The Autistic pace of life in the ocean

Thanks to wonderful Autistic conversations I think I am beginning to understand why I feel so much at home in the ocean. To date I had not connected it to healing from Autistic trauma, but now I see the connection with increasing clarity.

Firstly, that much I knew already, besides the air and remote mountain regions, the ocean is one of the few environments that at least superficially is not shaped by humans. But of course in terms of pollution and pH, and in terms of the growing number of fish farms, this is no longer true.

Secondly, and this is the part I am only fully realising as part of Autistic dialogues, the pace of life in the ocean is much more in tune with the a of life that is compatible with humans cognitive capacities and limits than life in human urban environments.

Let me explain:

The universal law of underwater movement

The density of water (800 times higher than air) means that drag is very significant, which means that all living creatures move much slower in water than on land. Also any jerky movements only cost extra energy. Underwater life is about going slow and making smooth movements, or simply staying still, observing the environment with all your senses. You can learn how to do it by observing the fishes around you.

You learn the universal law of movement intuitively. You learn how to not disrupt the flow of life. Any fast movement, and whatever you were curious about has disappeared into a crack in the reef, or is moving away from you with streamlined bodies that are several times faster underwater than any human, fast disappearing beyond your limited horizon of visibility. Moving fast underwater amounts to a violation of a law of nature. You are immediately recognised as a threat.

All you need to do to be part of the life of the ocean is to slow down and follow the universal law of underwater movement.

For me the universal law of underwater movement has become associated with the feeling of being at home. This feeling is reinforced by the taste of salt water. If I have an addiction it is the addiction to being immersed in water and tasting salt water.

I think for an Autistic people the universal law of underwater movement acts as the braking assistant/buddy that we so often lack in W.E.I.R.D. human social environments.

The ocean environment has healing properties for Autistic people.

Orientation and proprioception in the ocean

Because the human body consists mostly of water, i.e. has the same density, you don’t notice any difference in blood pressure in your head, no matter which way you are oriented. Any position is just as comfortable as any other.

You are floating in space, completely effortlessly. This only reminds you to literally take it easy, and to go slow, because the high level of drag means that there is absolutely no point in attempting to go fast, especially if you have a SCUBA tank on your back – which weighs nothing, but which slows you down with further drag.

When you are free-diving it is even more important to go slow, because you can go much further/deeper by going slow – attempting to go fast only increases oxygen consumption and limits your range. A corollary of the universal law of underwater movement:

Underwater, less effort lets you travel farther!

Vision and scope of visibility in the ocean

Visibility is often limited to less than 10m, sometimes much less, and at the very best 40 metres. This means the visible world is small.

Brightness and contrasts are rapidly reduced with increasing depth. The world starts to look very different 10m below the surface and beyond. Blue becomes the dominant colour, and even if you look up, the source of light from the surface is very pleasant to look at, never too bright.

Also water tends to feel cooler than air. It is so pleasant to immerse the head under water after having had a migraine. No bright lights, and your head is being cooled from all sides.

Sounds and scope of hearing in the ocean

Sound travels more than four times faster underwater than in air. It means human ears can’t determine where sounds are coming from, but it also means sounds travel over great distances, and you always hear things that are far beyond the sphere of vision.

The underwater world is a world of mysterious sounds that have no origin. You are embedded in the soundscape of the universe. Anything that makes a sound is making its presence felt everywhere at once. Sounds become completely divorced from our sense of space. They simply exist, and it is only by accident, when you visually see something, like a parrot fish picking at the reef, that you can connect specific sounds with a spatial location.

The sounds of the ocean can become familiar like the sounds of a forest. They can underscore the feeling of being home.

Pressure in the ocean

The water pressure at 10m is twice the air pressure at surface level. This means that all the air in all air filled body cavities is compressed to half the volume at a depth of 10m, to one third the volume at 20m, etc. When you are free-diving you feel the compression in your upper chest, and this gives you an intuitive sense of depth that is reinforced by the change in colours around you. When SCUBA diving you breathe air at the same pressure as the surrounding water, then the change in colours is the only indicator of depth.

You can train your Eustachian tubes to open up and equalise the pressure in your ears when diving down, without needing the manual “blowing your nose” assistance.

Furthermore, humans, like all air breathing mammals, have a dive reflex. This means that our heart rate slows down when immersed in water, especially when we are holding our breath. When free-diving you can train yourself to feel your heart rate, and you can use meditation practice, to calm down as much as possible, to maximise your level of comfort and your underwater range.

Again, slowing down allows you to go farther.

Being in the ocean is pure Autistic joy. It is a safe space in the non-human world, it is a space that allows us to recover from the human madness of busyness.

Autistic trauma peer support

In 2022 the Autistic Collaboration community is in the process of co-creating and operationalising peer support services for Autistic Trauma based on the lived experiences of Autistic people all over the world.

We invite our Autistic peers (you) to contribute lived experience to the Autistic trauma peer support project, as needed anonymously, so that we can co-create services around the diverse needs of Autistic communities.

From pseudo-philosophical psychiatrists to openly Autistic culture

Click your language to read:

English / Français / Español / Deutsch / 中文 / 日本語 / 한국어 / עברית / فارسی / العربية / русский / Azərbaycanca / Català / Česky / Eesti / Eλληνικά / Filipino / Indonesian / Íslenska / Italiano / Kurdí / Magyar / Nederlands / Polski / Português / Slovene / Suomi / Türkçe / Bosanski-Hrvatski-Srpski

The medical model in the diagnosis of Autistic people focuses entirely on the identification and “treatment” of symptoms, and fails to acknowledge the obvious underlying causes, i.e. the sources of trauma in industrialised societies, which are core features of the economic ideo-logic of “growth”, and which connect – via the red arrows in the diagram below, the dis-ease of Autistic people with the symptoms experienced:

  1. The mental and physical health impact of industrialisation in terms of sensory overload and commodification of human relationships.
  2. The W.E.I.R.D. social norms that present the hyper-competitive industrialised social operating model as a form of “progress”.
  3. Behaviourism: the pervasive use of coercive techniques for perpetuating W.E.I.R.D. social norms.
  4. The normalisation of social power gradients, to legitimise the use of coercive techniques and dehumanising treatments.
  5. The uncritical promotion of abstract group identities and “brands”, to make human behaviour more predictable and humans more exploitable in the name of abstract financial profit.

The cultural bias that is baked into the pathologising framing of the diagnostic process compounds the trauma and perpetuates internalised ableism.

Pseudo-philosophical psychiatrists

Recently I came across an introductory course for GPs. I took the time to take the course. Now I am educated in how to identify Autistic people with pathologising language and refer them to pathologising diagnosticians for further “assistance”. The framing and the pathologising language is quite problematic, as it reinforces the perception of parents that their child is defective / disordered / deficient, and then makes them receptive to the advertisements from the ABA industry.

We urgently need to educate healthcare professionals and the wider public about the neurodiversity paradigm, the neurodiversity movement, and Autistic culture.

In 2022 the Autistic Collaboration Trust is offering dedicated education courses specifically for clinicians and other healthcare professionals, especially for paediatricians and GPs, but also for physicians in various other specialised disciplines, to ensure that the preliminary screening and referral process is non-traumatising.

We are starting in Aotearoa New Zealand. If you would like to assist in extending the reach of these education courses, please get in touch.

The level of ignorance and hostility that Autistic people regularly have to deal with is nauseating. Here is a quote from a brand new book (2021!) by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist that gave me a migraine headache a few weeks ago:

“Tony Attwood, an acknowledged expert on the autistic spectrum, writes that there is a ‘quasi-philosophical quality’ to the autobiographies of adults with Asperger’s analysis’. What he is referring to is generally accepted to be an over-rationalistic, hyper-reflexive self-awareness, and a disengagement from emotion and embodied existence, which is very much in accord with my experience of looking after subjects on the autistic spectrum. Moreover, there is an abstract, quasi-philosophical mode of talking that is common in some kinds of schizophrenia, at first impressive, but ultimately recalcitrant to understanding; it is sometimes actually referred to as ‘pseudo-philosophical thought disorder’. Both autistic and schizophrenic individuals have an antipathy to what is embodied, uncertain and unknown (or unknowable), preferring what is abstract, certain and known, all of which is characteristic of the left hemisphere.”

This is an example of the double empathy problem in action. The unfamiliar Autistic mind is judged from the outside, neuronormative insistence on conformance is not viewed as rigid, but Autistic approaches to deal with/avoid sensory overload are interpreted as “an antipathy to what is embodied, uncertain and unknown”, and similarly, questioning established neuronormative cultural abstractions is viewed as “recalcitrant to understanding”. The “subjects on the autistic spectrum” don’t get a voice, and are replaced by “my [neuronormative] experience” from the outside.

How are Autistic people supposed to react when confronted with such nonsense in books from esteemed psychiatrists and in “diagnostic” interviews?

“Pseudophilosophical thought disorder”? I’d love to know, how many *real* philosophers this McGilchrist character has met…

The framing is especially hilarious if you consider the “reasoning” McGilchrist employs in the quoted passage above. There is a lot to be said for transdisciplinary reasoning, but in medicine some feel competent to do so in isolation, without involving those with deep knowledge of relevant domains. In this pathologising language an Autistic philosopher can only ever be a pseudo-philosopher.

I suspect within the archaic and paternalistic medical paradigm a non-pathologising psychiatrist runs the risk of being perceived as a pseudo-psychiatrist. Maybe that’s the core of the problem here.

I would suggest that McGilchrist is projecting his W.E.I.R.D. neuronormative psychiatric “pseudo-philosophical thought disorder” onto neurodivergent people. The neurodiversity paradigm is not mentioned once in 3,000 pages, nor the existence of Autistic culture. Neurodivergent people are presented as aberrations from a “normality” that reflects his own cultural bias.

