The objectives of the autism and neurodiversity civil rights movements overlap significantly with the interests of those who advocate for greater levels of psychological safety in the workplace and in society in general. To appreciate the significance of the overlap the following working definition of psychological safety comes in handy:
Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo- all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized or punished in some way.
In the workplace the topic of psychological safety is relevant to all industries and sectors.
… innovation is almost always a collaborative process and almost never a lightbulb moment of lone genius. As the historian Robert Conquest once said, “What is easy to understand may have not been easy to think of.” Innovation is never easy to think of. It requires creative abrasion and constructive dissent—processes that rely on high intellectual friction and low social friction.
“Our analysis suggests that while engaging experts it is also necessary to manage ongoing collaborations between them as the service redesign process unfolds. Interprofessional health-care work is high-stakes and ‘fraught with tension and anxiety’. Individual jobs, contracts, issues of governance, compliance and patient care are simultaneously in question. The transformation manager describes: ‘challenges, disagreements, debates, … change is frightening, it can make you feel a bit insecure’. Stakeholders were well aware of the challenges, describing how vested and competing interests mean that having everyone ‘around the table had got that sort of political aspect to it’. These concerns could prevent ‘properly discussing’, interpreting and critiquing different forms of evidence, Moreover, during these redesign efforts, experts came and went. This meant that ongoing attention to managing collaborations appeared to be very critical.”
We will share the results and collaborate with researchers who focus on psychological safety, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The survey data will also be a valuable source of relevant background information for the Neurodiversity Documentary project.
You can assist our effort by participating in the survey, and by encouraging your friends to participate in the survey. The survey only takes between 2 to 5 minutes to complete and is accessible here.
The survey is completely anonymous, without requesting any identifiable information about specific companies or individuals, so there is no risk for organisations or individuals to find themselves exposed in “below average” territory.
The most effective way to encourage participation in the survey may be via informal channels and trusted personal relationships that sidestep top level management and human resource departments, which are often forced to perpetuate the party line that “everything is under control”.
The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”.
Autists depend on assistance from others in ways that differ from the cultural norm – and that is pathologised. However, the many ways in which non-autistic people depend on others is considered “normal”, or rather it is brushed under the carpet.
Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative groups, with strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between groups.
In our pre-civilised past all human groups were small, and interdependence and the need for mutual assistance was obvious to all members of a group.
The tools of civilisation, including money, have undermined our appreciation of interdependence, and within the Western world have culminated in a toxic cult of competitive individualism, which amongst the non-autistic population ironically leads to extreme levels of groupthink.
The myth of meritocracy
Wherever autistic people go, they expose social power games.
Pathologisation is the push back from a sick society. Autistic people should be recognised as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human societies.
Upon closer examination the boundary is an arbitrary one.
Specifically, all societies that construct money as interest bearing debt and endow money with a quasi-ubiquitous fungibility to enable economic activity rely on the following four economic drivers or ways of “making money”:
1. Creation and lending of money for a return on investment
We use interest-bearing debt issued out of thin air by banks to prime the economic pump, and to provide professional bankers with a reliable source of significant income.
2. Speculation with land and real estate, and allowing people to inherit money
This enables people to “make” more money through lending for a return on investment, similar to banks, only that the means of individuals are more limited.
3. Hierarchical structures of organisations in various sectors that offer extreme monetary rewards at the top
This encourages people to systematically take credit for the work of others to get to the top.
4. Creation of pyramid schemes that allow people to “extract value” from the work of others.
This endorses and encourages harmful behaviours which benefit the individual over the group.
The common theme across these economic drivers is the willingness to exploit other people for personal gain, including the audacity to take personal credit for the results of others or for the results achieved as part of a team.
Such exploitative interdependencies between people are considered “normal”, and we consider anyone who is able to survive comfortably by extracting money from other people “independent”.
The four ways of making money are justified by a myth of meritocracy and circular reasoning – that people with a lot of money have “earned” the money and are entitled to a “fair” return on investment to cover their “risk” when lending some of it to others.
For someone without significant amounts of money, land or real estate to begin with, the economic options are limited:
1. Acting as an investor without significant money to start off with.
This path is a pure game of luck.
The very few who happen to be lucky tend to develop a sense of entitlement that allows them to feel at home amongst bankers and the money making class, and adopt corresponding behaviours and beliefs of superiority – supporting a system that only benefits a small minority.
2. Starting a charity organisation that taps into people’s social conscience to donate some of their money to those who are disadvantaged by the system.
On the one hand many charities provide valuable assistance to vulnerable people. On the other hand charities conveniently allow the people engaged in “making money” to feel better about themselves and the “externalities” that they create, further enhancing their sense of entitlement and commitment to the status quo.
The need for charity organisations is a symptom of a society that systematically produces economic “externalities”.
3. Collaborating with others to create knowledge, products, and services that are highly valued by others.
Without significant amounts of money, acquired via one the four means above, it is not possible to employ a team of people for more than a few months.
Alternatively, taking on external capital immediately hands over key levers to the money making class. And lastly, attempting self-employment without a supporting team, whatever you create will be heavily discounted by treating you like an employee or contractor – you only get paid the equivalent of a wage, and the money making class extracts the value.
Thus by virtue of the design of the economic system, the option of entrepreneurship is largely a dead end.
People with a compromised moral compass discard these three options as ways of contributing to society, and rather see them as sources of people that can easily be exploited.
Realistic paths to “success” involve career climbing in hierarchical organisations or the related option of the creating and running a more or less legal pyramid scheme.
Organisations within a poorly regulated financial sector provide ideal training grounds for pyramid scheme builders, and along the way, provide on the job training in the busyness of money creation and in riding the waves of economic bubbles.
“There’s huge political pressure to create jobs coming from all directions. We accept the idea that rich people are job creators, and the more jobs we have, the better. It doesn’t matter if those jobs do something useful; we just assume that more jobs is better no matter what. We’ve created a whole class of flunkies that essentially exist to improve the lives of actual rich people. Rich people throw money at people who are paid to sit around, add to their glory, and learn to see the world from the perspective of the executive class.”
“A lot of bullshit jobs are just manufactured middle-management positions with no real utility in the world, but they exist anyway in order to justify the careers of the people performing them. But if they went away tomorrow, it would make no difference at all.And that’s how you know a job is bullshit: If we suddenly eliminated teachers or garbage collectors or construction workers or law enforcement or whatever, it would really matter. We’d notice the absence. But if bullshit jobs go away, we’re no worse off.” – David Graeber
People with an intact moral compass tend to learn the hard way that all their attempts of investment, running charities or entrepreneurship only strengthen the status quo and amplify the economic inequalities.
It is easy to see that honest people, and especially autistic people, are systematically disabled in modern society, economically as well as socially, as many social norms are adaptations to the dominant economic paradigm.
Autistic people continuously work at the edge of their performance limit, which is often much higher than what non-autistic people are capable of sustaining, whilst not making a fuss about it. This invites exploitation.
The social model of disability explains two of the most disabling aspects of autism. To a significant extent autistic experience can be described in terms of the downstream effects of:
the inability to maintain hidden agendas, and
hypersensitivities, including in the social realm, rejection of all forms of social status.
The conception of “intelligence” baked into Western culture and orthodox economic ideology is anaemic.
“I do believe we have to start thinking imaginatively about systems that are fundamentally differently organized. Shifts do happen in history. We’ve been taught for the last 30 to 40 years that imagination has no place in politics or economics, but that, too, is bullshit.”
“I think we need a rebellion of what I call the “caring class,” people who care about others and justice. We need to think about how to create a new social movement and change what we value in our work and lives.”
“People have a sense of what makes a job worthwhile; otherwise, they wouldn’t realize that what they’re doing now is bullshit. So we need to give this more articulation, and we need to unite with other people who want the same things. That’s a political project we can all get behind.” – David Graeber
Warning: Collaboration is contagious, even beyond the autistic community. There are some good segments in this documentary.
“Extreme inequality, as it turns out, is not an economic law or necessity: it is a design failure. Twenty-first century economists recognize that there are many ways to design economies to be far more distributive of value among those who help to generate it. And that means going beyond redistributing income to pre-distributing wealth, such as the wealth that lies in controlling land, enterprise, and the power to create money.” – Kate Raworth
Building a new model, the autistic way
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― Buckminster Fuller
We don’t need yet another complex template for organisational structure and not yet another complex or rigid process to follow within the established social order.
The path to escape the box of a sick society involves rediscovering timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating creative collaboration in the absence of capital and hierarchical structures:
Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
Unlock valuable tacit knowledge within a group.
Provide a space for creative freedom.
Help repair frayed relationships.
Replace fear with courage.
People have known about these principles for millennia. Some of the principles have been rediscovered many times, by different groups of people in various geographies and in different cultural contexts. In particular, neurodivergent people are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.
“Study after study confirms that most people have about five intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances. This threshold is imposed by brain size and chemistry, as well as the time it takes to maintain meaningful relationships” – Robin Dunbar, 2018
Within a good company (smaller than 50 people) and especially within a team, everyone is acutely aware of the competencies of all the other members, and transparency and mutual trust enables knowledge and meta knowledge (who has which knowledge and who entrusts whom with questions or needs in relation to specific domains of knowledge) to flow freely with an organisation. This allows the company to rapidly respond intelligently and with courage to all kinds of external events.
