By Jorn Bettin & Ulku Mazlum
The need to be resilient is something that Autistic people unlearn over time. We need to learn to be gentle with ourselves. With the concept of Autistic whānau we are exploring new terrain and new possibilities. It’s something that we can incrementally weave into the Autistic collaborations that are already established.
We care deeply about all the ones we love, and this is not limited to the human sphere. We are viscerally connected into our ecology of care by emotional bonds and shared experiences, and not by abstract cultural symbols.
Autistic people find interactions with the W.E.I.R.D. social world so traumatising, because that world is not predicated on relationships, mutual trust, mutual care, and shared joy, pain, and grief. The W.E.I.R.D. world is predicated on transactions, mistrust, exploitation, and betrayal. It is a world completely devoid of life and unconditional love.
The capacity for culture opens many traps for humans. Human history and the stories we tell us are full of them. Many humans have good intentions, but the cultural context desensitises humans, and turns many into zombified addicts looking for the next hit in social status and power. The addiction to adrenalin powers the junkies in financial markets. It’s very sad, to see them first hand. Most Autistic people are immune to these addictions, and this is why they are feared and sometimes hated and vilified.
Whānau : extended family, family group, a familiar term of address to a number of people – the primary economic unit of traditional Māori society. In the modern context the term is sometimes used to include friends who may not have any kinship ties to other members.
Whānau are not powered by adrenalin but by love and mutual care. Most Autists are not born into healthy Autistic whānau.
Takiwātanga : Autistic ways of being, takiwātanga literally means “in their own space and time.”
We have to co-create our whānau in our own space and time. In many indigenous cultures children with unique qualities are recognised, are given adult mentors with similarly unique qualities, and grow up to fulfil unique roles in their local community, connected to others with unique knowledge and insights, perhaps even in other communities. If we are embedded in an ecology of care, we can thrive and share the pain and the joy of life.
Whānau is much more than the Western notion of “family”. It is a deep connection, a bond that you are born into that no one can take away from you.
An Autistic whānau could be conceptualised as a soul tribe, it is not an amorphous global Autistic community, but rather a human scale ecology of care, consisting of Autistic relationships between soul mates that are bonded through shared experiences and working together.
Closely related concepts:
Whanaungatanga : relationship, kinship, sense of family connection – a relationship through shared experiences and working together which provides people with a sense of belonging. It develops as a result of kinship rights and obligations, which also serve to strengthen each member of the kin group. It also extends to others to whom one develops a close familial, friendship or reciprocal relationship.
Whakawhanaungatanga : process of establishing relationships, relating well to others.
Whakapapa : the “genealogical descent of all living things from God to the present time. “Since all living things including rocks and mountains are believed to possess whakapapa, it is further defined as “a basis for the organisation of knowledge in the respect of the creation and development of all things”. Hence, whakapapa also implies a deep connection to land and the roots of one’s ancestry. In order to trace one’s whakapapa it is essential to identify the location where one’s ancestral heritage began; “you can’t trace it back any further”. “Whakapapa links all people back to the land and sea and sky and outer universe, therefore, the obligations of whanaungatanga extend to the physical world and all being in it”.
In a healthy culture Autistic children are assisted in co-creating their unique Autistic whānau, but in our “civilisation” this cultural knowledge has been lost and is suppressed. In mainstream society people don’t understand how Autistic people support each other, love each other, and care for each other in ways that go far beyond the culturally impaired neuronormative imagination.
Autists depend on assistance from others in ways that differ from the cultural norm – and that is pathologised in hypernormative societies. However, the many ways in which non-autistic people depend on others is considered “normal”. The endless chains of trauma must be broken.
There is the saying that “It takes a village to raise a child.” The Autistic translation of this saying is “For an Autistic person it takes an Autistic whānau to feel loved and alive.”
The foundation of our whakapapa is the ocean and the mountains. Via Autistic trauma peer support we are embarking on the journey of co-creating healthy Autistic whānau and Autistic culture all over the world.
Collaboration at human scale
Every word in the title of the book on ‘The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale : The timeless patterns of human limitations’ has been very carefully chosen. But words have limits. What the title is trying to convey is that life feels like a dance of balancing all these words and concepts.