This urgently needs to change. This is why I have written a book about the essential role of neurodivergent people in human cultural evolution over the last 300,000 years, and about the future of Autistic and neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration.

Another Autist quoting this book! And Tony Attwood. For my diagnosis with his mob at Mind’s and Hearts in Qld, I received an over 3 year sentence of trauma recovery when Michelle Garnett dismissed the original trauma evoked by the young psychologist who diagnosed me. I hasten to add I wasn’t charged for the induced trauma, just the Autism diagnosis. That was 2018 when I would have thought psychologists would be familiar with and compassionate with clients revealing a history of domestic and family violence. I was wrong.

Entire books could be written about the trauma induced by the so-called diagnostic process and by the pathologising language that forms the backbone of the DSM and the autism industrial complex.

I’m old enough to remember (nearly two decades ago now) when Autistics used to admire Tony Attwood… The honeymoon ended quickly — and very badly. Attwood needs to get it through his head that our divorce is final.

Twenty years ago Tony Attwood took initial steps towards depathologising Autistic people. Since then his work has shifted to a much more commercial focus. He is more focused on selling to parents than on helping Autists, and he regularly makes jokes at the expense of Autistic people. The language quoted above is in line with his style of joking and his way of appealing to parents and their “challenges”. I have never heard him apologise or take on board feedback from the Autistic community.

I’m an #ActuallyAutistic anthropologist who writes about challenging hegemony through writing an anthropology without positivistic conclusions- specifically dealing with embodiment in the world. Can’t believe this was written in 2021 and that we’re still being pathologized.

Openly Autistic culture

Since formal #ActuallyAutistic diagnosis / validation earlier this week, I’ve been having crazy rates of insight… how it’s not being broken but a different way of being. Such an immense relief. Thanks to everyone who sent this absolutely through the roof.

It’s always wonderful if someone did not have a pathologising and/or traumatic diagnostic experience. There is still a long way to go until positive experiences and especially adequately long-term supportive environments post-identification / diagnosis become the norm. The more visible the Autistic community, the easier it is to offer peer support.

The communal definition of autism is a living document that is maintained by the Autistic community. The current version represents a big step forward over the pathologising labels and descriptions that have been handed down to us from psychiatrists and psychologists with a full-blown god complex. But there is always room for further evolving our thinking and the foundations of Autistic culture.

Tania Melnyczuk proposes and asks:

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability—in other words, it’s about how our nervous system has developed from before we were born. We are different from most people in how we take in and process information, and how we think and move. This also affects how and what we communicate. Autism is an umbrella term: there’s a lot of variety among us. Most of us struggle if the environment isn’t ideal for our sensory and other information-processing differences. We generally have strong pattern-recognition, and some of us are good systems thinkers. Although many autistic people cannot rely on speech to communicate, most nonspeaking autists do not have an intellectual disability.

Now how do we make this short?

She also identified a gap relating to Autistic ways of movement:

The other is the introduction of the movement perspective, considering that this is a defining feature of autism for many nonspeaking autistic people. And there’s also an autistic micromovement signature which, with the right gadgets, could definitively give a YES or NO answer as to whether someone is autistic.

These are all very relevant points. It is worthwhile to reflect on these observations and think about how to best integrate them into the text. Tania and many others including myself also have concerns about the abstract singular term “autism”:

The one [change] is the possible introduction of the plural form, autisms.

I have increasingly been thinking about the very basic terminology. Many of us remember the discussions around the term “Aspergers” a few years ago. It is a positive development that this particular label is on the way out, but we still have “the autism spectrum” and “autism”, and I am not comfortable with either. A growing number of Autistic people are starting to recognise “being on the Spectrum” as being problematic. That’s encouraging. I banned that phrase from my active vocabulary a few years ago.

However, the number of people who have an issue with the term “autism” is (possibly?) still limited, even though most Autistic people do object to the person-first language of “with autism”. We are still left with an “autism” diagnosis, and quite a few also use phases like “my autism”. And there are probably more constellations with “autism” that are not top of mind for me because I don’t use them.

The use of plural (autisms) is a step in the right direction, but I am wondering how far we can make the entire abstract noun disappear by relying on the following words:

  • Autistic
  • Autistic person / Autist
  • Autistic ways/patterns of being/communication/collaboration/movement
  • Autistic community/communities
  • Autistic culture
  • etc.

Maybe we can also shift from “diagnosis” to the “identification of autistic ways of being”? I will review the current communal definition to see whether this is enough to make Autistic people and Autistic culture more visible and to make “autism” disappear.

The Communal Definition of Autism is communal. It could become the “definition of Autistic ways of being”. What do you think? What are your ideas?

Please send in ➜ your ideas for improvement and feedback. Please also see some of the earlier considerations and discussions that have shaped the current version.

Update: many thanks for the wonderfully encouraging and constructive feedback some of you have submitted. So far all suggestions are compatible with the intent of the outlined terminological changes, including the change in title, and the removal of the abstract noun “autism”. Some suggestions have also added precision by qualifying some statements in the definition. One person suggested we should consistently capitalise Autistic when discussing Autistic culture, in analogy to Deaf culture. I know that some of us are already doing this, and I would recommend that change.

I have integrated the changes into a draft communal definition of Autistic ways of being for the community to review. All changes are highlighted in orange, so you can see at a glance everything that has changed. Please add your feedback to that page, or use the embedded feedback form to communicate further ideas or to discuss draft ideas in private. If you endorse the suggested changes, please also comment or like the page, so that we can gauge the support.

I propose to leave the draft marked-up page in place throughout the month of January, so that we all have time to reflect further and tweak the new text as needed. In February we can then replace the old communal definition with the new one and mark up the old version as “superseded”, with a pointer to the new one.

Co-creation of openly Autistic culture

In co-creating Autistic culture we can put the Design Justice Network principles to good use. It is worthwhile to reflect how deeply entangled behaviourism is with European colonialism. In Aotearoa the European missionaries were surprised by the freedoms to explore and pursue intrinsic motivations enjoyed by Māori children. Most of this has been replaced by colonialism, Western “education” systems, the ideology of the invisible hand, intergenerational trauma, and institutionalised racism. In my work in the healthcare sector I also rely on the language of evolutionary design and related Māori design principles. Before European colonists arrived in Aotearoa, pathologising labels for neurodivergent people were unknown.

Other Autists are embarking on compatible paths:

Autistic authors co-create Autistic culture one publication at a time. A couple of days ago was the launch of my new book ‘The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale’.

All books featured by the Autistic Collaboration Trust are written by members members of the Autistic community and are considered to be contributions to Autistic culture. You are invited to read, contribute further books and recommendations, and offer feedback from your unique repository of lived experience.

I will never forget a very concerning incident of systemic marginalisation of Autistic people 15 years ago, within an organisation that was one of my clients. An Autistic person within my team was fired on the spot, without consulting with me or anyone else, without any explanation given, and escorted out of the building by two security guards – simply for being vocal about things that were in bad shape, and for moving and interacting in a uniquely Autistic way.

Neither autism awareness nor autism acceptance are adequate for preventing such incidents and other forms of discrimination and neglect from being considered acceptable. It is time for Autistic people to be appreciated as an essential part of the diversity of the human species. In March next year, as part of Weird Pride Day and Neurodiversity Celebration Week we are going to offer education in the neurodiversity paradigm, the neurodiversity movement, and Autistic culture.

We are going to advocate for openly Autistic culture in schools, universities, and in public libraries, amongst staff and students. In this context privileged Autistic people who can afford to be open about their identity have key roles to play to progress the neurodiversity movement.

Onwards: International panels on banning all forms of conversion therapies

Click your language to read:

English / Français / Español / Deutsch / 中文 / 日本語 / 한국어 / עברית / فارسی / العربية / русский / Azərbaycanca / Català / Česky / Eesti / Eλληνικά / Filipino / Indonesian / Íslenska / Italiano / Kurdí / Magyar / Nederlands / Polski / Português / Slovene / Suomi / Türkçe / Bosanski-Hrvatski-Srpski

This series of panel discussions is part of the global Ban Conversion Therapies project, which keeps track of all the bans of conversion therapies that are already in place and of all initiatives towards bans.

“Conversion therapies” are pseudoscientific practices of trying to change an individual’s behaviour to conform to the social expectations of a particular culture using psychological and physical interventions.

Various jurisdictions around the world have passed laws against LGTBQIA+ conversion therapy. However, the same underlying techniques of coercion continue to be applied to young autistic children and other vulnerable people.

We are building on the results achieved to date, focusing on the human rights violations in countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In September 2021 our submission to the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill in Aotearoa New Zealand was well received:

Dr Elizabeth Kerekere MP: It seems to me that communities/people with disabilities have been excluded from this bill. It seems that if you are prohibiting a practice, then we should prohibit it whoever it happens to, and I have certainly been approached by the members of the Autistic community and by other people, especially from the Deaf community, and people with other forms of disability, who have all had experiences of this. Have you thought about, if it is not this bill that can do that, where else this might sit, because we have concerns from people about intersex people, so on one level a bill should say whoever harm is being caused, whoever it happens to, that should be included, but separately from that, if we looking to do major change in the way the health system works, have you thought about other ways to make that change?

Jorn Bettin: We see this bill as a chance to make a start towards greater levels of inclusion, and what we are proposing in very concrete terms is that the bill can very easily be extended to include all neurodivergent people, not limited to autistic people. We realise that there is much more work that needs to be done, to actually at ground level effect those changes. We need to change the culture, to create a much more inclusive culture, because it is ultimately the life experience of neurodivergent people. Certainly from personal experience I can speak from an autistic perspective, society is traumatising us. We are being traumatised not because we are autistic, but it’s the way our society works, and the way society imposes constraints on autistic people that are incompatible with our humanity.