“It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them. The keynote of Buddhist economics, therefore, is simplicity and non-violence.” – E. F. Schumacher, 1966
The observations made by E. F. Schumacher are very closely aligned with the intent of the NeurodiVenture model. Consider the following extract from his timeless essay on Buddhist economics:
“It is clear, therefore, that Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.”
“Thus, if the purpose of clothing is a certain amount of temperature comfort and an attractive appearance, the task is to attain this purpose with the smallest possible annual destruction of cloth and with the help of designs that involve the smallest possible input of toil.”
“The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity. It would be highly uneconomic, for instance, to go in for complicated tailoring, like the modern West, when a much more beautiful effect can be achieved by the skillful draping of uncut material.”
“It would be the height of folly to make material so that it should wear out quickly and the height of barbarity to make anything ugly, shabby, or mean. What has just been said about clothing applies equally to all other human requirements.”
“As physical resources are everywhere limited, people satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other’s throats than people depending upon a high rate of use.”
“Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.”
It is important to understand that an emphasis on local-self sufficiency in terms of physical resource use is simply an effective way of minimising energy use and conflicts arising out of spurious cultural complexity, and does not preclude extensive global collaboration and prolific knowledge sharing.
Call for action and mutual support
Autistic people suffer at the hands of a sick society, and often this culminates in severe mental health problems. The pathway forward for the individual autistic person depends on the concrete context.
It is time to celebrate our interdependence!
Collaboration allows us to create genuinely safe spaces for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.
If you are interested in learning more about the NeurodiVenture approach, please get in touch. I am happy to share our experience with other teams.
We should expect society to support us in establishing autistic collaborations, and we should not be forced individually to be “included” in toxic exploitative environments.
Cultural evolution allows human society to evolve much faster than the speed of genetic evolution, which is constrained by the interval between generations. However, within any given society, the vast majority of people only experience a very limited sense of individual agency. Gene-culture co-evolution has led to a mix of capabilities in a group where:
The beliefs and behaviours of the vast majority of people are shaped by cultural transmission from the people around them – the majority of people primarily learn by imitation.
A minority of atypical people is much less influenced by cultural transmission – this minority learns by consciously observing the human and non-human environment, and then drawing inferences that form the basis of beliefs and behaviours.
Amongst the atypical people those who are capable of deriving pleasure from exerting power over others and are capable of maintaining hidden agendas are known as psychopaths, whereas those who are incapable of deriving pleasure from exerting power and are incapable of maintaining hidden agendas are known as autists.
In pre-civilised societies psychopaths tended to be subject to severe constraints via egalitarian cultural norms that penalised any attempts to gain power over others, whereas autists tended to be recognised as carriers of valuable knowledge and insights about the world (shamans, healers, teachers, artists, makers of specialised tools, etc.).
As part of the broader picture of neurodiversity, any cognitive difference that interferes with or weakens social learning (subconscious imitation) enhances creativity. Since autism is characterised by differences in social motivation and by weakened subconscious social learning, autistic people tend to be at the core of many deep innovations.
David Sloan Wilson observes that from an evolutionary perspective small groups are the organisms in human society. This has profound implications for the construction of healthy human scale societies.
The extremely important role that culture has played and still plays in human evolution represents a transformational change in the mechanisms available to evolution – it is a major step in the evolution of evolution, comparable to less than two handful of other major steps such as the emergence of the first cells, the emergence of multi-celled life forms, the emergence of sexual reproduction, etc.
Cultural evolution allows the behaviour of human societies to evolve much faster than the behaviour of other complex life forms, to the point that our collective knowledge and medical technologies allow us to engage in an evolutionary arms race with various strains of microbes that used to represent a serious threat to human health.
Whilst in some domains humans have been able to harness our capacity for culture for the benefit of all humans, in other domains our capacity for culture has been used to establish and operate highly oppressive and stratified societies.
In “civilised” societies autistic people very easily become prime targets of exploitation, persecution and pathologisation. Once autistic people are sidelined, there is little to stop myths of superiority and progress from becoming the focus of cultural beliefs, resulting in ideologies that celebrate the growth of larger and larger primate dominance hierarchies – ultimately leading to super-human scale groups with cultures that are no longer understandable by any person nor by any group of people.
Historians refer to super-human scale groups as “states” and “empires”, usually without noticing that their own perspective and assessments of historic events is heavily shaped by the contemporary “civilised” ideology of their own culture.
Hierarchical forms of organisation significantly limit and weaken the feedback loops within society, i.e. they induce a collective learning disability that reduces the ability of the organisation to adapt to rapid changes in its operating environment. This is not a problem during times of environmental stability but it can become a deadly threat during times of rapid environmental changes.
From within “civilisation” any critique of the unavoidable learning disability induced by hierarchical organisation is perceived as an act of dissent and as a potential threat to the “natural” order of society. In the past some empires managed to survive several hundred years, but ultimately collapse is unavoidable. The history of “civilisation” is the history of super-human scale groups (states and empires).
Over the last 200 years, starting with the deployment of the first electrical telegraphs, human societies have been incrementally equipped with global zero-marginal cost communication technologies, culminating in what we now refer to as the web. This development, made possible by people with creative autistic minds, has fundamentally altered the social power dynamics within human societies.
Wherever autistic people go, they expose social power games. Pathologisation is the push back from a sick society. Autistic people should be recognised as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human societies.
Strategic disablement of autistic people
The social model of disability explains two of the most disabling aspects of autism. To a significant extent autistic experience can be described in terms of the downstream effects of:
the inability to maintain hidden agendas, and
hypersensitivities, including in the social realm, rejection of all forms of social status.
The inability to maintain hidden agendas:
makes us prime targets for exploitation, and
induces fear by our tendency to expose the hidden agendas of others.
Hypersensitivities – including in the social realm, rejection of all forms of social status:
lead to the perception of just not trying hard enough or of being uncooperative,
result in frequent sensory overload, autistic burn-out, depression, suicidal ideation.
These two “disabilities” are also our greatest strengths. We are uniquely positioned to create good company for neurodivergent people.
NeurodiVenture : an inclusive non-hierarchical organisation operated by neurodivergent people that provides a safe and nurturing environment for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.
Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative small groups, which strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between small groups. In our pre-civilised past all human groups were small, and interdependence and the need for mutual assistance was obvious to all members of a group. The tools of civilisation, including abstract currencies, have undermined our appreciation of interdependence, and within the Western world have culminated in a toxic cult of competitive individualism, which amongst the non-autistic population ironically leads to extreme levels of groupthink.
The NeurodiVerse : minority cultures created by neurodiversity within the human species
(a) the universe of NeurodiVentures
(b) the set of all neurodivergent people
Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time. Autistic people are finally connecting and establishing a social habitat on this planet that limits our exposure to insane super-human scale societies.
Autistic people are disabled because even in environments with many autistic people, the majority is still non-autistic, and those in the latter group are the ones with an interest in social status and in wielding power.
In pockets of academia, the arts, and in technology between 10% and 20% of people can be autistic, but that does not mean that their voices are being heard. Most autistic professionals are closet autists who recognise that openly identifying as autistic would amount to career suicide.
Enablement of autistic people
Autistic people must take ownership of the label in the same way that other minorities describe their experience and define their identity. Pathologisation of autism is a social power game that removes agency from autistic people.
Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus is the genus that includes all cultural species.
Our economy optimises for busyness and maximal energy use. Other results, whether positive or negative, are viewed as secondary or irrelevant. Organisations are continuously transforming themselves to keep people busy and to instil the fear needed to maintain hierarchical control. It is no coincidence that reorganisations are often cynically referred to as “rearranging the deck chairs”. The main objective is to be seen to be doing something “significant”, and then for the reorganisers to take “credit” for the “streamlined” organisation.
The chasm that manifests as the double empathy problem can be understood in terms of fundamental differences in social motivation.
Typical social motivations:
Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs and cultural needs.
Truth – truth as it appears through the lens of a particular human culture.
Recognition – approval for compliance with cultural expectations.
Autistic social motivations:
Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs, in particular love, access to food and shelter, and autonomy over own mind and body, as well as unique needs.
Truth – truth as it appears through the lens of our current level of human scientific understanding.
Recognition – attribution of creative agency.
In “civilised” cultures the ability to fully understand the needs of someone whose social motivations are situated on the respective “other” side of the chasm is quite limited.
The main variable that we can work on to reduce the chasm is to collaborate in small teams that are powered by autistic culture. Non-autistic people in such teams will over time adapt to autistic culture, and they will re-discover what it means to retain individual agency in a team.
In contrast, autistic people are not “pliable” enough to adapt to a conformist non-autistic culture. We are incapable of continuous masking over extended periods of time, we quickly burn-out, and then must retreat from an environment that is toxic for our mental and physical health.
Autistic culture is minimalistic, able to accommodate profound differences in individual cognitive lenses, and it is the source of deep innovation.
To move forward we need a system of language tools and interaction patterns that allow the people within small groups to increase their level of shared understanding as outlined the section “Tools for creating learning organisations” in this article.
