living entities
  11. Adversarial group identity between a smaller super-human scale structure within a larger super-human scale cultural context that is characterised by explicit competition rather than collaboration
  12. Challenging cultural context of a NeurodiVenture that is characterised by many challenging relationships with organisations that are constructed via abstract social identities
  13. Adversarial group identity generated by a conformist culture that is ignorant of the existence and the value of NeurodiVentures, resulting in social pressure to conform with cultural norms imposed by the dominant cultural species (think corporations)
  14. Adversarial interdependency between levels of scale; humans vs the web of life rather than humans as part of the web of life – in short: Anthropocentrism

The consequences of the social dysfunctions outlined in the list above can no longer be overlooked. Today everyone:

  1. is able to observe ecological destruction first hand,
  2. is experiencing the effects of climate breakdown to some degree,
  3. is confronted with the disconnect between economic dogma and the reality of severe social inequality,
  4. is noticing the inability of institutions to meet human needs,
  5. is affected by mental health problems, either personally or within their immediate social environment.

Neurodivergent collaboration

The potentially transformational role of neurodivergent collaboration is illustrated below, using the purpose of S23M within the context of the living planet as an example.

purpose
Figure 2: Examples of organisational purpose relating to different levels of scale

The semantics of the colour coding in the diagram:

  • Green: living agents
  • Orange: valuable knowledge resources produced
  • Red: purpose

The NeurodiVenture operating model is the social DNA of an emergent cultural species that has developed an immune system that enables it to survive and even thrive in three complementary contexts:

  1. within super-human scale societies afflicted by terminal cancer
  2. within social environments that contain a growing number of NeurodiVentures
  3. within social environments that contain other human scale cultural species within the human genus

The purposes at different levels of scale in the diagram above map to concrete activities and related triggers and results as follows:

Maximising biodiversity

Enabling knowledge to flow to all the places where it can be put to good use

Equipping autistic people for collaboration for life

Creating good company and maintaining healthy relationships at human scale

Creating systems that are understandable by future generations of humans & software

My collaboration for life at S23M can be summarised and visualised in the logistic lens:

collaboration for life at S23M
Figure 3: My collaboration for life at S23M in the visual language of the logistic lens

The future web of life

The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.

Humans have to ask themselves whether they want to continue to be useful parts of the ecosystem of the planet or whether they prefer to take on the role of a genetic experiment that the planet switched on and off for a brief period in its development. The big human battle of this century is going to be the democratisation of data and all forms of knowledge. If we succeed, the resulting web of life may look something like the following picture:

living-planet-future
Figure 4: Future human scale societies in the context of the living planet

The numbers in the list below map to the numbers in figure 1 and figure 4:

  1. Healthy relationships between specific individuals that are based on  mutual trust
  2. Healthy group identity between a neurotypical person and a human scale organisation
  3. No longer applicable: Adversarial group identity between a neurotypical person and a super-human scale organisation
  4. Challenging relationship between a culturally “well-adjusted” neurotypical person and an autistic person, characterised by a risk of misunderstandings
  5. Healthy set of relationships between autistic people
  6. Challenging relationship between between members of different genera, characterised by a limited level of mutual understanding
  7. Healthy relationship between an organisation constructed via an abstract social identity and a NeurodiVenture constructed as a set of trusted relationships between individuals; NeurodiVentures are appreciated for their creative potential and for their role in facilitating knowledge flows across cultural barriers
  8. Healthy set of relationships between two NeurodiVentures
  9. Healthy cultural context of a human scale organisation
  10. Interdependencies between levels of scale
  11. No longer applicable: Adversarial group identity between a smaller super-human scale structure within a larger super-human scale cultural context
  12. Healthy cultural context of a NeurodiVenture that is characterised by many  relationships with organisations that appreciate neurodivergent collaboration
  13. No longer applicable: Adversarial group identity generated by a conformist culture that is ignorant of the existence and the value of NeurodiVentures
  14. Healthy interdependency between levels of scale; humans as part of the web of life

In a collaborative context the remaining challenges can be framed as healthy opportunities for learning rather than as sources of conflict that ought to be eliminated.

People management and bullying

stop-bullying

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

no-trust.jpg

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

management.jpg

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

symbiosis.jpg

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 agency 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

collaboration

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

collaboration4.jpg

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

nd-collaboration.png

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

collab-tech

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

super-human.jpg

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

small-team.jpg

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.

prosocial2

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.

Connections.jpg

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 within 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.

learning-os

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

 

culture4.png

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.

social-behaviour.png

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.

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.002

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.

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.004

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.

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.001.jpeg

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?