Vanushi Walters MP: Thank you Jorn again for your submission, but also for raising very valid concerns about the experiences of autistic people. And I think from my part the terminology of identity foreclosure isn’t one I’d heard before, and I think it has usefully lent to this discussion, but also probably other discussions that we may be having in the discrimination space, so thank you again.

You are invited to listen to our series of international panel discussions to progress towards comprehensive bans of all forms of conversion therapies (including ABA).

Background on the CRPD

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol (A/RES/61/106) was adopted on 13 December 2006 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and was opened for signature on 30 March 2007. There were 82 signatories to the Convention, 44 signatories to the Optional Protocol, and 1 ratification of the Convention. This is the highest number of signatories in history to a UN Convention on its opening day. It is the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century and is the first human rights convention to be open for signature by regional integration organizations. The Convention entered into force on 3 May 2008.

The Convention follows decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. It takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects”  of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society.

The Convention is intended as a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development dimension. It adopts a broad categorization of persons with disabilities and reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations have to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights and areas where their rights have been violated, and where protection of rights must be reinforced.

The Convention was negotiated during eight sessions of an Ad Hoc Committee of the General Assembly from 2002 to 2006, making it the fastest negotiated human rights treaty.

Further panels in 2022

We will host further panel discussions and coordinate between national campaigns in 2022 and beyond, until the human rights of autistic people (including protections from all forms of conversion therapies) are adequately supported by appropriate protocols in all countries that have signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Further questions to be explored in more detail:

  1. An overview of the PAABA, the ABAI’s neocolonialist venture into Africa.
  2. How do we run a parallel campaign to get people to voluntarily stop doing ABA before the ban happens?
  3. How do we engage respectfully with survivors, to not retraumatise them? Considering this is likely to be a harrowing period, but their stories count?

Panel 5 – December 2021

Date and time: 16 December 2021, 6 pm UTC
(1 pm EST / 10 am PST / 8 pm SAST / 9 pm EAT, 7 am NZDT)


  1. Tania Melnyczuk, Founder, Autistic Strategies Network, South Africa
  2. Karen Muriuki, Autistic Self Advocate, founder of Kenyans Living with Autism and a Bridge Kenya CRPD-SDGs fellow, Kenya
  3. Fiona Clarke, Autism consultant and disability activist, United Kingdom
  4. Kim Crawley, Cybersecurity researcher and writer, Hack The Box, Canada

Facilitator: Jorn Bettin, activist, Autistic Collaboration Trust, and knowledge archaeologist, S23M, Aotearoa

➜ Transcript

Questions discussed:

  1. Which national campaigns against ABA have already explicitly referenced specific clauses within the CRPD, and linked them to proposals for implementation within local legal and regulatory frameworks?
  2. How do we approach our governments? What are the correct steps? To what extent do we need to consider local variations in the approach to be successful?
  3. Who are our potential allies and what strategies we can use to engage them?

Panel 6 – December 2021

Date and time: 17 December 2021, 7 pm UTC
(2 pm EST / 11 am PST / 9 pm SAST / 10 pm EAT, 8 am NZDT)


  1. Tania Melnyczuk, Founder, Autistic Strategies Network, South Africa
  2. Quinn Dexter, Âû advocate, writer & YouTuber, Autistamatic, United Kingdom
  3. Seth Benjamin, Animator, Artist, Writer, United Kingdom
  4. Kim Crawley, Cybersecurity researcher and writer, Hack The Box, Canada

Facilitator: Jorn Bettin, activist, Autistic Collaboration Trust, and knowledge archaeologist, S23M, Aotearoa

Questions discussed:

  1. What role do you think ableism plays in the world of ABA and how does it influence our approach to a ban? Could ABA exist without ableism?
  2. Who are our potential allies and what strategies we can use to engage them?
  3. How do we engage respectfully with survivors, to not retraumatise them? Considering this is likely to be a harrowing period, but their stories count?

Recordings from earlier discussions

Overview of panel discussions to date and links to recordings:

  1. Alice Richardson, Jasper Poole, Naphaphol Suwanacheep
    ➜ transcript, 11 June 2021
  2. A.W. Peet , Kim Crawley, Star Ford, Tania MeInyczuk
    ➜ transcript, 9 June 2021
  3. Allison Hoffmann, Jake Pyne, Terra Vance, Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez
    ➜ transcript, 27 May 2021
  4. Alice Richardson, Kim Crawley, Laura Dilley, Pip Carroll, Rory
    ➜ transcript, 20 May 2021

In case you have not already done so, please sign the current petition to ask the Aotearoa New Zealand government to investigate the consequences of all forms of conversion therapy, including conversion therapies that target autistic children, which are often branded as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) or Positive Behaviour Support (PBS).

Note: all international support is welcome as well. Those who don’t reside in Aotearoa New Zealand can sign the petition with postcode “0000”. This allows us to easily distinguish the level of local support from international supporters.

Understanding human collective behaviour

Individually and collectively neuronormative humans are prone to developing a bias towards thinking they understand more than they actually do (Kruger and Dunning 1999), certainly in the context of modern industrialised societies that are built on the myth of meritocracy. The extreme global loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis, both triggered by collective human activity in the industrial era, confront us with the cognitive limits that are induced by the industrialised social operating models that have become the global norm over the last 50 years.

Autistic world views are influenced by an absence or a significantly reduced level of subconscious filtering of social information and by a heightened level of conscious processing of raw information signals from the environment. This raises the interesting question of what cultural shifts might improve our collective chances of dealing effectively with human-created existential crises.

In order to better understand not only current human collective behaviour, but also the collective potential of human imagination, and how this potential can either be dampened or amplified depending on the cultural norms and available thinking tools within specific social operating models, we need to study human collective behaviour from a transdisciplinary perspective, across the last 300,000 years, and across societies on all continents.

If I would have had access to some magical time machine for procuring books when I was a teenager, it would have spared me many surprises, and I might have been able to avoid a few detours on my journey through life to date. In the absence of such magic, I found myself having to write one of the books listed below.

The Dawn of Everything

David Graeber and David Wengrow, 2021

  • Perspective: anthropology and archaeology
  • Topic: examples of human cultural flexibility
  • Why it matters: re-expanding the sphere of discourse and regaining confidence in the possibilities of human imagination

The more we examine the anthropological and archaeological evidence, the more it becomes apparent that not only did hunter gatherers and early societies adapt to a diverse range of ecosystems, they also experimented with ‘a carnival parade of political forms’.

The cultivation of plants was often practised alongside hunting and gathering, the emergence of the first cities with several ten thousand inhabitants did not necessarily coincide with the establishment of rigid hierarchies of control, early farmers co-ordinated complex irrigation systems without any need for bureaucratic oversight, and oppressive societies often existed alongside societies that explicitly rejected all forms of permanent social power structures.

David Graeber and David Wengrow elaborate how schismogenesis, the process of differentiation in cultural norms resulting from cumulative interaction between societies, has shaped cultural developments in many geographies over hundreds and thousands of years.

They also point out that neurodivergent people have always contributed to human culture in unique ways. In healthy societies contributions from neurodivergent people were highly appreciated, in particular in times of crisis. When great calamities or unprecedented events occurred – a plague, a foreign invasion – a person who might otherwise have spent their life as something analogous to the village idiot would suddenly be found to have remarkable powers of foresight and persuasion; even to be capable of inspiring new social movements.

The Collapse of Complex Societies

Joseph Tainter, 1988

  • Perspective: history and anthropology
  • Topic: limits of hierarchical social operating models
  • Why it matters: understanding anti-patterns and traps of social operating models

The reason why complex societies disintegrate is of vital importance to every member of one, and today that includes the entire world population. Contemporary thinkers foresee collapse from such catastrophes as nuclear war, resource depletion, economic decline, ecological crises, or sociopolitical disintegration.

Human societies and political organisations, like all living systems, are maintained by a continuous flow of energy. From the simplest familial unit to the most complex regional hierarchy, the institutions and patterned interactions that comprise a human society are dependent on energy. Not only is energy flow required to maintain a sociopolitical system, but the amount of energy must be sufficient for the complexity of that system.

The declining marginal returns of hierarchical organisation and complex bureaucracies ultimately lead to social tensions that make it harder and harder to maintain established institutions, and the dampening of feedback loops in hierarchical organisations ultimately reduce collective intelligence to a point where collapse becomes inevitable.

Collapse is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity. To a population that is receiving little return on the cost of supporting complexity, the loss of that complexity brings economic, and perhaps administrative, gains. It may only be among those members of a society who have neither the opportunity nor the ability to produce primary food resources that the collapse of administrative hierarchies is a clear disaster. Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe. It is a rational, economising process that may well benefit much of the population.

A Field Guide to Earthlings

Star Ford, 2010

  • Perspective: autistic culture
  • Topic: patterns of neuronormative behaviour in industrialised societies
  • Why it matters: understanding the cognitive blind spots of neuronormative people in W.E.I.R.D. cultures

Autists carry around large numbers of open questions and only hold a relatively small number of firm beliefs – those 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. Social norms in modern industrialised societies have highly concerning effects on non-autistic people.

The manipulation of words becomes like an art form, instead of words being used to mean something specific. Neuronormative people can have trouble seeing or hearing things that they don’t already expect to see or hear, so new ideas can “fall on deaf ears.” It is not necessarily the case that they dislike new ideas; they might simply be unable to detect them because of symbolic filtering. The neuronormative mind is often not good at distinguishing appearances from the facts that underlie the appearances. To appear to do good is doing good. To claim that one is supportive is the same as being supportive. This is what sales people do a lot. The boundary to lying is fluid.