The challenge for autists is that “civilised” non-autistic people are not necessarily motivated to understand the autistic perspective. From their perspective there is very little to gain from understanding us. Nothing that they can learn from us will make them more popular with their peers. If however we provide tools that assists an entire group in reducing the level of misunderstandings within the group, we suddenly have something of value to offer.
Autistic people can play the role of a catalyst, we assist, but we are not part of the social game. It usually takes explicit questions to confirm the level of shared understanding with respect to a particular topic within a given group. That’s where an autistic person in a catalyst role, ideally someone who is not a major stakeholder in the discussion, and with a mandate to interrupt and ask questions as needed, is extremely valuable.
When an autistic person is a major stakeholder in a group discussion and attempts to ask clarifying questions, the autistic person will usually be shot down – perceived as being difficult or trying to obtain an advantage. In groups of non-autistic people often there is very little genuine discussion and a lot of “talking past each other”. People don’t tend to notice miscommunication as long as their non-verbal cues provide them with the illusion of shared understanding within the group. Social perception is everything in non-autistic cultures.
The notion of “understanding autistic people” amongst autism “professionals” is anaemic to say the least. The level of ignorance is often toxic and endangering the mental health and lives of vulnerable autistic people. The level of over-confidence of “professionals” in their ability to assess autistic people and their situations is staggering. Not to mention the complete lack of understanding of autistic culture and autistic community.
Autistic minds come with a high performance engine and an accelerator (autistic agency) but inadequate brakes (self care). We need trusted peers who help us decelerate and take the corners on our journeys without crashing.
The last thing an autistic person needs is is advice along the lines of “you will succeed if you try harder” when there is a fundamental mismatch of social motivations and notions of “success”.
Autistic people continuously work at the edge of their performance limit, which is often much higher than what non-autistic people are capable of sustaining, whilst not making a fuss about it. This invites exploitation …
Torture of autistic people is not only legal, it is sold as the ultimate busyness opportunity and money making machine, to the extent that they’re even fighting over who gets to exploit us. I am lost for words.
For an autistic person the pathway towards good company is distinctly different from the life trajectory mapped out by the expectations of mainstream culture.
The most appropriate pathway for an autistic person depends significantly on the surrounding social environment and the stage of life:
Isolated adult who is unaware of being autistic
Amongst the adult population of those currently over 30 years old, this is probably the largest category of autistic people. People in this category are often depressed, possibly burnt-out or even suicidal, and potentially misdiagnosed and medicated.
Never truly understanding why people are interested in cultural status symbols and in pursuing social status
Idiosyncratic ways of performing specific activities or jobs, usually based on extensive experimentation with different approaches, and resistance to simply following the ways in which others perform similar activities or jobs
Valuing truth much more than the need to be seen as successful or popular by others
An innate sense of individual agency that is much stronger than any desire to conform to social norms
Always interested in sharing knowledge, and not understanding why anyone might be reluctant to share knowledge
Many experiences of being surprised by the level of dishonesty of other people
Feeling extremely exhausted following all meetings with three or more people, especially if the people in question are not familiar friends or colleagues, or when being forced to engage in smalltalk
For this group of people the Communal Definition of Autism can be a first step towards recognising their own autistic traits and related experiences.
Isolated adult who learns about potentially being autistic
People in this category have learned about autism either via a diagnosis or via hints from colleagues, friends and family. Some people react with disbelief or denial, to avoid having to acknowledge many traumatising experiences in society.
Autistic people in this group tend to try hard to mask their autistic traits well enough to meet cultural expectations in many situations – they may not even know what masking is, and may confuse the effort of masking with the effort of applying hard-won social skills.
However the effort of masking comes at a high cost, and can only be maintained continuously for limited periods of time. Individuals in this category are on their way to autistic burn-out. People at this stage are particularly vulnerable to relationship breakdowns, as their frustration starts to show, often increasing the isolation.
Isolated autistic adults tend to avoid social interaction to retain sanity and to minimise the mental energy loss of masking. Many people within the adult autistic population fall within this category.
People in this category may have never tried to reach out to the autistic community, or they have had a few disappointing experiences in connecting with other autistic people, perhaps surprised by the level of diversity amongst autistic people.
Isolated autistic people no longer seek to meet all cultural expectations, and minimise autistic burn-out by avoiding places or social contexts that may trigger sensory overload. They are at great risk of economic exploitation and bullying at work.
If you are being bullied at work, you can use the Bullying Alert System on this website to report your situation in anonymised form to the autistic community.
Some people in this category have internalised the pathology paradigm, and a few feel threatened by the neurodiversity paradigm, as it suggests that it may actually be possible for autistic people to develop healthy trusted relationships with other people, and this suggestion contradicts their own experience.
A growing minority of autistic adults have learned to developed enjoyable relationships with autistic peers, but many do not dare to openly identify as autistic due to widespread discrimination in wider society.
People in this group have understood the fundamentals of autistic cognition, mask only when critical for survival, are actively learning about autistic culture, and incrementally start to develop an individual peer-to-peer support network, a multi-year journey that likely involves some successes but also many failures along the way.
Amongst the adult autistic population, at this point in time (2019), this is probably still the smallest category.
People within this category will have discovered some of the principles for building trusted relationships that underpin the NeurodiVenture operating model, in particular techniques for creating a collective interface to the wider society that
optimises for collaboration between autistic people, and
minimises the need for interacting with wider society on terms that are detrimental to the mental and physical health of autistic people.
Autists are acutely aware that good company is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity. Autistic people relate to specific people, and primarily to other autistic people, and not to group identities. All groups that are genuinely inclusive of relationships with autistic people are small in size – they are human scale.
Collectives of collaborating autistic people can benefit significantly by connecting with other groups of autistic people and from knowledge sharing and building trusted relationships with other autistic people. The future of autistic collaboration involves establishing a collaborative network of NeurodiVentures.
Isolated youngster who is unaware of being autistic
Children and adolescents in this category are traumatised by their experiences in the social world, often including by the expectations placed on them by parents and teachers. Unless someone picks up on their autistic traits, they are on track to becoming isolated adults who are unaware of the existence of other people experiencing similar challenges with sensory overload and with bullying in the social world.
Isolated youngsters may be baffled by the socially constructed gender identities of their peers, and they may neither identity with male nor with female gender “norms”. Isolated autistic adolescents are at risk of drug and alcohol abuse, seeking calm, and not really understanding how they can possibly fit into an apparently insane social world.
For this group, developing areas of deep interest and expertise, and receiving support on their journey towards discovering autistic community can be life saving.
Autistic youngster with non-autistic parents
When non-autistic parents seek assistance from the autism industry, and as a result subject their autistic child to various normalisation “therapies”, especially under the heading of “early intervention”, they are subjecting their child to additional trauma and institutionalised bullying, resulting in depression, suicidal ideation, and PTSD.
Rather than therapies to “reduce autistic behaviours”, autistic children need to be supported in the full development of their unique autistic potential, and need to be encouraged to follow their intrinsic motivations to explore the world.
Autistic children can be introduced to autism via the Communal Definition of Autism, and via age appropriate related learning resources developed by the autistic community rather than by the autism industry.
Autistic youngster with at least one autistic parent
Autistic children and adolescents with one or two autistic parents are ideally positioned for becoming thriving autistic adults – provided that their parents have the financial resources to provide a healthy home and educational environment.
Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity. Autistic people relate to specific people, and primarily to other autistic people, and not to group identities.
In contrast, contemporary human societies are characterised by abstract group identities, from local communities, to favourite sports teams, employers, professions, social class, languages, dialects, tribes, countries, online groups, brand loyalty, etc. Every identifiable group identity is characterised by specific behavioural cultural norms, only some of which are explicitly stated and acknowledged. People who identify with a group are expected to conform with the explicit and implicit behavioural code.
This difference in constructing social relationships has profound implications. Autists understand a group of people to consist of the set of pairwise relationships between individuals – autistic people don’t “belong” to any groups, but the idiosyncratic relationship between two autistic people, including their idiosyncratic ways of interacting, may belong to one or more groups.
If all relationships in a group are based on mutual trust and respect, then the group can be considered to be good company. If some of the relationships lack mutual trust or respect, then the group is in an unhealthy state.
Mutual trust and respect can also mean a mutual recognition and acceptance of significant differences in needs and preferences – simply allowing the other person to be themselves, without undertaking any attempts to coerce the other person to do certain things in certain ways, or to respond to a question or situation immediately, without any time allowed for reflection and unique ways of information processing.
Psychological safety means being surrounded by (familiar) trusted peers, not by “being part of” an amorphous abstract group like being “human”, being “male” or “female”, being “part of organisation xyz”, or being an “Antarctican” – national identities are amongst the silliest inventions, and one learns to be careful not to offend the millions of (insane?) non-autistic believers in the various cults of nationality. Organisation xyz only needs one unsafe relationship for an autistic person for the entire group to become an unsafe environment. This is a practical working definition of psychological safety for autistic people.
All groups that are genuinely inclusive of relationships with autistic people are small in size – they are human scale.
If you are wondering whether you identify as autistic, spend time amongst autistic people, online and offline. If you notice you relate to most of these people much better than to others, if they make you feel safe, and if they understand you, you have arrived.
autistic people are finally connecting and establishing a social habitat on this planet that limits our exposure to insane super-human scale societies.