We’ll never be able to put a finger on it, so I say “feel” rather than “is”, and it is a dance because life is dynamic, it always evolves. Words like “perfection” or “success” are not part of the title, because they imply a universal sense of direction that regularly has gotten civilisations into trouble. Maybe the one unwritten word that emerges from the dance is “diversity”.
I spent my life until around 2014 developing a human scale meta language system – a formal visual grammar for creating all kinds of visual languages that are optimised for human cognitive limits. The motivation was similar to the motivations of Aboriginal symbolic artists over the last 70,000 years, cultivating a language system and a series of protocols for high fidelity knowledge transmission over thousands of years.
Since the Global Financial Crisis in 2007 my focus incrementally shifted from language systems to what I now refer to as human scale biocultural organisms and ecologies of care. This builds on all the earlier work on human scale language systems. With our small NeurodiVenture we now have 10 years operational experience with human scale biocultural organisms that are adapted to the needs of Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people. Over the last 3 years I have found myself more and more involved in weaving biocultural organisms into larger ecologies of care that are beyond human comprehension, and that are not limited to humans. Mutual care at human scale, within biocultural organisms and between them, and evolution needs to replace the human hubris of “control”.
– Jorn Bettin
Those who are the most sensitive and traumatised and have not lost the ability to extend trust constitute an enormously rich and diverse repository of insights and hold many of the keys needed for co-creating ecologies of care. Collaboration at human scale within an Autistic whānau is truly beautiful, and having peers with us on our journey of expanding our parallel Autistic reality is wonderful.
When we engage in collaboration at human scale, we are nourishing our Autistic whānau. we are feeling well if the relationships in our whānau are providing the right kind of nourishment for everyone. As evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson points out, small groups are the primary organisms in human societies.
The following language is a useful anthropological toolkit for developing a nuanced understanding of different cultures, the relationships between humans, and the effects of Autistic trauma.
3×3 matrix of relationship types with parameters
Categories of relationships
- whānau/Autistic whānau (kinship, biological or culturally assigned by the local culture), permanent
- friendship, for the duration of mutual interest and consent
- sexual, for the duration of mutual interest and consent
- uni-directionally powered-up (culturally defined, or as a result of trauma)
- bi-directionally powered-up (culturally defined, or as a result of trauma)
4×5 matrix of fundamental relationship types
Categories of relationships
- biological kinship, permanent
- [Autistic] whānau, culturally assigned kinship by the local culture or agreed between Autistic people, permanent
- friendship, for the duration of mutual interest and consent
- sexual, for the duration of mutual interest and consent
- uni-directionally powered-up, culturally defined
- uni-directionally powered-up, as a result of trauma
- bi-directionally powered-up, culturally defined
- bi-directionally powered-up, as a result of trauma
Industrialised culture: A mix of
- kinship (all power dynamics)
- friendship (all power dynamics)
- employment = friendship (uni-directionally powered-up)
- economic slavery = kinship (uni-directionally powered-up)
- sexual (bi-directionally powered-up)
The language in which powered-up industrialised culture is being sold: A mix of
- Happy families
- Many friends
- Successful careers
- Economic growth
- Romantic relationships
Note that the power dynamics associated with quantifiable “success” metrics constitute the essence of industrialised culture. In this paradigm the only escape from a toxic zero sum competitive game is the equally toxic delusion of infinite growth on a finite planet.
Traumatised industrialised Autistic culture: A mix of
- Autistic whānau (depowered)
- friendship (depowered)
- friendship (uni-directionally powered-up, as a result of trauma)
- sexual (depowered)
- sexual (uni-directionally powered-up, as a result of trauma)
Coercive power is the root of all evil.
Depowered feral Autistic culture: A healthy Autistic culture involves a mix of the following depowered relationship categories:
- Foundation: Autistic whānau (depowered, life-long self-chosen whānau relations, i.e. life-partnerships)
- Extension: friendship (depowered, for the duration of mutual interest and consent)
- Extension: sexual (depowered, for the duration of mutual interest and consent)
Note that the main criterion for the stable foundation is the life-long commitment. This is what makes it work as a healthy whānau construct. We are not using the term family, because families in the modern sense are too small to be viable and sustainable.