Minimising misunderstandings involves significant work on both sides and hinges on mutual respect and patience. Autistic people don’t intuitively engage in the verbal and non-verbal pretend play of understanding everything that is being said, which is the neuronormative norm in many industrialised societies.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale

Jorn Bettin, 2021

Perspective: neurodiversity movement and autistic culture

Topic: the role of neurodivergent people in cultural evolution

Why it matters: maximising the potential of human imagination within the constraints imposed by human cognitive limits

This book is about collaboration, about scale, and about humans, about beauty, and about limits. It has been written from my perspective as an autistic anthropologist by birth and a knowledge archaeologist by autodidactic training. I attempt to address the challenges of ethics and collective intelligence in an era that 21st century geologists refer to as the Anthropocene.

Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, small groups of 20 to 100 people are the primary organisms within human society. The implications for our civilisation are profound. Humanity is experiencing a phase transition that is catalysed by a combination of new communication technologies, toxic levels of social inequalities, and existential crises. It is time to reflect critically on the human evolutionary journey and on the possibilities and limitations of human agency.

I would like to equip communities and individuals with conceptual tools to create good companies that are capable of pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world. 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 and collaborate accordingly.

Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics may allow us to avoid the fate of earlier civilisations, and to embark on a path of radical energy descent.


Rupa Marya and Raj Patel, 2021

Perspective: medicine and colonialised societies

Topic: the links between health and structural injustices

Why it matters: systemic violence of industrialised colonialism affects human and non-human health at all levels of scale – right through to the microbiomes within our bodies

When a group of physicians was polled, only 36 percent asked for an agenda from a patient, and the median time before interrupting the patient was only eleven seconds. Listening requires humility, to acknowledge a state of not knowing. To listen is to inhale and create the delicate space for stories. Learning to listen must be the work of settlers on colonized land, of modern societies that treat the Earth as a thing to be exploited, and of health care workers, as we increasingly encounter existential threats from forest fires, pandemics, catastrophic floods, and global warming—all signs that we are critically out of balance.

If the imaginative work of creating new worlds feels difficult and overwhelming to you, that’s because it is. The world we live in makes such ideas feel wrong, abnormal, deviant, and sick. Colonialism wants you to feel powerless and alone. Systems that position humans as supreme over the entire web of life, settler over Indigenous, a singular religion over all other worldviews, male over female and nonbinary understandings of gender, white over every other shade of skin—these must be dismantled and composted.

The problem is when inclusion becomes enclosure—when the radically transformative projects, theories, and futures led by Indigenous and poor people are sterilized by neoliberalism, and when the language and other signifiers of revolution are co-opted. For those living in settler societies, the work of being in solidarity specifically with Indigenous-led movements is particularly critical. Forging new forms of solidarity is not easy. It requires abandoning colonial ties and creating new relations with other fugitives. Reconnecting relations that colonialism sundered is simultaneously a personal and political project. Colonialism reproduces itself through a hegemony that has been widely internalized.

Carers have been doing the work of decolonization around the world. In the nursing profession, there is a growing debate about the need to recognize the damage that settler colonialism has caused. Concrete actions of solidarity, from organizational critique of the health care system to radical listening for new knowledge, are both new to the field of nursing, and ancient wisdom. In Maori, it’s “Ka mua, Ka muri”; in Hawai’i, it’s “Ka Wā Ma Mua, Ka Wā Ma Hope.” In English, it’s “walking backwards into the future.”


Imagine what would become possible if the outlined scope would form the backbone of the curriculum in communal education / exploration systems that prepare our children for nurturing and maintaining ecologies of care. The bigger challenge ahead lies in paving the path – finding ways of healing all the traumatised “adults” who have been stripped of their imagination.

The continuously shifting justifications for pathologising non-conformists

Recently I have come across a treasure trove of interesting references on the continuously shifting justifications for pathologising autistic people and all those who are not culturally well-adjusted to “civilisation”. I’m bound to weave in a few references into the book on collaboration at human scale before publication. Following the trail of where Hans Asperger picked up the term “autism” I ended up reading a fascinating 1919 German book by Eugen Bleuler titled ‘Autistic and undisciplined thinking in medicine, and how to overcome it’. The content is not at all what you would think. The sands of pathologisation have shifted significantly. Unsurprisingly there are not many references to Eugen Bleuler’s work in the English medical literature. His original work is not even available in English. But I found a few articles and abstracts. The essence is distilled below. 

Here is an extract from a 2013 article by Bonnie Evans titled How autism became autism, on the continuously shifting justifications for pathologising autistic people and all those who are not culturally well-adjusted to “civilisation”:

The concept of autism was coined in 1911 by the German psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler to describe a symptom of the most severe cases of schizophrenia, a concept he had also created. According to Bleuler, autistic thinking was characterized by infantile wishes to avoid unsatisfying realities and replace them with fantasies and hallucinations. ‘Autism’ defined the subject’s symbolic ‘inner life’ and was not readily accessible to observers (Bleuler, 1950[1911]: 63). Psychologists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists in Britain used the word autism with this meaning throughout the 1920s and up until to the 1950s (e.g. Piaget, 1923). However, in the 1960s, many British child psychologists challenged the contentions about infantile thought assumed by Bleuler and created new methods to validate child psychology as a science, in particular epidemiological studies. ‘Autism’ was then completely reformulated as a new descriptive category to serve the needs of this new model of child development. From the mid-1960s onwards, child psychologists used the word ‘autism’ to describe the exact opposite of what it had meant up until that time. Whereas ‘autism’ in the 1950s referred to excessive hallucinations and fantasy in infants, ‘autism’ in the 1970s referred to a complete lack of an unconscious symbolic life. For example, Michael Rutter, a leading child-psychiatric researcher from the UK’s Maudsley Hospital who conducted the first-ever genetic study of autism, claimed in 1972 that ‘the autistic child has a deficiency of fantasy rather than an excess’ (Rutter, 1972: 327). The meaning of the word autism was then radically reformulated from a description of someone who fantasized excessively to one who did not fantasize at all.

This article traces this radical transformation of the concept of autism in Britain, exploring the reasons behind the shift and the impact that it has had on psychological sciences relating to infants and children. It argues that the change in the meaning of autism was part of a more general shift in Anglo-American psychiatric reasoning which sought to understand psychological problems through epidemiological studies rather than individual cases. The introduction of psychiatric classificatory models has previously been explored in relation to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), in particular the introduction of DSM-III in 1980 (Grob, 1991; Mayes and Horowitz, 2005; Wilson, 1993). However, few people have explored this in relation to child psychology and psychiatry. This article examines the way that epidemiological methods shifted and morphed central concepts in these fields, in particular the concept of autism. It argues that the diagnostic practices required of psychiatric epidemiology in the 1960s continue to influence contemporary theories and descriptions of autism in Britain.

This is about as much as is available about Eugen Bleuler’s work in English. To really appreciate his perspective and his use of the term “autistic”, it is necessary to be aware of his in-depth critical analysis of the foundations of the medical profession. From an English abstract of Bleuler’s book on Autistic and undisciplined thinking in medicine, and how to overcome it’:

The famous Swiss psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler (figure 1), is well known for his seminal work on psychosis, for having coined the term ‘schizophrenia’ and for his disputes about psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud. Less known is the fact that Bleuler was a harsh critic of many of the methods and practices of his colleagues. In a small book, first issued in 1919, when he was 61 years old, he castigated many of his contemporaries for sloppy thinking and poor methods, both in medical practice and research.

The title of the book sounds too good in German not to quote it fully: Das Autistisch-Undisziplinierte Denken in der Medizin und seine Überwindung. This provocative title can be translated as Autistic and undisciplined thinking in medicine, and how to overcome it. In the first chapter, Bleuler asserts that many of the cognitive habits of doctors can be compared with what he observed in his patients: a magical way of thinking, more aimed at the fulfilment of wishes and hopes than reflecting and analysing reality: hence ‘autistic thinking’. According to Bleuler, this pathological cognitive style is paramount in medicine, far more than in other sciences. He explains this by the complexity and obscurity of most medical knowledge, in combination with the need to defy sickness and death. The combination of our limited knowledge and the need to act causes what he calls ‘Primitivreaktionen’. These are a form of cognitive reflexes, based on tradition and habits, which create the illusion in both doctors and their patients that something useful is done.

Bleuler was of the opinion that autistic thinking pervades all areas of medicine, but especially prevention and treatment. He gives numerous examples of popular treatments in his time that were ineffective or even dangerous, such as electrotherapy, hydrotherapy and many dietary remedies. One only has to visit one of the historic European spas to get an impression of the popularity of water treatments around the fin de siècle and later. Bleuler observed that the efficacy of these treatments is unproven and probably non-existent. It would often be better to do nothing at all, instead of prescribing worthless remedies. Moreover, many ailments recover spontaneously. Even a seemingly harmless treatment, which many might now accept for its placebo effect, can have adverse effects, according to Bleuler: it may reinforce the conviction of the patient that he is really ill and even impede recovery. To give his policy of doing nothing the same dignity as the popular remedies with their ostentatious names, he—jokingly—proposes the term ‘udenotherapy’, which literally means ‘non-treatment’ (from the Greek ‘ouden’, nothing).

In the realm of pharmacological treatments the situation was not much better. Bleuler had little confidence in the methods used to develop drugs, which he summarised as follows: when a new substance is believed to have therapeutic properties, it is tested on a couple of animals or humans, and “in the great majority of these experiments nobody is killed”. Usually the drug is targeted at a condition with a benign natural course, or one that is easily influenced by suggestion. The doctor who discovered the drug believes in its beneficial effects, which strongly biases his observations. The outcomes of therapeutic experiments are usually caused by a play of chance, and only the favourable results are published, not the negative ones. Controlled experiments are rarely done and, if they are, the results are unreliable because the control patients differ from the treated ones. The next step is to print a glamorous brochure and offer free samples of the drug, so doctors can see for themselves how well it works in practice.