An autistic model of the living planet
What is only rarely talked about in mainstream society is the effort that it takes non-autistic individuals to conform to a multitude of abstract group identities, especially if the social norms associated with different identities are incompatible, and to some extent contradict each other. One could say that non-autistic people have a pathological capacity for cognitive dissonance and self-deception, and unfortunately there is no cure for that.
As a result, the social experience of a given culture by non-autistic people differs significantly from the social experience of the same culture by autistic people. The differences can be described in terms of differences in the construction of social identities and relationships at various levels of scale as illustrated in figure 1.
Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus (homo) is the genus that includes all cultural species. The semantics of the colour coding in the diagram are as follows:
Green: healthy relationships and group identities and human scale organisations
Orange: challenging relationships and group identities with potential for conflict
Red: adversarial relationships and group identities that consume significant energy and super-human scale organisations that negatively affect their members and their social and ecological context
The numbers in the diagram illustrate different kinds of relationships and group identities:
Healthy relationships between specific individuals that are based on mutual trust
Healthy group identity between a neurotypical person and a human scale organisation; note that neurotypical people are capable of maintaining several group identities in parallel
Adversarial group identity between a neurotypical person and a super-human scale organisation; the extent to which such group identities have a negative impact on mental health can be deduced from the empirical evidence compiled by David Graeber in his book Bullshit Jobs
Adversarial relationship between a small, human scale group or enterprise and a super-human scale organisation, or between members of different genera, characterised by a significant imbalance in power and a resulting lack of mutual trust
Challenging relationship between an organisation constructed via an abstract social identity and a NeurodiVenture constructed as a set of trusted relationships between individuals; the members of the NeurodiVenture need to continuously watch out for social games and hidden agendas when engaging in external relationships
Healthy set of relationships between two NeurodiVentures that have agreed to long-term collaboration based on complementary capabilities and capacity
The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.
Humans have to ask themselves whether they want to continue to be useful parts of the ecosystem of the planet or whether they prefer to take on the role of a genetic experiment that the planet switched on and off for a brief period in its development. The big human battle of this century is going to be the democratisation of data and all forms of knowledge. If we succeed, the resulting web of life may look something like the following picture:
The numbers in the list below map to the numbers in figure 1 and figure 4:
Healthy relationships between specific individuals that are based on mutual trust
Healthy group identity between a neurotypical person and a human scale organisation
No longer applicable: Adversarial group identity between a neurotypical person and a super-human scale organisation
Challenging relationship between a culturally “well-adjusted” neurotypical person and an autistic person, characterised by a risk of misunderstandings
Healthy set of relationships between autistic people
Challenging relationship between between members of different genera, characterised by a limited level of mutual understanding
Healthy relationship between an organisation constructed via an abstract social identity and a NeurodiVenture constructed as a set of trusted relationships between individuals; NeurodiVentures are appreciated for their creative potential and for their role in facilitating knowledge flows across cultural barriers
Healthy set of relationships between two NeurodiVentures
Healthy cultural context of a human scale organisation
Interdependencies between levels of scale
No longer applicable: Adversarial group identity between a smaller super-human scale structure within a larger super-human scale cultural context
Healthy cultural context of a NeurodiVenture that is characterised by many relationships with organisations that appreciate neurodivergent collaboration
No longer applicable: Adversarial group identity generated by a conformist culture that is ignorant of the existence and the value of NeurodiVentures
Healthy interdependency between levels of scale; humans as part of the web of life
In a collaborative context the remaining challenges can be framed as healthy opportunities for learning rather than as sources of conflict that ought to be eliminated.
It is interesting that the mainstream media occasionally does get concerned about manipulation techniques used in people management, and is much less concerned about the common use of bullying and manipulation techniques such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) as “therapies” for autistic children. Many autistic people who have been subjected to ABA and similar “treatments” end up with PTSD:
Nearly half (46 percent) of the ABA-exposed respondents met the diagnostic threshold for PTSD, and extreme levels of severity were recorded in 47 percent of the affected subgroup. Respondents of all ages who were exposed to ABA were 86 percent more likely to meet the PTSD criteria than respondents who were not exposed to ABA. Adults and children both had increased chances (41 and 130 percent, respectively) of meeting the PTSD criteria if they were exposed to ABA. Both adults and children without ABA exposure had a 72 percent chance of reporting no PTSD. At the time of the study, 41 percent of the caregivers reported using ABA-based interventions.
Bank staff had to attend meetings each morning and give a commitment to the group to achieve their targets. A “debrief” meeting was held each afternoon. Some former CBA employees later reported that when staff didn’t achieve their targets they were belittled in front of colleagues.
One bank employee says managers patrolled the work area like stormtroopers to make sure staff were pushing products to customers at every opportunity. Some bank staff felt the training was a form of brainwashing...
The question “I don’t feel pressured to make inappropriate sales to try and meet my targets” produced a result of 33 per cent disagreeing and 32 per cent strongly disagreeing, which was higher than the average across all banks. Even more worrying was the response to a question about whether ‘targets bring out the best in me’ – 83 per cent of respondents disagreed. Furthermore, 26 per cent of those surveyed admitted they were aware of inappropriate lending practices being undertaken to achieve targets.
I first came across the impact of Cohen Brown in 2013 when I wrote a series of articles about the aggressive sales at CBA. The series triggered hundreds of responses from CBA staff. Many described it as a cult-like sales technique that placed staff under intolerable pressure and resulted in serious mistakes…
Some CBA staff suffered nervous breakdowns and some started taking anti-depressant medication. The Cohen Brown method featured so heavily in CBA’s strategy during Norris’s reign that I decided to contact the company’s co-founder and CEO, Marty Cohen, in late 2018.
I wanted to talk to him about the Cohen Brown method, including a patent filed in 2006 titled, “Systems and methods for computerised interactive training”, which contains an example of a telephone script that physiologically conditions staff to respond in a certain way.
The patent talks about supplying a positive tone and visualisation when the right answer is achieved and a negative tone and visualisation when the answer is wrong. “A positive tone is generated and/or a text acknowledgement appears, indicating that the correct phrase was identified by the trainee,” the patent says. “Then a ‘negative tone’ is played, and a graphic and/or text message is provided, indicating that the answer was incorrect.”
The user is scored “based in part on the number of errors and/or opportunities that the user identified and optionally on the user’s response to the question”. In an email exchange, Cohen told me he is no longer using this type of “methodology”, but he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the practice of “negative reinforcement”.
Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration
Ultimately all forms of “management by fear” amount to bullying, and autistic people are highly sensitive to such attempts of manipulation.
On a positive note, I have recently read The Trust Factor, and was surprised to have stumbled across a good management book, after concluding many years ago that most management books are useless to harmful. If I read a management book, then usually to remind myself about all the manipulation techniques that many people are subjected to.
Paul Zak, the author of The Trust Factor, is both an economist and a neuroscientist. Most of what he writes is self-evident, but I think his book should be essential reading for all managers. The book does not cover the possibilities opened by NeurodiVentures and other forms of employee owned companies, but that topic would go beyond the scope of the book. I learned two things from The Trust Factor:
Confirmation that (especially non-autistic) people thrive when the achievement of significant goals is celebrated. Many autistic people I know are uncomfortable with receiving praise or with celebrations such as birthdays because the associated social stress (when social conformance expectations from non-autistic people apply) and/or the sensory overload may outweigh the positive aspects of celebration. I was not aware of the neurochemical connection to oxytocin in relation to celebration and praise. The author also points out that routine celebrations of “employee of the month” and celebrations of trivial tasks have the opposite effect, they reduce trust – exactly the things that many organisations tend to focus on.
Around 5% of people don’t seem to produce any significant amounts of oxytocin in situations where trust is extended, and hence they don’t extend trust the other way and the concept of trust is foreign to them. My conclusion is that from the perspective of such people management by fear must seem to be the only way to “collaborate” with other people and that large hierarchical organisations are the natural habitat for such people. In an egalitarian human scale environment such people simply don’t get the chance to “manage people”.
Rather than talking about “management by creating trust” I much prefer to talk about nurturing trust to catalyse collaboration at eye level. As long as an organisation describes itself with a pyramidal organisational chart it projects a not-very-subtle-at-all signal that management by fear is to be tolerated by and is expected of anyone who joins.
The misguided idea of managing people
The idea of managing people is fraught with difficulties. In many contexts it causes direct harm. Autistic people in particular neither want to be managed nor need to be managed, and they are also uncomfortable / reluctant when expected to manage other people. In contrast, many non-autistic people, once indoctrinated by the education system of a WEIRD culture, believe that all people must be managed or led in order to prevent society from descending into complete chaos, and correspondingly they also have a desire or expectation to be managed. The notions of management and leadership are entangled with the anthropocentric conception of civilisation.
In a hierarchical structure most people abandon their sense of agency and the need to think critically on a daily basis. Instead they adopt an energy saving survival strategy by making sure that whatever they do conforms (or seems to conform) with what their “superior” has requested them to do at a superficial level, even if the superior clearly has less relevant insight or knowledge. People avoid the energy needed to ask questions, to point out gaps in understanding, risks etc. because in the vast majority of cases their efforts would be punished rather than appreciated. These are the toxic social hierarchical power dynamics that induce an organisational learning disability.
