What CAN be misunderstood WILL be misunderstood

Autistic social motivation is deeply rooted in the desire to share knowledge and in the desire to learn, and this has big implications for the protocols that are used in autistic communication. In contrast, the societies we grow up in and live in value abstract social status symbols more than developing a shared understanding, and this leads to the communication challenges that define our social experiences.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Coping strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Languages that are better than all linear languages

Using linear language to communicate experiences and knowledge involves hard work that mostly goes to waste. It can feel like paddling downwind in a sea kayak,  in a small swell that has been whipped up, where the speed is limited to the speed of the waves. No matter how hard you paddle, it is impossible to paddle over the small wave into which the tip of the kayak is pointing. No matter how much effort you put into communication in linear language, there is always going to remain a sizeable residue of misunderstandings.

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

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

4 thoughts on “What CAN be misunderstood WILL be misunderstood

  1. […] I updated “Bring the backchannel forward. Written communication is the great social equalizer.” with selections from “Valuing differences: Neurodiversity in the classroom  – kappanonline.org” and “What CAN be misunderstood WILL be misunderstood | Autistic Collaboration”. […]

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