After his analysis of the dismal state of affairs in medical research and practice, Bleuler proposes a number of measures to improve the quality of medical research, which he called Forderungen für die Zukunft (requirements for the future). Some of these ideas had already been developed long before, by the French pioneers Louis and Gavarret, but he was not aware of their publications. For Gavarret, this was not unusual since even the renowned British statistician Greenwood (1880–1949) did not know the work of Gavarret. Bleulers’ proposals show some of his surprisingly modern insights. First he demanded that, in order to examine the efficacy of any treatment, it is essential to compare the results in two groups of patients who are as similar as possible in all aspects except the treatment. To achieve this he proposed alternating assignment of patients to treatment A or treatment B (or nothing). He did not come across the idea of randomisation, which had to wait for Ronald A Fisher, who described it in 1935 in his legendary book The design of experiments. Bleuler stresses the need to examine sufficiently large groups to avoid chance results. Also, he recommended that “for almost all conclusions the degree of their probability should be determined, if possible expressed in numbers”. He regarded so called negative results as at least as important as positive findings: “for science, there are no negative results”. They should be published in a registry, so that everyone can have access to all data. This should also help to counteract the tendency to try and find positive results at all cost, which he regarded as “a practice that results in much pointless labour and many false results”. This issue has later been elaborated by John Ioannidis in his influential paper ‘Why most published research findings are false’ (2005).

Bleuler aimed his criticism not only at the poor state of medical research and practice, he also had recommendations for journal editors and medical teachers. Medical publications should be concise, with a summary and a numbered list of references. Now commonplace, but in 1919 revolutionary, and much needed. As to medical education, he advised that medical students should receive at least some instruction in medical psychology and ethics. He strongly condemned the practice of medical professors lecturing their students ad nauseam without getting any kind of feedback (“a completely perfidious, autistic institution”). This was truly revolutionary in the authoritarian teaching culture at that time.

This brief summary of Bleulers’ insights shows that he was far ahead of many of his contemporaries. His proposals to improve medical research and practice laid out a programme that was only realised slowly during the decades after the Second World War. Many pioneers after him, such as Alvan Feinstein, David Sackett and Archie Cochrane, came to similar conclusions, and formulated the programme which we now call ‘evidence based medicine’, a term coined by Gordon Gyatt somewhere in 1990. Re-reading of Bleulers’ remarkable book shows his farsighted analysis of the many shortcomings of medical science and practice in 1919, and the effective remedies he proposed. His name should be enlisted in the hall of fame as one of the true pioneers of evidence based medicine.

The scientific basis of the medical profession is mostly limited to correlations. Often causal understanding is lacking due to the quasi-infinite constellations and psychosocial factors that can cause human dis-ease. Even Bleuler, with his astute observations on the medical profession and his scathing critique of big pharma more than 100 years ago, was a product of his time. Like most of his contemporaries he was an advocate of eugenics (sterilisation) when it came to “mentally diseased” people.

The introduction of “evidence based” approaches was very much a double-edged sword. Most people confuse being able to mechanically use an evidence based model with understanding the model, all the underlying assumptions, and the limitations, resulting in the pseudo-science of behaviourism and in sensationalist “autism research” that only serves the commercial interests of the autism industrial complex.

Like copy and paste coders in software, social scientists and medical researchers work with implicit assumptions all the time, without necessarily worrying much about it. The muddling, i.e. the use of models without explanatory powers, has only gotten worse in the age of artificially intelligent systems, where every man, women and dog is tinkering with digital correlation maps, believing that this will result in exponential post-human “progress”.

Anyone who suspects being autistic is well advised to learn about autistic culture and autistic ways of being from autistic people. We really don’t need any gatekeepers, and even less people who attempt to “help” us by “normalising” us.

Good company in an era of peak cognitive dissonance

I prefer to co-create good company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy. Often this is easier said than done, as we live in an era of extreme cognitive dissonance.

This article describes common symptoms of collective cognitive dissonance in industrialised societies, and it points towards tools for reducing cognitive dissonance. From an autistic perspective the dissonance manifests not in terms of contradictory beliefs, but in terms of complete alienation from the mainstream culture in industrialised societies. Most of the so-called foundations of our civilisation amount to a delusional level of wishful thinking. Our society is locked into paradigmatic inertia by fear and busyness.


A few years ago I facilitated a workshop on Anthropocentrism. Participants discussed the way we perceive and experience the civilised world  in comparison to the way in which pre-historic humans perceived the world. Today, with the help of modern communication technologies, the world we experience is more and more social and less and less non-human. Unless we scale back our use of communication technologies or we develop powerful technologies for perceiving the state of the non-human environment in ways that capture our attention as much as social signals, we become increasingly numb to the effect that we are collectively having on the biosphere.

Anthropocentrism is currently shaping our world view, and thereby leading us further and further into a world in which human ignorance, human errors, and human cognitive limits are capable of not only triggering the extinction of the human species, but also into a world where anything that is non-human or not human made is perceived either as worthless or as a threat.

The wishful thinking of enlightened or green capitalism

Those who put their hopes on enlightened or green forms of capitalism fail to understand basic principles of biological and cultural co-evolution. Biological, neurological, and cultural diversity are the evolutionary forces that have enabled humans to adapt to and thrive within dynamic environments – better than many other species. Enlightened capitalists easily underestimate the human capacity for altruism, intrinsic motivation, and mutual aid, and at the same time they overestimate the human cognitive capacity to understand and control complex dynamic systems. Human social, ecological, and individual behaviour is shaped to a large extent by internalised local cultural norms. There is nothing that somehow makes internalised norms relating to capitalism superior to other possible local arrangements.

The belief in the magic of the invisible hand is an ideology that confuses the energy and resources spent on direct competition with a positive evolutionary force. As a result, all forms of capitalism optimise for maximum busyness, i.e. maximum (mis)use of time, energy and resources. The fiction of homo economicus manifests itself in the belief in the need for external incentives and coercion.

Humans have a limited capacity for attention. Shifting the focus of busyness growth into the digital and social realm only further alienates us from our ecological context, and is not a viable strategy for perpetuating the delusion of infinite growth on a finite planet. Furthermore, the competitive ideology that underpins the growth imperative has led to a devaluation of all forms of physical labour and care work that does not or that should not involve social competition.

The mutual distrust that is created via a competitive labour markets reduces the human capacity for communication and shared understanding into a capacity for deception and direct social competition, distracting from the goal of delivering services and outcomes that are beneficial for wider society.

An ideological bias towards market based “solutions” obscures institutional problems. 250 years of industrialised civilisation have impaired our ability to understand and navigate the world in terms of trusted relationships. The climate of fear in an atomised society has shrunk the sphere of discourse to the point where the existence of most institutions is no longer questioned. All potential institutional problems are assumed to be addressable by adding further complexity to established institutions or by complementing established institutions with further institutions.

Myopic focus on individual mental health

In industrialised societies the topic of mental health is conceptualised as a concern pertaining to individuals, and accordingly, treatment is focused on identifiable symptoms at the individual level, and this in turn is reflected in the diagnostic and treatment manuals used by psychiatrists and psychologists. Our society pretends that relational problems between people can be broken down into individualised components of mental and physical health, and that these can be treated separately.

Furthermore mainstream healthcare systems treat social determinants (poverty, quality of housing, access to healthy food, local levels of inequality, etc.) as a secondary concern, resulting in a never-ending stream of mental health problems.

By design the established reactive and social context-blind paradigm of healthcare delivery creates incentives for maximising the funding that flows into the treatment of symptoms, and it minimises the funding available for a proactive and social context-aware approach. Also by design, systemic problems are delegated to the realm of politics. The lack of a holistic transdisciplinary approach creates an artificial barrier that isolates political discourse from the potential mental health impacts of policy decisions.

The topic of mental health is further complicated by a profound lack of understanding of neurodiversity across all the many disciplinary silos within the healthcare system:

  • Often mental health problems are not understood as inevitable downstream effects of a society that systematically discriminates against autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.
  • Many physical health problems are not identified as the stress responses of socially marginalised people, a problem that is compounded for hyper-sensitive autistic people who are marginalised along other dimensions as well – ethnicity, lack of access to trusted peers, lack of access to autistic healthcare professionals, etc.
  • The level of stigma associated with neurodivergence (in particular open displays of autistic culture) within the healthcare sector not only perpetuates the harm done by the pathology paradigm to patients, it also means that virtually all autistic (and many otherwise neurodivergent) healthcare professionals remain undercover, and are unable to assist neurodivergent patients and peers who are being discriminated against.
  • Furthermore, the manifestation of neurodivergence is dynamic, and the stress responses to sensory or social overload may change over time, in ways that are individually unique.
  • Post viral syndromes represent forms of neurodivergence that so far have received little attention within the neurodiversity movement. The COVID-19 pandemic has started to bring this topic into focus. In terms of the many potential triggers of sensory overload, post viral syndromes overlap with common autistic hypersensitivities.

Culturally prescribed cognitive dissonance

As I have described in-depth in earlier articles, W.E.I.R.D. societies systematically pathologise all those who are not fully “functional” and “culturally well adjusted” machines within the factory model of society.

The 10 W.E.I.R.D. axioms of the pathology paradigm:

  1. The W.E.I.R.D. social game is the pinnacle of “civilisation” achieved so far.
  2. The arrow of “progress” is advanced by playing the social game.
  3. The “purpose” of society is to perpetuate the social game.
  4. Every human who knows how and is willing to play the W.E.I.R.D. social game is equipped for a happy and “successful” life.
  5. Addressing individual “functional deficits” in relation to W.E.I.R.D. norms are the key to a healthy society.
  6. Non-W.E.I.R.D.-compliant notions of a fulfilled life are irrelevant and represent a threat to the “normal functioning” of society.
  7. Individuals with “functional deficits” must be grateful for all services and assistance that is made available to improve their level of “functioning”.
  8. Individuals with “spiky skills profiles” must be grateful for all “opportunities” to contribute to the social game.
  9. Individuals with “functional deficits”, and especially those who question the value of the social game, clearly “don’t understand the bigger picture”, can’t possibly have anything of value to contribute to society.
  10. The W.E.I.R.D. social game reflects the axioms of human nature, and researchers can safely assume the W.E.I.R.D. axioms to be true when designing research experiments, when conducting experiments, when designing and running computer simulations of collective human social behaviour, and when interpreting research results.