How Autistic trauma plays out over time
Human beings are relational. We can understand all of what we feel, think, and do in terms of relationships. Things went downhill when people started to think and act in terms of egos.
Trauma can play out in so many different scenarios. In all cases it always involves people exerting coercive power (in various forms) over others on an ongoing basis. And this is exactly what is “normalised” in powered up civilisations. It’s abuse by design, and it ripples through all of society, consistently marginalising those who refuse to join the social power games.
Dealing with our biological family is often exhausting. We feel drained, and can barely function. We may not find enough energy to wash our face or brush our teeth. We feel understood by our peers. We intuitively feel when other Autists are struggling, even if they don’t tell us.
We feel how our peers are struggling, because we recognise familiar patterns. Our heart, our mind, and our gut, every fibre of our body recognises the patterns. And we know this goes both ways. We understand each other’s struggles in a way that others can’t. This is what makes us human. This is what makes us Autistic. And this is what connects us to all of life, into the ecology of care that surrounds us when we are in a healthy environment.
It takes a very perverse kind of culture to reprogram non-autistic people so that they largely lose this capacity, and to traumatise many Autistic people to the extent that they can no longer extend trust to anyone, and develop a very dim view of humans. It is a culture that is perverted to the very core. It is the system that perpetuates itself until those Autistic people who are still capable of doing so start building a parallel reality. Those that do so must find ways of caring for each other so that no one gets sucked back into the vortex of the death spiral of “civilisation” and anthropocentrism.
We live in an insane world. In a sick society. For 10,000 years humans have been mainly concerned about “powering up” their relationships with each other and with the rest of the living world. Now hardly anyone sees the root cause and the route out of the death spiral. We have been building social sand castles in the tidal zone for several millennia, and still refuse to acknowledge that the next tide of social upheaval will arrive within the next 12 hours.
This “civilisation” is a normalised state of perpetual war. If a world of powered up relationships actually worked well if only power were less concentrated and more equally distributed, the way to resolve risks such as a nuclear war would involve finding a way of distributing the nuclear weapons arsenal equally across all nations. The flaw in reasoning is obvious. The problem is not distribution but the normalisation of using power.
Some of us have seen far too much violence in our lives already and have been traumatised in too many ways. Autistic people in particular end up in impossible situations far too often. It’s okay not to be okay in this world. We need to be there for each other. We can create much safer places, where we may still struggle, but not be put in impossible situations.
We are not failures at all. The biggest failure of this world is the notion of the arrow of progress and the associated notion of success. If we fail in this world it actually shows that we have kept a profound sense of integrity, and our bodymind has not been desensitised to the suffering in this world. Also, our body and mind suffer if we are not part of a healthy human scale biocultural organism.
Once we are part of an Autistic whānau, we need to experience that it’s always okay to ask for help, and that our entire whānau will take care of us. We can only thrive together. Individual failure and success are toxic concepts that have no place in an ecology of care. These words are meant to be understood literally. Members of Autistic whānau are travelling together, caring for and watching out for each other along the way.
Autistic trauma leads us to peer support, and this leads us to Autistic whānau, which is a concept with enormous potential that can’t be overstated. The negative compels us to work towards something uniquely beautiful that transcends the crippled sense of imagination in the society that surrounds us. It is this journey together with our Autistic whānau that makes life worthwhile and that allows us to incrementally heal from trauma.
We all deserve to be loved and cared for by an Autistic whānau and an ecology of care. We leave no one behind. It is together that we co-create the magic of a new reality that makes the old reality obsolete. Using the right words and refusing to use the words that the old system wants us to use is part of the magic. The old reality wants to draw people into life draining battles, because it feeds on the energy and souls of people.
The new reality appreciates the diversity of all forms of life. It is the billion year old magic that transforms the energy of the sun into the cycle of life and the beauty of art. Magic is the art of Autistic collaboration. We take care of each other in ways that others can’t. The impossible becomes possible. This happens with all depowered Autistic relationships. The old system does not stand a chance against collaborative ecologies of care consisting of Autistic whānau.