Our education system has a big gaping hole when it comes to teaching people how to coordinate complex activities without resorting to so-called leadership and management skills, which are effectively the same skills that other primates (baboons, chimpanzees, etc.) use to establish and maintain dominance hierarchies. Humans would not have become so successful on this planet just by focusing on these skills.
Humans became more successful than other primates by recognising the limitations and social learning disabilities induced by maintaining dominance hierarchies. It is no surprise that for hundreds of thousands of years humans lived in small and highly egalitarian groups. That’s what has made them more successful than other primates. As I outline in this article, things started to go downhill with humans with the invention of “civilisation” around 10,000 years ago.
Bullying can be made to look like management
Our society has been constructed such that certain forms of bullying are deemed acceptable / legal / necessary and such that other forms of bullying are deemed as unacceptable and illegal. Upon closer examination the boundary, which is inevitably fuzzy, is an arbitrary one. This is why I consistently prefer to talk about coordination and trusted collaboration at eye level rather than management.
competing against each other using culturally defined rules
If a victim of bullying at work approaches the human resources department to complain, there will be no evidence of bullying behaviour – or even of inappropriate treatment. The people who are competing against each other take great care to be seen to be sticking to all the culturally defined rules. The social game of “successful management” and leadership is all about pushing the boundaries of what can still be interpreted as acceptable application of the culturally defined rules.
Our organisations work (more or less) not because of good leadership and management, but in spite of it – because there are always a few people who don’t play the social game and who don’t care about social status. There is a lot that society could learn from these people.
Typical people have the capability to behave much like typical primates if their culture does not have strong social norms that condemn typical primate behaviour. In our culture we celebrate people “who get ahead”, this is a social disease that W Edwards Deming correctly identified and described very eloquently nearly 40 years ago. People who enjoy “managing” people are rather unlikely to be autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, with the exception of a few psychopaths who lack empathy and the ability to trust others, who are drawn to the social game playing opportunities that our culture affords them.
The challenge with management culture is that managers have been indoctrinated by our culture and see management by fear as essential and valuable. Notions like servant leadership don’t go far enough to address the root causes of bullying. Managers need to unlearn a lot of what they have been led to believe.
Reframing and relearning collaboration
A good start to learning about the creation of healthy cultures is to replace the toxic language of management. Managers need to become aware of the extent to which the old language they use is a language that encourages competitive social gaming.
Language frames people’s thoughts and emotional response. It is time to start consistently talking about concepts that can improve our lives:
Niche construction and symbiosis rather than competition – to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community
Company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy
Values rather than value – to avoid continuously discounting what is priceless
Physical waste rather than wealth – to focus us on the metrics that do matter
Human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable
Competency networks rather than leadership – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides
Coordination rather than management – to address all the stuff that can increasingly be automated, management is often the biggest obstacle to automation
Creativity and divergent thinking rather than best practices – when facing the need to innovate and improve
It would be terrific step for an organisation to replace all manager job titles with coordinator job titles etc. This could go a long way to enable knowledge sharing and collaboration at eye level. Somewhere along the line however the often astronomical hierarchical pay differentials would also have to be reduced quite significantly to avoid the change from deteriorating into a window dressing exercise.
The multiple crises that civilisation is facing today give me some level of optimism that the timing is right to break out of the familiar and ultimately self-destructive patterns of civilisation building.
Anti-bullying policies and processes
In a bullying culture a very common problem is that organisations develop so-called anti-bullying policies and processes – which managers insist on following, which in and of themselves are intolerant, dismissive and disparaging of the staff who bring an issue forward.
Any credible anti-bullying initiative must offer alternative approaches that involve external assistance. The introduction of regular Open Space workshops can create bullying free zones in time and space that allow people to rediscover their individual sense of agency. Toxic command and control hierarchies don’t disappear over night, and regular Open Space workshops, complemented with relevant education in neurodiversity and critical thinking tools, are a bit like a bicycle with training wheels on the road of transformational change.
Education in neurodiversity is fundamental to create the feedback loops needed to minimise misunderstandings and to replace management by fear with mutual trust and the courage to bring individual agency and all available knowledge and insights to work. In a good company coordination and organisational learning happens via a simple advice process, without any need for social power structures.
Some of the best professionals (in terms of their level of experience and problem solving abilities) in various knowledge intensive industries have strong autistic traits, and it is very likely that these people will be misunderstood by their colleagues on a regular basis, because they may not stick to all the social rules of politeness at all times.
In particular the questions that autistic professionals ask may be very direct and their answers short and to the point, and they may praise outcomes achieved instead of the contributions of individuals, because they recognise that all good work takes a team and because they consider social status to be irrelevant. This easily gets autistic people into trouble with “superiors” as well as with “subordinates” who they are expected to manage. These autistic professionals are not bullies!
The key differences between an autistic professional and a professional bully:
The autistic professional does not have a hidden agenda (may get angry in the moment but will never hold a grudge or follow a plot to “get ahead”)
The autistic professional is highly competent in her / his core areas of expertise (which can easily be interpreted as arrogance)
The autistic professional does not exaggerate (or brush inconvenient things under the carpet) and will openly talk about uncertainties, risks, and mistakes made (a good indicator to clear up any perception of arrogance)
The autistic professional is not interested in exerting power over other people (but will tend to use direct language which can be interpreted as authoritarian)
The autistic professional cares a lot about and goes to great lengths to achieve optimal work results (this again may involve asking for appropriate actions from others in direct language)
An anti-bullying initiative that does not take the above into account may only add fuel to the bullying problem.
Trusted collaboration and coordination at eye level
Of course the activities within teams, projects, service delivery processes, product development initiatives need to be coordinated, and whilst with the right kind of technology the coordination of routine tasks can be automated, the coordination of creative activities with emergent outcomes can benefit from a person in a role dedicated to the coordination task.
But that does not in any way imply the use of command and control style techniques by the coordinator, and it also does not imply that the coordinator should make decisions that affect other people in isolation. A coordinator is neither a privileged maker of decisions on behalf of the group nor someone entitled to tell others how to do their work.
Activities need to be coordinated, shared understanding needs to be validated, and priorities and paths of actions need to be agreed, and this can be achieved by bringing all relevant domain expertise together and by arriving at suitable decisions using the techniques outlined in this article.
In large organisations my colleagues and I have occasionally seen neurodiversity friendly teams that are run by closet autists, who go to great lengths to act as a “BS-deflector” for their team. As a result the managers or team leaders in question tend to struggle with autistic burnout and various health conditions.
I see the great work that these people are doing and it hurts to know that they suffer, that their efforts are not recognised, and that they are not even able to openly ask for accommodations. That urgently needs to change.
Today we are at an early stage of educating organisations about the full potential of neurodiversity. What I notice is that psychological safety only tends to exist in small pockets within larger organisations, and that psychological safety is often compromised in scenarios that require collaboration across organisational silos.
If autistic people can’t always see the depth of the “bigger picture” of the office politics around us it does not in any way mean that we don’t see the big picture. In fact we are aware of the big picture and often we zoom in from the biggest picture right down to our immediate context and then back out again, stopping at various levels in between that are potentially relevant to our context at hand. Office politics only distract from the genuinely bigger context. Accusing autistic people of not seeing the bigger picture perhaps illustrates the social disease that afflicts our society better than anything else.
Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration hold the potential to transform pathologically competitive and toxic teams and cultures into highly collaborative teams and larger cultural units that work together more like an organism rather than like a group of fighters in an arena.
Evolution has mastered a number of similar phase shifts in the past. Consider the evolution of multi-celled life forms. Single-celled micro-organisms have not been replaced, but they have been complemented with a mind-boggling variety of more complex multi-celled life forms. We now know that our bodies harbour of more bacteria than human cells, and the vast majority of these bacteria are in a symbiotic relationship with our human cells. Consider this masterpiece of evolution for a moment. Many billions of collaborating cells and micro-organisms form what you experience as “you”. Statistically speaking our bodies are highly collaborative ecosystems of microscopic entities.
Yes sure, we still need an immune system that protects us from less friendly bacteria, but even such microbial invaders that make “us” sick can also be seen as being part of a bigger collaborative picture. The interactions between “hostile” microbes and our bodies represent a feedback loop of mutual learning, and over longer periods of time, sometimes over many generations, we learn enough about each other to not only coexist, but to even depend on each other in symbiotic ways for ongoing survival.
Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes that small groups are the organisms of human societies. This should provide all of us with food for thought and it has massive implications for the gene-culture co-evolution that characterises our species.
Humans are not the first hyper-social species on this planet. Insects such as ants offer great examples of successful collaboration at immense scale over millions of years. Charles Darwin and other early proponents of evolutionary theory appreciated the role of collaboration within species and between species, but many of these early insights including related empirical observations have been suppressed within the hyper-competitive narrative that has come to dominate industrialised civilisation.
Autistic collaboration vs non-autistic collaboration
At a fundamental level, the ability to communicate is limited by the factors outlined in this article. Developing shared understanding is hard work. Always. For all people.