Cultural deficits

A society that systematically desensitises all its people to social inequality and that instead celebrates individual success based on material wealth and social vanity metrics creates a sick social environment that disables society as a whole.

The extreme harm caused is visible to anyone who is able to acknowledge the level of cognitive dissonance that constitutes the foundation of industrialised civilisation:

  • Our inability to adapt to environmental changes in a timely manner
  • Our inability to extend trust to others or to other groups
  • Our inability to understand each other
  • Our inability to meet basic human social needs

Cultural evolution

The following presentation from the ISC 2021 Summer School on Cognitive Challenges of Climate Change by William Rees, a co-inventor of the ecological footprint concept, offers a good summary of the current human cultural predicament in terms of where we are, but without any hint of how we might be able to to overcome paradigmatic inertia.

Other presentations from the same series offer a few clues, in terms of starting to do less by consciously reducing the complexity of design in our physical and social environments, via coordinated activism, and by empowering locally communities to define locally relevant multi-dimensional metrics of wellbeing.

Given the cognitive dissonance that characterises normality in industrialised societies, it is not surprising that none of these otherwise excellent presentations on cognitive challenges related to climate change examine the role of neurodiversity and autistic cognition in cultural evolution.

Autistic people don’t play social games, instead we actively resist them. We are primarily guided by our moral principles and are less prone to being corrupted by monetary rewards. And for this we are pathologised and vilified. It is not an accident that Greta Thunberg is autistic. A growing literature suggests that autists display reduced susceptibility to cognitive biases and exhibit more rational and bias-free processing of information. The enhanced rationality of autistic people has valuable implications for the understanding of human rationality and for understanding the role of neurodiversity in cultural evolution.

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.

Neurological and cultural diversity is the reservoir of imagination of the human species. In a time of existential crises the collective creative potential of neurodivergent people and marginalised cultures has become more important than ever. It is well known that all major social change originates on the margins of society. We have to realise that in our hypernormalised global consumer culture transformational change can only emanate from indigenous cultures, from marginalised and sometimes criminalised groups, and from pathologised neurodivergent people.

The implications for co-creating good company are profound. Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics may allow us to avoid the fate of earlier civilisations, and to embark on a path of radical energy descent.

In my book on the beauty of collaboration at human scale I trace the journey of cultural evolution from the origins of humans right up to the latest significant developments in the early 21st century – including the role that autistic people have played and will continue to play in this context. 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 and collaborate accordingly.

Countdown towards a ban of all forms of conversion therapy

Today we have presented our submission to the government’s Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill.

From today we will will start counting the days until all forms of conversion therapies are banned in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our hope is that this page will only need to be appended a few times with further activities to remind the government of its commitment to banning conversion practices and of its commitment to human rights, including all the rights articulated in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which our government has ratified in 2008.


Include all Conversion Therapies in Legislative Ban

Media release: 7 September 2021

Include all conversion therapies in legislative ban, says autistic community

Although the government’s Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill is welcome progress, it should be extended to ban all conversion therapy in Aotearoa New Zealand, say members of the autistic community.

In a submission to the Justice Select Committee, members from New Zealand autistic community groups say while they fully supported a ban on conversion practices targeting sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, protections should be extended to include all New Zealanders subject to these practices, especially neuro-diverse communities among whom conversion therapies also cause considerable harm.

The submission, prepared by Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga o Aotearoa (, an initiative of the Autistic Collaboration Trust (, notes that a significant population being treated by such therapies in Aotearoa New Zealand today is autistic children. Conversion therapies remain widely used to try to radically modify the behaviour of autistic children and to deny autistic coping mechanisms for sensory overload.

The Bill as drafted proposes to outlaw Conversion Therapy as it relates to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

This form of conversion therapy is, historically, a by-product of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) from the United States, which was developed using experiments on autistic children. Its pioneers also claimed it might ‘cure’ ‘heteronormative deviance’ (homosexuality being a psychological disorder in medical literature until the mid-1970s) – a claim this Bill acknowledges ought to become criminal.

Although progress has been made around the world outlawing Gay Conversion Therapy, ABA continues to be practised as a treatment in Aotearoa New Zealand for autistic people, especially children, despite the harm it produces.

Co-author of the submission, Jorn Bettin, says the autistic community welcomes the protections in the Bill for the Rainbow community, but is urging Parliament to be more inclusive. A more complete definition of conversion therapy would extend protections being advanced for Rainbow communities to neuro-diverse communities that continue to endure significant harm from these practices.

“The Bill’s current definition of Conversion Therapy offers no protection for members of the neuro-diverse community, particularly autistic children, who are regularly subject to these horrendous practices,” said Jorn Bettin.

Of particular concern was that the ABA industry was promoting these therapies for younger and younger children – the notion of ‘early intervention’.

“Consider the impact of ABA practices on young neuro-divergent children. They’re being taught very early that they aren’t normal and they need to be ‘corrected’ or ‘cured’ of something that actually isn’t an abnormality or disease, but rather is simply part of their identity due to their neurological make-up,” said Jorn Bettin.

“This is an opportunity for Parliament to take a lead and include protections for all New Zealanders, including neuro-diverse communities.”

Co-author Alice Richardson said the submission summarised research in the field, showing how these conversion therapies are applied to autistic people, and these therapies are not merely ineffectual, but also extremely harmful. These therapies were a contributor to the poor mental health outcomes for neuro-diverse communities, including higher rates of suicide.

“Almost half of autistic people subjected to these therapies develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” she said. “Mental health outcomes among neuro-diverse communities reflect the trauma of these therapies.

“We know the government is focused on improving mental health outcomes,” said Jorn Bettin. “Expanding this Bill to address all conversion therapies not just Gay Conversion Therapy offers a strategic opportunity to address the serious mental health challenges faced by a great many neuro-divergent New Zealanders.”

He said the autistic community’s desire to expand the scope of protection in the Bill sought in no way to take away from the need to protect the Rainbow community from Gay Conversion Therapy, a move the autistic community fully supported.

The submission

Related educational videos

Short (7 minutes):

Detailed (18 minutes):

Contact and further information

Email (, Tel (+64 223 423 209)

The Autistic Collaboration Trust ( acts as a global hub for mutual support, and encourages neurodivergent individuals and ventures to connect and establish long-term collaborations. The Autistic Collaboration Trust is incorporated as a charitable trust in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our board of trustees and our advisory board consists exclusively of people who openly identify as autistic.

Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga o Aotearoa offers education about autistic culture from a first hand perspective and it provides a safe environment where parents, educators, and employers can connect with autistic parents and the wider autistic community. The autistic community members who are curating and jointly developing the educational material and services featured on, the website of the New Zealand Autistic Community, are involved in the neurodiversity movement.

The purpose of human cultures

Click your language to read:

English / Français / Español / Deutsch / 中文 / 日本語 / 한국어 / עברית / فارسی / العربية / русский / Azərbaycanca / Català / Česky / Eesti / Eλληνικά / Filipino / Indonesian / Íslenska / Italiano / Kurdí / Magyar / Nederlands / Polski / Português / Slovene / Suomi / Türkçe / Bosanski-Hrvatski-Srpski

Photo by Yogendra Singh on Unsplash

To appreciate what makes human cultures unique, and to understand the primary purpose of symbolic (spoken) human language, an obvious starting point is a comparison of basic parameters with the cultures of other primates, our closest living relatives:

Chimpanzees live in large groups of 30 to up to 150 individuals called “communities”. Within these groups are fluid, often changing sub-groups of friends and family.

The social structure is sometimes referred to as a “fission-fusion” society.

These groups may socialize at a watering hole and then break up into any number of smaller units to forage, reconvene in the afternoon, break up when its time to bed down, etc

The group usually has one or two dominant males, who gain their leadership through sometimes very violent displays and fights between rivals. Males will “display” by screaming and running through the forest grabbing sticks to strike the ground or the trees with, throwing rocks, and rattling bushes.

Extract from:

Bonobos are highly intelligent, extremely social great apes. They live in very cooperative and peaceful groups, known as troops, with as many as 70 members, but 15 to 30 is most common. Their fluid social structure is known as fission-fusion, which means they may come together in various sized groups, or separate for different activities, different times of year, and depending on who is available to “hang out” with. Just as we do.

Extract from:

The troops are typically composed of 2 to 30 members; from which 1 to 4 are male adults, and the rest are blackbacks, adult females, and their offspring. Groups of western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) appear to be smaller: up to 5 individuals. Their composition varies over time due to events like the death of the young and the migration of individuals when they reach sexual maturity. In average, groups have between 2 and 12 members and move around an area of 4 to 25 square kilometers.

Extract from:

Human culture

In contrast to the myths about human nature that power civilisations, human babies are naturally inclined to help strangers, without any need for coercion or external incentives.

Michael Tomasello has spent many years working with children and with chimpanzees to understand the evolution of collaborative behaviour, and to explore how human behaviour differs from the behaviour of other primates. A range of simple experiments show that in contrast to chimpanzees, human babies and young human children are highly collaborative, which may come as a surprise to many economists.

The innate collaborative human tendency is also supported by anthropological research. Samuel Bowles is an economist who has spent his career researching the origins of economic inequality over the last 100,000 years, and he comes to very interesting conclusions. For several hundred thousand years humans lived in small groups without written language, money, and cities. The archaeological evidence available and also the evidence from “uncivilised” indigenous cultures that have survived until recently in a few remote places point towards an interesting commonality in the social norms of such societies:

The strongest social norms in pre-civilised societies were norms that prevented individuals from gaining power over others.