An example of Autistic care:
“…To achieve a ‘biosphere centric’ perspective, this author undertook about 13,000 hours of undergraduate studies in Earth Sciences while studying much more than degree requirements after a lifetime of reading, mainly living in a biodiverse but degrading rural area. It involved understanding the biosphere as a massively complex web of life that evolved from bacteria over billions of years and diversified into millions of species, all related to each other, all ‘earth creatures’, of which, Homo sapiens are just one species. It is possible that I have spent 60,000 hours on this task now without respite. For Our Family…”
When abused and traumatised Autistic children become adults, the abuse often carries on in a subtle way that is fully “normalised” for the abusers. Each time when abusive parents want to remind us of our childhood, they pretend to see happy times, and we see hell on Earth. Abusers need to do this to feel good about themselves. Many never apologise for anything. We see through delusional self-serving displays of affection. We’ve intuitively felt the fakeness even when we were small children. We recoiled when our parents tried to hug us.
Abusers have children to serve their own emotional needs, without ever considering the emotional needs of their children. In civilisations that normalise coercive power, children become the commodities needed to propagate the normalisation of power, the complete negation of the human potential for unconditional love and care, the negation of collaboration based on life-long trustworthy relationships at human scale.
In our times the damage caused by 10,000 years of power hungry empires and power drunk human primates is becoming fully visible. Over that period humans have increasingly lost the essence of their humanity.
Rebooting a parallel reality that is not infected with the seeds of the dying system is only possible from the ecology of care of feral depowered Autistic whānau that we are now nurturing into life.
Autistic people are highly sensitive. There is a whole boatload of ideas and mental models that we need to share to allow our peers to understand our context. It takes time, and it can all be done incrementally, and along the way we learn from each other. We will do anything to support the people we care deeply about. This becomes possible by focusing on human scale.
We need to learn to take care of ourselves as much as we take care of others. We notice all the energy, love, and care that our peers invest. We know what becomes possible by applying Autistic relationships in the context of an ecology of care that exists around our Autistic whānau, in the context of a growing network of depowered trusted relationships.
We know how it feels to be surrounded by slightly less sensitive but well meaning people who unknowingly pile further demands on us without even noticing. That’s where peer support can help identify overload. The more skilled and experienced we are at what we do, the more effortless it looks from the outside, and this leads some people to believe it is always easy.
Non-autistic people don’t see our struggles when we don’t tell them, and we are not telling them our struggles. We don’t complain. We probably get cranky and fussy about other things while people don’t understand while we are being cranky. We are not good at mentioning our needs and struggles, and especially not good at asking for help. In our childhood we learned not to express our needs and feelings. They were inconvenient for the people around us. So, we had to unlearn them. As children we learned that our needs and feelings are entirely irrelevant.
Deep down we still feel our needs and emotions are inconvenient and would be a burden. We learned that people are scared of our emotional intensity, so we learn to disconnect from our emotional side. But other people can not read our minds, and this leads to endless strings of misunderstandings.
That is one of the reasons compatible Autistic peers get along well. They intuitively pick each other’s needs and moods without needing to use many words. We are dependent on compatible Autistic peers expressing our needs and feelings.
Experiencing abandonment as a child shapes our entire life. Our top priority becomes to never ever inflict something like this on anyone. With the help and trust of depowered Autistic relationships around us we can for the first time have positive experiences, and this in turn shows us that a different reality is possible.
We can heal if we learn not to look for acceptance and love in the wrong places. Our honesty, selfless and open nature can become a deadly weapon against us. We see the worst version of nice people. We need to watch out for each other, so that people don’t exploit our goodwill endlessly.
Autistic people need Autistic healers. The healing is a shared experience. We need to heal in a safe place of mutual understanding. Anything else is a coping mechanism. That is why traditional therapy doesn’t work well with some Autistic people. We can not unlearn what we have learned. We are fixed.
Co-creating healthy depowered Autistic whānau
The Autistic whānau concept is an immensely valuable part of Autistic peer support, especially when it comes to trauma related to fear of abandonment. It is only when a stable reliable whānau foundation is in place at human scale that humans feel safe.