Autistic forms of communication within a neurodiverse team and within a psychologically safe environment actually impart a collaborative advantage to the entire team. The fact that most (all?) autistic people are incapable of holding a hidden agenda and don’t play social games minimises (if not eliminates) large and small sources of deception that afflict all traditional hierarchical organisational structures.
Non-autistic communication protocols make life bearable from a non-autistic perspective by injecting plenty of culturally expected pleasantries (exaggerations and small deceptions) and social cues into conversations, and thereby make it very hard to identify the larger deceptions that a minority of people weave into their social game. Resulting mismatches in expectations are easily explained away as unintended misunderstandings.
Non-autistic people seem ill equipped to recognise how all the little exaggerations they use on a regular basis, such as “you look great” (when you look and feel sick), and small deceptions such as “sorry, I have an important meeting to attend to” (when someone prefers not to help you and hoards information for personal advantage) or “I helped develop a great product” (when the person was not involved and only got to know the finished product and never contributed any feedback to the development team) over time add up to a non-collaborative and potentially toxic culture.
The technologies we develop and use tend to reflect the level of collaboration and competitiveness within our culture. In our role as conscious designers of technology, humans have the potential to influence the level of collaboration in our culture in profound ways, especially in a highly networked digital world. This recent interview between Douglas Rushkoff and Cory Doctorow offers a good overview of our current relationship with technology.
Time and trusted collaboration are our scarcest resources. The former is a hard constraint and the latter is the critical cultural variable on which our future depends.
We have reached a point where human societies can choose between a “collapse of human ecological footprint” based on a conscious and significant reduction of cultural and technological complexity or an “ecological collapse, including human population collapse” resulting from a perpetuation of the behaviours that are slowly but surely killing us all. Realistically both kinds of collapse will occur in parallel, and some communities may be able to avoid the latter form of collapse to a larger extent than others.
The only way of avoiding bias and dangerous oversimplification is to perform ecological accounting in terms of relevant physical units. We can continue to live in cities and rely on science and specialisation to develop complementary skills, bodies of knowledge, and technologies, but we will have to rethink how we collaborate and manage genuinely scarce physical resources at a fundamental level.
Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise accordingly.
Human scale vs super-human scale
One important dimension of human cognitive limits relates to the number of relationships that humans are capable of maintaining,
“Study after study confirms that most people have about five intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances. This threshold is imposed by brain size and chemistry, as well as the time it takes to maintain meaningful relationships”, Dunbar says. – Scientific American, September 2018
These numbers guide my thinking on human scaleand have shaped the NeurodiVenture operating model that limits the size of good company to 50 people.
Unpopular fact: Super-human scale organisations of more than 50 people are collective delusions. In particular larger organisations that contain structures of command and control are not only learning disabled, they are also also detrimental to mental health and trusted collaboration.
When people complain about living in a filter bubble the problem is home-grown, the result of toxic levels of enforced cultural uniformity at super-human scales.
The NeurodiVenture operating model not only raises neurodiversity as a top level concern for good company but by imposing a hard limit on group size (in the case of S23M enforced by our company constitution) it also ensures that every member of the team has spare cognitive capacity for building and maintaining trusted relationships with the outside world, whilst at the same time encouraging creative collaboration for life.
The more we help each other to question in ways we otherwise wouldn’t – and correspondingly discover new insights about the world and ourselves, the more we are able to learn from each other, and the more we start to understand each other. The gift that members of NeurodiVentures bring to the world is the (re)generative potential of all the trusted relationships that they co-create.
Now contrast the NeurodiVenture setup with a traditional hierarchical organisation with several thousand employees.
Firstly the hierarchical social power structure imposes a top-down approach to declaring the organisation’s purpose and organisational values – in ignorance of what the people that make up the organisation are actually interested in and care about, leading to a cultural straightjacket of what is possible – a tiny Overton window that limits the conversations within the organisation.
Secondly, the “career opportunities” offered by the organisation by definition imply a hierarchical career ladder and send a strong signal to all employees that in-group competition is the route to professional success, and since – again by definition of the pyramidal structure – ladder climbing opportunities are limited to a minority, many employees will only stay a limited time and then choose to seek opportunities in other organisations (usually within three years and often within less than two years), with disastrous implications for the organisation’s ability to build up and retain valuable tacit knowledge.
I could compile a long list of advantages of the NeurodiVenture operating model supported by 7 years (and counting) of operating experience (following 10 years of lessons with various other operating models), but many of these advantages are simply corollaries of the cognitive limits highlighted by Dunbar’s research, which by the way are intuitively understood and adhered to by “uncivilised” societies.
Dunbar’s numbers (5 intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances) focus on the numbers of relationships that an individual can maintain. From this we can deduce that 50 people is an upper limit for a good company. In fact if the members of a company want to maintain strong trusted relationships with the external world, then it is a good idea for every member to maintain some of the 50 general friend relationships with people in other companies.
Let’s assume on average every member has 10 general friend relationships with people in other companies. Then collectively a good company can maintain a very impressive number of strong trusted relationships with other good companies. For example a company of 40 people would have a mind-boggling capacity of up to 40 * 10 = 400 general friend relationships with other companies. Of course the number is lower if people have many shared general friends, but the actual number will still be quite impressive. The important observation here is that we are talking about genuine and trust based relationships between people and not about superficial and untrusted transactional interactions. Collaborating in good company, even across the organisational boundary, is genuinely enjoyable!
A company of up to 50 people contains up to (50 x 49)/2 = 1225 general friend relationships. The possible collaboration patterns within the company are correspondingly complex. In order for individuals to collaborate effectively and in order to effectively coordinate activities across the organisation it makes sense for emergent groups of regular (daily) collaborators to be given recognisable labels – the result is a structure of teams.
A theoretical debate over whether teams should be allowed to overlap completely misses the point. What matters is that high performing collaborative teams tend to have 7 +/- 2 members. A team’s boundary is defined by the existing team members. A new team member joining is an obvious event, prompted by a new need for daily collaboration.
Within a good company (smaller than 50 people) and especially within a team, everyone is acutely aware of the competencies of all the other members. Within traditional teams this knowledge about the distribution of available competencies tends to be tacit – locked up in peoples’ heads, it is not available in explicit form. In a NeurodiVenture all members expose (write down and share) these so-called individual competency networks for the benefit of everyone within the company.
The result is an immensely valuable index of competencies consisting of up to 50 unique perspectives on the company. These perspectives are not merged into some absurd attempt to create a unique source of truth. All perspectives are considered equally valid. Collectively their presence allows the company to rapidly respond intelligently and with courage to all kinds of external events, by drawing on collective intelligence in a very literal sense.
To appreciate the significance, let’s assume that on average for each person in a company of 50 there are 10 to 20 externally or internally triggered categories of events (these events can be thought of as use cases) associated with a demand that relate to the person’s core competencies, and perhaps there are another 10 to 20 events that the person is also well equipped to deal with (beyond the core competencies). This leads to a collective set of 50 x 20 to 50 x 40 = 1,000 to 2,000 competency self assessments, and to a multitude of perspectives from others on a subset of these declared competencies. Having all this information available in explicit form within a company is an extremely valuable tool.
But of course hardly anyone in a traditional organisation with hierarchical power structures would openly share their individual competency network including their perspectives on the core competencies of other members of the organisation. Anyone who thinks about this obvious observation for a couple of minutes has to conclude that traditional organisations represent a form of collective stupidity – the result of inherent lack of mutual trust due to in-group competition.
The 8 trust-reinforcing organisational principles and rituals
The more generic tailored 8 pro-social core design principles
The NeurodiVenture model is the result of incremental evolution. The 8 trust-reinforcing principles and rituals are not unique to our approach and have proven their worth in various contexts. At S23M we started with these 8 complementary/orthogonal principles and rituals as an initial minimal viable operating model. Then several painful lessons prompted us to add the prosocial principles.
Our established undocumented practices meant that we already had implementations for 7 of the 8 prosocial principles identified by Elinor Ostrom, Michael Cox and David Sloan Wilson, but we were missing the 8th principle “Graduated responses to transgressions”. As as our small team grew beyond four people, the idea of explicit individual competency networks took shape and has since become more important and relevant with every new team member.
In a good company coordination and organisational learning happens via a simple advice process (one of our 8 trust-reinforcing rituals), without any need for social power structures. Before making a major decision that affects others in the organisation:
A person has to seek advice from at least one trusted colleague with potentially relevant or complementary knowledge or expertise.
Giving advice is optional. It is okay to admit lack of expertise. This enables the requestor to proceed on the basis of the available evidence.
Following advice is optional. The requestor may ignore advice if she/he believes that all things considered there is a better approach or solution. Not receiving advice in a timely manner is deemed equivalent to no relevant advice being available within the organisation. This allows everyone to balance available wisdom with first hand learning and risk taking.
The 8 prosocial design principles provide guidance for dealing with people who regularly ignore relevant advice (or consistently refuse to seek or give advice) and therefore regularly cause downstream problems for others as a result. Such situations are obvious for all involved. A persistent breakdown of collaboration either results in a significant change in behaviour once the downstream problems are recognised, or in the non-cooperative person leaving the organisation.