The evolution of human language went hand in hand with the evolution of cultures that deviated from the cultures found in other primate societies in terms of a much greater emphasis on fairness and collaboration. We have to conclude that the primary purpose and function of human language was associated with:

  1. Coordinating activities within a group
  2. Transmitting valuable knowledge and new discoveries with others and future generations
  3. Developing and agreeing fairness norms that are adapted to the specific local context at hand
  4. Minimising the time and energy spent in conflicts, and freeing up time refining the above activities

The evolution of symbolic spoken language and cultural transmission based on language can be understood as an energy and resource saving tool. Humans out-collaborated rather than out-competed other primates. The primary purpose of human culture is related to collaboration within groups and between groups.

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

– David Sloan Wilson and Edward O Wilson (2007)

Human neurodiversity

To understand human creativity and collective intelligence beyond the most basic forms of collaboration, we must look beyond the experiments conducted by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues. To appreciate the full range of human collaborative ability we need to consider the influence of individual neurological variability on sensory processing and social motivations.

To date the vast majority of anthropological research ignores the role of neurological diversity in shaping human societies. Social scientists routinely assume neurotypical social motivations when observing and interpreting human behaviours. Taking into account that neurodivergent and especially autistic people may not at all be interested in prestige in the sense of social status, but are rather motivated by a strong sense of curiosity and individual agency, allows for a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of human cultures.

Even in pre-historic times, the curiosity and unusual sensory abilities of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent individuals will have resulted in deep domain specific knowledge and related specialised skills. Some of the acquired knowledge and skills would have been valuable to society and would have attracted the attention of others.

Neurodivergent individuals will likely have been recognised as trustworthy carriers of valuable knowledge and competencies, the easily transferable parts of which will then have been preserved and propagated to others and future generations via cultural transmission. In the absence of written language the knowledge transmission process involved all senses and intensive interaction between recognised masters of a craft and motivated novices.

Given the neurotypical human tendency for over-imitation, any fairness norms invented by trustworthy autistic carriers of valuable knowledge will easily have been absorbed into the cultural repertoire of the group.

The combination of neurodiversity and the human capacities for collaboration and cultural transmission enabled humans to thrive for many hundred thousand years in a diverse range of circumstances. Pre-civilised societies clearly appreciated the talents of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, and they would undoubtedly have been aware of the value of having a diversity of talents and unique cognitive abilities (and limitations) within a group.

Cultural diversity at human scale

The limits of human scale groups, the capacity for cultural evolution, and the resultant cultural diversity are best appreciated as the most valuable and unique species level survival advantage of humans over all other primate species. Human societies that operate at human scales are highly resilient and adaptive. Bands of hunter gatherers could rely on the human capacity for flexible cooperation and collective intelligence that is unlocked by egalitarian social norms within small groups.

Beyond group size, human scale is characterised by limits of the collective environmental footprint, and by limits of the amounts of material possessions imposed by the demands of a nomadic way of life. It took several hundred thousand years for humans to encounter circumstances that catalysed the formation of larger groups. The limits of human scale could only be surpassed by a combination of inventions:

  1. Agriculture to increase the food calorie yield per unit of land
  2. Social arrangements for maintaining and defending permanent settlements
  3. Reliable record keeping systems of debt (who owes what to whom)

On the one hand these inventions in combination with a super-human-scale group size provided a group with a local advantage over other groups. On the other hand permanent settlements and reliance on agriculture also made the group more vulnerable to the impact of infectious diseases, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. This may explain why mobile and egalitarian hunter gatherer societies dominated for such a long time, and why some hunter gatherer societies have survived until very recently.

As humanity is approaching existential risks in the 21st century, we are well advised to carefully study the advantages that are available at human scale and to critically examine all the inevitable drawbacks that kick in when societies exceed the limits of human scale.

Some of the drawbacks such as the brittleness and vulnerabilities of technological monocultures are becoming more apparent in a world that is globally connected via digital networks.

Homo ecologus

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, we have created a global network for sharing valuable knowledge, as well as opinions 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 profit maximisation and back towards sharing knowledge for collective benefit. It is fascinating to notice that SARS-CoV-2 has very rapidly induced cultural changes that affect the foundations of civilisation:

  1. Cities – explicitly designed to facilitate rapid sequences of human interactions in anonymous contexts, have been forced to adopt and enforce rules for physical distancing and limiting social interaction.
  2. Money – when used as a tool to protect social power gradients and profits, now has become a negative indicator that signals a lack of trustworthiness.
  3. Written language – when used as a tool for propaganda and distortion, now contributes to the spread of the virus, and yet can play a critical role when used for sharing valuable knowledge.

It is clear that the future of human societies now critically depends on cultural evolution of these foundations.

It is about much more than overcoming neoliberalism or changing out a few technologies (even if both steps are necessary). It is about a transformation that reaches right down to the foundations of our civilization. The question is not whether such a transformation will take place – it will whether we want it to or not – but how it will occur and in which direction it will develop.

– Extract from: Fabian Scheidler. 2020. The end of the megamachine. Zero Books.

Concepts such as cities and written language as well as quantitative metrics may survive, but their scope of applicability and the operational rules and rituals associated with them may be transformed to such an extent that we will invent new words to clearly distinguish between the old semantics of the information economy [hoarding] and the new semantics of the emerging knowledge age [sharing].

In a world increasingly not only connected by trade in goods, but also by exchange of violence, information, viruses, emissions, the importance of social preferences in underwriting human cooperation, even survival, may now be greater even than it was amongst that small group of foragers that began the exodus from Africa 55,000 years ago to spread this particular cooperative species to the far corners of the world.

– Extract from: Bowles and Gintis. 2013. A Cooperative Species : Human Reciprocity and its Evolution. Princeton University Press.

Planetary intelligence is achieved by creating a feedback loop of mutual learning between the rapid learning cycles (mutations) of viruses and learning cycles at human scale, which are now amplified via a global digital network at super-human scale. Humans 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.

Where to from here? We live in a highly dynamic world, and our capability to understand the world we have stumbled into is quite limited. However, once we acknowledge our limitations, it is possible to learn from our mistakes, and also from the ways of life and the survival skills we cultivated in our pre-civilised past, which served us well for several hundred thousand years.

Our destination is beyond human comprehension, but ways of life that are in tune with our biological needs and cognitive limits are always within reach, even when we find ourselves in a self-created life destroying environment. All it takes is a shift in perspective, and corresponding shifts in the aspects of our lives that we value.

The picture is not entirely bleak. The work of Michel Bauwens on the role of the commons in the emerging knowledge age is encouraging, and architect Julia Watson points to concrete examples that illustrate how we can respond to climate change by utilising millennia-old knowledge about how to live in symbiosis with nature through “lo-tek radical design”.

The way I see it, autistic people have their place in the emerging world, and in many cases that place will not be in large government organisations or in corporations, but in non-hierarchical organisations and networks of mutual aid formed by autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, which can offer a level of psychological safety that can’t otherwise be achieved within W.E.I.R.D. societies.

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

― Buckminster Fuller (1975)

From a position of safety within a network of mutual aid, autistic people are ideally equipped to act as catalysts for the evolution of social norms for collaboration between groups, to allow human scale communities to manage scarce resources sustainably at bioregional levels, and to share trustworthy knowledge globally, via the global communications networks we have established.

Reclaiming the essence of humanity

Design by Quinn Dexter (Autistamatic)

Searching for the remains of human potential in industrialised societies

Before I comment on the characteristics of the institutions that operate and influence industrialised societies, I want to be clear about my background and the experiences that shape my observations.

I always work at the boundary between people and technology, and at the boundary between people in different organisations or teams, with companies of all sizes, from start-ups, to established medium size companies, through to transnational corporations with more than 100,000 employees.

Understanding people’s needs and desires within a professional social setting is a core theme in my work. Surfacing, disambiguating, and validating tacit knowledge in a culturally and psychologically safe team environment, and translating the resulting insights into enduring software platforms or tools that remain valuable for decades is a related core theme.

A focus on collaboration platforms intended for long-term use by thousands of organisations and across complex global supply chains has taught me about the many interdependencies between abstract organisations and the concrete social and ecological contexts in which organisations operate, including the many externalities created by profit motives and external investors.

I spent 12 years in the world of employment and independent contracting, in a range of transdisciplinary roles, before my body and mind told me to quit in no uncertain terms. Once I realised that for many people a large part of their work consists of voluntary and involuntary participation in competitive social games I had to quit. I started to understand why mangers loved my ability to catalyse collaboration, but why at the same time they feared my openness about risks, and my uncanny instinct for identifying and reducing spurious complexity in bureaucratic systems. I realised that our entire economic system optimises for the perception of busyness – the opposite of collaboration towards shared goals and diligent creative (re)use of scarce resources.

For over a decade one of my clients was a technology industry analysis firm, where I learned everything about the social games being played between large technology vendors, executives in client organisations (large government departments and corporations), and technology industry analysis firms. We live in a world where innovation is a carefully engineered perception that serves those in positions of social power, it has little or nothing to do with delivering value to citizens or local communities, and it usually makes our lives busier and more complicated – increasingly with a tangible negative impact on our health.

In response to the growing awareness of the existence of autistic people and the related proliferation of dangerous stereotypes and misconceptions, I’ve introduced many healthcare professionals and several cohorts of MBA students to the concept of neurodiversity and to key elements of autistic culture.

Establishing and nurturing good company over the the last two decades has taught me many lessons about the growing chasm between genuine human needs and typical workplace cultures, and about the many untrue myths that constitute the cornerstones of the institutions that operate industrialised societies.

Reclaiming humanity in our work

Global management consulting firms increasingly talk about the importance of employee wellbeing, social and cultural safety, and mental health, and yet they frame the entire discussion as a matter of leadership and management. As if employee wellbeing and inclusion is only a matter of putting the right people in power, and as if the people in designated positions with formal powers over others are somehow special and deserve more recognition and privileges than those who are not in positions of power.