Only on top of a genuinely safe foundation of depowered whānau relationships can humans explore friendships and sexual relationships without fear of abandonment, because these are actually secondary, less foundational aspects of human social life. Regarding the social dimension and co-creating healthy depowered Autistic whānau, the following interviews are of interest:
- Harrison Owen on Open Space and on depowering communication and collaboration
- Oswin Latimer on how Autistic trauma affects relationships
Our basic needs are met via our whānau, especially if the whānau operates locally agreed internalised social norms that keep all relationships within the whānau depowered.
With the language introduced above, we can express the core of the problems in powered-up societies. Many relationships deteriorate and become toxic:
- Instead of the commitment aspect of love, emotional support, and deep care, people get economic slavery at home, and economic warfare at scale
- Instead of the friendship aspect of love, emotional support, and creative play, i.e. doing enjoyable things together, people get entrapped in career ambitions and other competitive social games, and at scale we end up with an energy and resource hungry socio-techological mono-culture
- Instead of the sexual aspect of love, emotional support, and creative play, sex becomes a tool for emotional and physical abuse, and we end up will all the familiar social problems that we see all over the world
People knew this many hundred thousand years ago. It is no accident that the strongest social norms used to be norms against the emergence of power gradients. As soon a power enters a relationship, the quality of human / Autistic relationships is compromised, and the health of an entire biocultural organism suffers.
A single powered-up relationship causes stress in many other relationships. These observations will prove to be essential for healing from Autistic trauma and for co-creating healthy Autistic whānau going forward.
Small is beautiful. If at small human scales we co-create good company, and love each other and care for each other, we’re doing the things that are compatible with our evolutionary history. That would be a coordinated retreat from an overpopulated planet, and it would minimise human and non-human suffering.
We’ve got the necessary cultural toolkit. Now it’s a matter of deploying it locally, and not just online, in a relatively safe physical environment, with the kind of people who are ready for it. The toolkit consists of simple first principles rather than very specific cultural norms and tools. It’s more about being able to offer emotional support and being able to ask the right kind of questions to learn from each other in a safe environment than about having all the “answers”.
We deeply appreciate the care, love, protection, safety our peers can provide. It is an unusual feeling when we have never felt being taken care of the way that only other hypersensitive and traumatised Autistic people can.
When we spend time with other Autistic people, we know that life is worthwhile, that there is something worth struggling for – together. We know how it feels to struggle alone for decades, and for others to assume that we are strong and “resilient”. No, we are not that at all. The difference is that we have not lost the ability to care and love deeply, the ability to create healthy human cultures from scratch.
We need to put up a barrier to further abuse. In the same way that we can consistently use language to resensitise people to the need to co-create ecologies of care, we can use language to protect our minds from mistaking the people who raised us with people with whom we have healthy caring relationships, as we would have with parents who actually loved us unconditionally, without playing social games with us.
We need to learn to take good care of ourselves and to ask for help from trusted peers when we need it, whatever it may be. We can help each other ask for help, because this is something that we unlearn if we have spent too long in environments where no real help is available, and where asking may even be used against us.
Many wonderful Autistic people are continuously pushed to the limit. “Normality” or “reality” is the dark cloud that is tormenting us. Some of us are struggling every day. Autistic people are hypersensitive. In the fast paced world of industrialised busyness many of us are regularly affected by stress in the form of GI problems, migraine attacks, depression, and other symptoms of chronic anxiety.
We need to start doing something about the root causes, the causes of chronic stress. Otherwise “treatments” only address surface symptoms and we may attempt to power through dangerously stressful situations that take a toll on our mental health. We need to create ecologies of care around us, so that we can start to heal.
We often need love and care rather than many words. It helps to struggle together. It takes an Autistic whānau, an ecology of care, for us to continue. Knowing that we can count on each other keeps us going. Depowered Autistic relationships of love and care are the building blocks of Autistic whānau, i.e. healthy Autistic biocultural organisms.
We need to let each other know that there is a safe place in this world for all of us, and that many of us will do anything we can to help our peers get to a safe place. If people have manipulated or exploited us, it is not our fault. We have agency. We can shape safe places so that they meet our needs, and we must learn not to be afraid to ask our peers for help.