According to Frederic Laloux an advice process with the above characteristics is the one noteworthy commonality across all of the non-hierarchical organisations that he has researched. I can confirm that the advice process is an essential corner stone within the NeurodiVenture model.
The outlined NeurodiVenture model is a minimalistic implementation of a non-hierarchical organisation.
Beyond eliminating formal hierarchical structures the NeurodiVenture model also removes all incentives for the emergence of informal “power-over” structures via transparency of all individual competency networks for the benefit of everyone within the company. This is perhaps the most radical idea within the NeurodiVenture model.
Transparency of individual competency networks enables meta knowledge (who has which knowledge and who entrusts whom with questions or needs in relation to specific domains of knowledge) to flow freely within an organisation.
The conceptualisation of meta knowledge flows via individual competency networks assists the coordination of activities via the advice process outlined above and via regular Open Space workshops, and it acts as an effective dampener on the informal hierarchies that can easily come to plague hierarchical and “non-hierarchical” organisations.
Informal hierarchies tend to corrode trust and collaboration, often with particularly toxic effects for neurodivergent people. This is the one notable difference to the forms of self-organisation advocated by Frederic Laloux, which don’t mandate transparency of meta knowledge flows, and which rely on “natural” hierarchies.
Similarly the additional rituals and “circle” structures that are prescribed by recipes for operating non-hierarchical organisations such as sociocracy or holocracy are not needed in the NeurodiVenture model. Organically evolving small – and often overlapping – teams are created and dissolved as needed to achieve specific goals.
The NeurodiVenture model continuously strives to minimise spurious cultural complexity. It has evolved incrementally based on concrete needs, only relying on the timeless wisdom that has been captured in the prosocial principles that predate “civilised” societies.
Further implications of human cognitive limits
People can understand the nuanced dynamics of teams of up to 10 people.
Groups of more than 10 people must be organised in teams of teams for everyone to retain an understanding of the collaboration dynamics.
An individual competency network that references more than 50 people leads to reductions in trusted collaboration and hence a reduction in organisational adaptiveness.
Via peer-to-peer recommendations the potential for trusted collaboration can be expanded to 150 people, however at any point in time an individual can only collaborate effectively with up to 50 people.
Collaborations involving more than 50 people produce emergent results and attempts of alignment are of limited effectiveness.
All forms of social status are legacy technologies that create dangerous illusions of authority or understanding. Decisions made by an individual on behalf of more than 50 people are based on ignorance about the ways in which people will be affected.
Notes on cultural evolution and transformation
When applying multi-level group selection theory of evolution (MLS) to human societies that are driven as much by culture (social norms) as by genetic biological programmes, the most relevant subjects of evolution are social groups at various levels of scale.
Learning how to create collaborative environments for small “human scale” groups (good companies) creates a collaborative edge over other companies as no effort is wasted on in-group competition. This in turn significantly reduces the need to spend time on “winning” direct competitions with other companies. What happens instead is that other companies are increasingly intrigued by the company’s capability.
Education is essential. When beliefs that represent evidence based facts are propagated via a critical self-reflective process of education that is at least one order of magnitude slower than the process of social transmission (imitation/copying without any deeper understanding), recipients – to a certain degree – are immunised against influence from those with opinions that contradict evidence based understanding.
The journey of transformation of an organisation opens up three broad scenarios:
Only a few individuals within the organisation recognise the full human potential for collaboration. These individuals will leave the toxic organisation and can be supported in forming or joining a good company with a NeurodiVenture compatible operating model. This is a form of palliative care for toxic organisations that allows organisations to die whilst providing an exit strategy for the inhabitants.
A sizeable subgroup of individuals within the organisation recognises the full human potential for collaboration, but the majority of people within the organisation are not yet ready to shift perspectives. Such a subgroup can for example emerge / self-organise as a result of running regular Open Space workshops within the organisation. The subgroup may choose to separate from the organisation and then collaborate with the organisation (and potentially other organisations) from the outside. This is a form of transformational support that allows organisations to incrementally break up into smaller and healthier collaborative parts.
The majority of individuals within the organisation recognise the full human potential for collaboration. Such a result may also emerge / self-organise as a result of running regular Open Space workshops within the organisation. This is a form of phase transition that allows organisations to rapidly shift to a much healthier collaborative operating model.
Note that in all scenarios above the organisational units and their configuration are the subjects of evolution.
Individuals can choose to remain in the original organisational structure / operating model as long as they wish, but as more and more of their colleagues vote with their feet and signal a preference for a collaborative cultural environment, more and more will find the courage to leave what at the beginning may still have been perceived as a somewhat toxic but at least as a familiar and therefore superficially “safe” environment (due to irrational fear of the unknown, i.e. “things are bad but they could be worse”).
In some geographies the prevalence of autism within the population is now estimated to be 1 in 35. Overall, in the US, according to CDC data, 1 in 6 children has a “developmental disability”, and in the UK, according to the Department of Education, 15% (roughly 1 in 7) of students have a “learning difference”.
I don’t have any issue with these numbers. In fact I am delighted that the extent to which people differ from one another is finally being recognised. But I do have an issue with the continuing pathologisation of people that don’t fit a standardised idealised (and hence fictional) human template. Even if we are seeing the first cracks in the pathology paradigm in relation to variances in neurocognitive functioning in the form of a partial shift from the language of disorder to condition and to difference, many of the traits associated with differences are still described in the pathologising language of diagnostic criteria.
Furthermore, even if the language of diagnostic criteria were to be completely overhauled, the social construct of having professional diagnosticians on the one hand and non-human-standard conforming people on the other hand creates an arbitrary social power differential where the level of humanness of the latter minority group is rated and judged by another minority group with privileged status in our society.
The desire to categorise and standardise human behaviours is the underlying force of civilised societies, which reached new heights over the last 250 years, first with the mechanistic factory model of the world that defined the early industrial era, and then more recently, with the development of networked computers and with the emergence of automated information flows that currently shape significant parts of our lives and our interactions with people and with abstract technological agents.
The illusion of the idealised standard human
Autistic people and otherwise neurodivergent people must take ownership of the labels. The way to do so is by collaboration and by rejecting pseudo science. Instead of normalisation therapies for neurodivergent people there is a need for developing yet to be conceived assistive technologies for improving communication and collaboration between people with significantly different cognitive lenses.
Is is as important to provide appropriate technologies to neurotypical people as it is to provide appropriate technologies for neurodivergent people. Thoughtful design of assistive technologies not only assists neurodivergent people to better relate to neurotypical people, but it also holds potential for assisting neurotypical people to learn about and better relate to neurodivergent people with a kaleidoscope of different cognitive lenses.
Our digital devices already come loaded with plenty of software tools that provide cognitive assistance in terms of
speech to text,
text to speech,
image to text,
synchronous and asynchronous communication,
management and filtering of social interactions,
project coordination and collaboration,
prioritisation and task management,
arithmetic calculation / spreadsheet,
domain specific machine learning,
visual domain specific modelling,
music and video production,
noise cancelling and filtering headphones / ear plugs,
biological function monitoring and feedback,
visualisation and exploration of multi-dimensional data sets,
automation of routine tasks of various types,
general purpose programming,
augmented reality displays that can be configured to incorporate all kinds of visual information,
functionality, and the list continues to grow. A good way of understanding the concept of neurodiversity is to step back and to realise that all of us develop unique usage profiles of all these technologies. In fact, most of us end up focusing on using a particular subset of these technologies – because these provide us with the optimal assistance for our specific cognitive lens in the context of our preferred social and physical environments, which in turn are heavily influenced by our cognitive lens.
It is not an accident that autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people have been heavily involved in developing many (all?) of the above technologies.
The visceral experience of cognitive overload in various contexts experienced by neurodivergent people and the deep and highly domain specific areas of interests of autistic people have compelled people to dedicate much of their time and sometimes literally their entire life to the development and improvement of specific assistive technologies.
Just because the majority of people, once they are fully programmed by our culture, perceives a growing minority of people (1 in 6) as not fully conforming to cultural expectations, does not mean that there is anything biologically or mentally wrong with these non-conformists. From a sociological and biological perspective the rising numbers of cultural non-conformists may just as well be seen as an indicator of an increasingly sick society characterised by cultural norms that are incompatible with human biological and social needs.
The dynamics of culture and technology
How did society get to the point where the needs of 1 out of 6 people are not reflected in the evolution of social norms?
Social norms evolve and shift incrementally over time, often subconsciously, without any explicit intent at an individual level. Typical humans absorb the cultural norms around them without being aware of the extent to which this is influencing their world view and their judgements of other people.
We tend to believe that we consciously design the technologies we use. Whilst the development of technologies certainly involves an element of conscious intent, it is easy to overlook the implicit cultural assumptions and biases that are baked into the technological designs we create and implement.
Ted Nelson reminds us of the broad scope of technology in human cultures and of the social power dynamics associated with technology. Even the language we speak and the specific words we use are technologies.
A frying-pan is technology. All human artifacts are technology. But beware anybody who uses this term. Like “maturity” and “reality” and “progress”, the word “technology” has an agenda for your behavior: usually what is being referred to as “technology” is something that somebody wants you to submit to. “Technology” often implicitly refers to something you are expected to turn over to “the guys who understand it.