Of course employees are more satisfied with their jobs in workplace where managers genuinely strive to maintain good relationships with staff, but such analyses ignore the elephant in the room:

What would happen if there were no noteworthy power and pay differentials between managers and those who are managed, and what if it turns out that with an appropriate focus on trusted based relationships at eye level, the perceived need for managers and leaders evaporates?

Decades of research and empirical evidence demonstrates that behaviourism, i.e. all forms of management based on rewards and or punishment don’t work over the medium and long term. We know that rewards and punishment only superficially and temporarily lead to perceived compliance or higher levels of performance. All forms of coercion and control, irrespective of the level of sugar coating, undermine trust and the human capacity for altruism and mutual aid.

The same firms that are advising on the importance of employee wellbeing also advise clients in the oil and gas industries. McKinsey & Co is just one example of many:

In the face of changing perspectives on fossil fuels and increasing electrification, the oil and gas industry needs to take immediate action to prepare for the years to come. One such action is increasing the share of natural gas in portfolios. Our reference case shows that gas, unlike other fossil fuels, will experience growing demand until the mid-2030s. In a 1.5-degree climate pathway scenario, natural gas will be more resilient than other fossil fuels for another five to ten years. This is primarily because natural gas is among the cleanest fossil fuels, so it will be the last to be replaced as part of the energy transition.

McKinsey & Co. 2021. The impact of decarbonization on the gas and LNG industry.

Most large management consulting firms propagate the belief in the god of the market – blind faith in the invisible hand, and are firmly committed to the notion of economic growth as a viable and desirable strategy for the coming decades.

Even though there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that financial growth can not be decoupled from growth in energy and resource use, management consultants hesitate to talk about post-growth economics or de-growth as essential strategies to reduce the risk or speed of runaway global heating, and to adapt to a dynamic environment that is changing at a rate that is faster than our current institutions (governments and corporations) can keep up with.

Leaders and managers within hierarchical systems of power have a strong bias towards buying advice from those who tell them what they would like to hear instead of what they would need to hear. Especially neuronormative people have a strong compulsion to feel good about themselves, and to achieve these feelings by complying with the predominant social norms within their society, rather than by critical analysis and by following their own internal moral compass. They want to be seen to be doing the right thing and being in control just slightly more than actually doing the right thing, which often involves admitting not being in control or explicitly letting go of control.

The recipe for success for management consultants lies in what I refer to as 360 degree consulting – offering cookie cutter best practice approaches to support whatever target direction the client has in mind, as needed deflecting from inconvenient externalities, to meet the immediate emotional needs and short-term career ambitions of leaders and managers.

“Normal” busyness as usual is slowly killing all of us. The sooner we unplug from the collective delusion, the fewer people will die or suffer needlessly. De-growth (a genuine reduction in unsustainable energy and resource consumption) can play out over generations, and it can be the most civilised project of mutual aid humans have ever undertaken.

“To a population that is receiving little return on the cost of supporting complexity, the loss of that complexity brings economic, and perhaps administrative, gains… Among those less specialized, severing the ties that link local groups to a regional entity is often attractive. Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe. It is a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.”

– Joseph Tainter. 1990. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press.

A shift to human scale groups reduces the spurious complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains/grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity that emerges when the human footprint is aligned with bioregional ecosystem functions.


Within established organisations the dominant paradigm of control prevents essential knowledge from flowing to the places where it can be put to good use for the entire organisation and the ecosystem within which the organisation is embedded. People are afraid of the unknown. Often busyness as usual is perpetuated not because it is recognised as helpful, but simply because it is a familiar routine.

Hierarchical systems of management and control play a prominent role in the seemingly safe routine of busyness as usual. As needed, when the flaws of the approach have become too obvious to ignore, flat hierarchies come to the rescue. Formal power structures and significant pay differentials persist, but open communication and collaboration across layers and between silos is no longer actively discouraged or penalised.

Beyond fear of change, open or hidden xenophobia (racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, ageism, …) is another common manifestation of the fear of the unknown. It is hard to underestimate the prevalence of xenophobia, especially when it it hidden, or perceived as common sense by a particular culture, often even enshrined in local laws. Xenophobia is best illustrated in terms of concrete examples:

Recently seven professors from the University of Auckland published a letter in The Listener that dismissed mātauranga Māori as “falling far short of what can be defined as science”. Encouragingly the letter generated significant backlash, and one of the academics, Professor of Psychology Douglas Elliffe, has stepped down from his role as acting dean of the faculty at the University of Auckland.

One could think that at last systemic racism is no longer tolerated by the majority of the public, but the underlying xenophobia has multiple dimensions, and is neither limited to racism nor to just seven bad apples.

Douglas Elliffe has built his career on the pseudoscience of behaviourism. The connection to behaviourism and Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) in relation to autistic children becomes obvious in Doug Elliffe’s research profile and publication record. An abstract from one of his papers:

The differential outcomes procedure uses reinforcement unique to each alternative in a conditional discrimination, leading to faster and more accurate learning relative to non-differential outcomes procedures. In this study, the differential outcomes procedure was used to teach novel tacts of musical instrument sounds to children with autism. For one set of instruments, response-specific reinforcers were used in combination with social reinforcement. For the other set, reinforcers were provided non-differentially. Two out of three participants showed enhanced learning in the differential outcomes condition, providing some support of the differential outcomes procedures as a useful tool for teaching individuals with autism. Future research into the differential outcomes effect is warranted to identify the procedural and individual factors that predict its effectiveness.

The problem of xenophobia is not limited to specific individuals, it is systemic. The University of Auckland actively promotes the pseudoscience of Applied Behaviour Analysis as follows:

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a scientific approach to understanding and changing human behaviour. It has applications with a wide variety of client groups including those with intellectual and other disabilities, autism spectrum, childhood onset behavioural disorders, and people in brain injury rehabilitation and dementia care. Behaviour principles provide a strong basis for the analysis of complex human repertoires including language and social behaviour.

Successful completion of the programme will also make a graduate eligible to apply to the New Zealand Psychologists Board to be a registered psychologist and work as a practising psychologist in New Zealand.

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB administers the international professional certification process for behaviour analysts. Our programme is a BACB-approved course sequence that will equip you with the coursework and supervised hours needed to become board-certified. Graduates of our three-year programme are eligible to take the BACB examination for Board Certified Behavior Analysts. Our graduates have achieved a 100% pass rate at this examination over the programme’s history. 

To some extent the government is now stepping in and committed to banning the behaviourist practice of conversion therapy, but so far without acknowledging the use cases highlighted above.

Few people outside the autistic community know that conversion therapies were invented to “normalise” autistic children before being extended to children with “abnormal” gender identity or gender expression. Culturally accepted xenophobia can make researchers blind to fundamentally flawed research design and inadequate evidence.

The tone of the advertisement from the University of Auckland above can only be properly understood via the mind set that propels the growing multi-billion-dollar global autism industrial complex. Here is a taste of how ABA practitioners think about their “market” in the US:

For more evidence on how ABA practitioners think about autistic people and autistic culture:

“Responding to recent critiques about ABA found on social media”
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

I listened to the first part earlier this year, and that was more than enough for me.

Appreciating autistic culture

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

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

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

Inclusive culture is minimalistic. In contrast, relying on the social transmission of hundreds of unspoken rules via osmosis is not only distinctly unfriendly from an autistic perspective – it also stands in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale.

There is huge variety in the ways autistic people communicate using words, both spoken and written. This is the verbal spectrum.

Often those who can not speak remain the most misunderstood and the most misrepresented.

CommunicationFIRST, ASAN, and AASR have created a toolkit for people who want to learn more about nonspeaking autistic people, methods of communication other than speech, disability representation in media, autistic meltdowns, trauma-informed care for autistic people, restraint and seclusion and their alternatives, and how to best support nonspeaking autistic people and survivors of restraint and seclusion.

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

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

One of the persistent negative stereotypes is that we are poor at collaboration. Often the exact opposite is the case. Collaboration can take many forms, and different people have different needs and preferences. Autistic people learn and play differently. We communicate and enjoy ourselves by sharing information and knowledge, and not by negotiating social status.

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.

Autistic forms of communication within a neurodiverse team and within a psychologically safe environment actually impart a collaborative advantage to the entire team, to organisations, and to society as a whole.

It is not a coincidence that Greta Thunberg and many well known climate activists are autistic, it is not a coincidence that the unConference on Interdisciplinary Innovation and Collaboration regularly attracted autistic people, and it is not a coincidence that the services around cultural and psychological safety co-designed by the Autistic Collaboration Trust, and operated and sponsored by S23M in collaboration with the Design Justice Network, have their origins in the autistic community – and that these services are beneficial for members of any marginalised group, culture, or community.

The antidote to xenophobia is genuine appreciation of diversity, and genuine appreciation of the value of interdependence.

Engaging with autistic culture

Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and embodied minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.

Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga o Aotearoa offers education about autistic culture from a first hand perspective and it provides a safe environment where parents, educators, and employers can connect with autistic parents and the wider autistic community. The autists who are curating and jointly developing the educational material and services featured on Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga are involved in the neurodiversity movement. Most of us are parents – we make autism education and support accessible for all in Aotearoa New Zealand through lived experiences and practical advice.

➜ For parents. 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.

➜ For educators. All children thrive when education and parenting nurtures and supports the children’s intrinsic motivations and sensory needs rather than focuses on obedience.

➜ For employers. We all thrive when being given the opportunity to work with our most trusted peers. In a good company everyone is acutely aware of all the collective intelligence and capability that is available in the form of trusted colleagues, friends, and family.

➜ For autists. Elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide apply across the entire autism kaleidoscope. These co-morbid conditions are a reflection of experiences made in the social environment rather than a reflection of autism specific neurology.