This is actually almost always a political move. Somebody wants you to give certain things to them to design and decide. Perhaps you should, but perhaps not.
Instead, autistic people primarily tend to design and develop technologies for personal use. In the era of computers and ubiquitous digital devices this has resulted in a mind boggling soup of diverse technologies for all kinds of use cases. In order to understand how technologies end up becoming co-opted for social power games we have to look at the bigger picture of the social context. Autistic people don’t operate exclusively in a social vacuum, and their social naivety in combination with the curiosity of the people around them leads to applications of new technology far beyond what an autistic inventor may have had in mind.
The resulting bigger picture of social dynamics illustrates how new knowledge and inventions can easily be co-opted, especially in sick societies that run on a hyper-competitive social operating system.
The accelerated automated information flows enabled via the internet have magnified the risks of and have amplified the reach of technologies that have been co-opted to establish and perpetuate social inequalities by several orders of magnitude. It should come as no surprise that many of the assistive technologies listed above are both highly valuable to individuals and at the same time have been co-opted to perpetuate established social hierarchies and economic “externalities”.
designers of social games (organisations or individuals with a lack of empathy),
the potential user base (wider society including its institutions).
In our globally networked world individual inventors or small teams currently don’t have much if any control over the use of the technologies they create. Anthropocentrism and ignorance of human scale are the social diseases of our civilisation.
These diseases are obvious to most autistic people but they are only just beginning to be recognised by a growing number of people in wider society. Many signs are pointing towards a major cultural transformation based on a significant shift in values of younger generations that have grown up in an environment of continuous exploitation by technological monopolies.
Mono-cultures and social games
The biggest challenge of the Anthropocence is the collective mind shift needed to reverse the growing ecological footprint of the human presence on this planet. Time and trusted collaboration are our scarcest resources. The former is a hard constraint and the latter is the critical cultural variable on which our future depends.
The trend towards increasing levels of technological, social, and ecological mono-cultures creates a multitude of existential risks:
A global ideological mono-culture that systematically prioritises the imagined “needs” of capital before the needs of humans and the other biological creatures that make up the biosphere
Fragile ecological mono-cultures that are not only vulnerable to pathogens and climate variability at global scale, but are also dependent on unsustainable energy and resource inputs (fertiliser), whilst being inherently unsustainable in terms of soil degradation
To understand why so many innovations are perverted into toxic social games we only need to look at the logic that powers the global economy. Any innovations that are unlikely to generate a return on capital are automatically discarded by investors of capital.
Our education system and institutions steer all young entrepreneurs with visions of improving some aspect of our world into the hands of potential investors. Entrepreneurs are not taught that there are alternative routes to bringing valuable innovations to life, and they are certainly not taught that anyone should be able to define their own criteria of success – and that aiming for a monetary profit or for global scale may work against the original vision of the entrepreneur.
Think about this for a moment. As an example, imagine someone invented a personal transportation vehicle that is twenty to forty times lighter than a conventional car, powered by an electric battery that only needs a fraction of the capacity needed to power an electric car. Imagine these lightweight vehicles would have a range comparable to electric cars and were capable of travelling at speeds of up to 80 km/h. We already know how to build and produce such vehicles, they cost much less than traditional cars and they hold the potential to replace traditional car fleets at a fraction of the energy and resource use needed to replace the ICE cars on our roads by electric cars.
The reasons why we are not yet seeing local production of such vehicles in all parts of the world are very simple:
Conventional automotive companies have no interest in shifting to the production of ultra-light one or two person electric vehicles, because it would drastically reduce their revenue and profit margins.
An entire web of energy, resource, and labour intensive suppliers of automotive parts and components is interested in maintaining their revenue and profit margins.
The shift to electric vehicles is already causing major headaches for countries like Germany where significant parts of the economy in some geographic regions depend heavily on automotive companies. As a result governments are reluctant to impose any significant limits on traditional vehicle production.
As long as peoples’ livelihoods are dependent on being busy in some kind of paid “job”, any innovation that reduces the need for human busyness will be perceived as a dangerous idea that has no legs. It is quite bizarre how much governments are concerned about providing “jobs” (i.e. busyness) and how little they are concerned about addressing increasingly severe existential threats. The “only” barrier that stands in the way of radical transformation is the absurd idea that only money and busyness generating activities are valuable to society. In a world of material abundance in developed countries, oil spills and other environmental disasters are welcome opportunities for keeping the stuttering busyness engine going.
At a fundamental level all capitalistic economies are based on mistrust (guard labour). The constraints that the system imposes on individuals optimises for inequality and busyness (spurious cultural complexity). The system leaves no room for intrinsic value of biodiversity and of living organisms. Ultimately the machines we design will keep themselves busy and produce capital for themselves and their peers – humans along with all other life forms become completely redundant.
Governance models that aim to address some of the perverse incentives and externalities created by the logic of capital, such as triple bottom line approaches and frameworks such as the Living Standards Framework currently being implemented in New Zealand, tend to suffer from the tendency of maintaining traditional monetary measures of economic activity as a core foundation and from treating other measures of well-being and ecological health as secondary dimensions. Thus whilst such frameworks may look attractive on the surface, their bias towards money generating busyness severely limits the potential for improvements of well-being and ecological health at a fundamental level.
This little thought experiment demonstrates how economic ideology gets in the way of a profound transformation.
Non-autistic people who have internalised most aspects of our culture at a subconscious level have extreme difficulty in reasoning about economic ideology from the outside and in coming up with alternative organisational principles that seem to defy “common sense”. Non-autistic people are incapable of fulfilling the role of Greta Thunberg (and many other autistic people) in educating young people about climate breakdown and about the dysfunctions of our economic ideology.
Most scientific and technological breakthroughs are made by people and teams of people with autistic minds. But throughout human history, as outlined above, the applications of such breakthroughs have been shaped by an entirely different group of people and by organisations that are mainly interested in maintaining and enhancing established social power differentials. In a networked world social power differentials have been amplified and scaled to a global level. Instead of the bizarre local power games played by baboons, chimpanzees and other primates, human civilisation now plays a global power game with much higher stakes.
Since autistic people are unable to hold hidden agendas and are not interested in holding social power over others, they hold great potential as translators between very different cultures and as arbitrators between stakeholders with competing interests.
Currently our societies are blind to this potential. Instead our culture pathologies those people who are best equipped to point out cultural bias and blind spots. Unless society starts to appreciate and celebrate neurodiversity and neurodivergent collaboration the future of humans looks bleak.
The following illustrations can assist in establishing trusted collaborations with neurodivergent people and with neurodiverse teams.
In the above illustration the relative surface areas of the red, green, and blue rectangles represent the usage profile of a neurotypical brain, and the sum of the surface areas represent the total brain volume.
An autistic brain has the same volume but a distinctly different usage profile. The range of domains that are of interest is much narrower and deeper, with the exception of intuitive (subconscious) social skills, which are much less deep than in a neurotypical “reference” brain. Also note that a significant part of the autistic brain is devoted to the development of exceptionally deep knowledge and skills in specific domains of interest (the example reflects my specific interests, each autistic person has a unique profile of core interests).
The following video by Quinn Dexter uses an analogy with RPGs to illustrate why pathologising autistic people with spiky skill profiles is a really bad idea.
Attempts at collaboration between neurotypes suffer from the incompatible levels of intuitive social skills and from mismatches in the level of depth of knowledge and breadth of interests in other domains.
Successful and mutually enjoyable collaboration across neurotypes focuses on shared or overlapping areas of deep knowledge and hinges on neurotypical adaptation to autistic levels of social skills.
Beyond focus on shared areas of deep knowledge successful collaboration depends on mutual understanding of potential sources of misunderstandings. Autistic people carry around large numbers of open questions and only have beliefs that are backed up by personal experience or by scientific evidence. In contrast non-autistic people are much less comfortable carrying around open questions over long periods of time and tend to hold many socially constructed beliefs, i.e. opinions that are not backed up by personal experience or by scientific evidence.
Minimising misunderstandings involves significant work on both sides and hinges on mutual respect and patience.
Recovery from social disease
Members of the autism civil rights movement adopt a position of neurodiversity that extends the LGBTQIA+ kaleidoscope of identities by recognising autistic traits as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species. As an autistic person I can only hope that it does not take another 50 years for autism and other forms of neurodiversity to be depathologised. The next step towards depathologisation involves autistic people taking ownership of the label.
I am not worried about the survival of our “civilisation”. Our current form of social organisation is a legacy technology that will be viewed as a severe and highly infectious social disease by future generations.
The lifespan of individual humans is far too short and our minds may be far too limited for us to develop a deep and profound level of understanding of social diseases at super-human scale (nation states, corporations, and other large organisations that we interact with on a transactional basis rather than via long-term trust based eye level relationships with specific people).
If we are lucky some of our technologies may help us to remember the level of collective insanity that humans and other primates are capable of, and they may prevent us from exterminating millions of species including our own. The following call for action extracted from an excellent analysis by Nafeez Ahmed is a medicine worthwhile trying:
‘Rebellion’ is not enough. We need to build new systems from the ground up, right now
… It’s not that we shouldn’t protest or call for institutions to change. But far more than that, if we are really serious about this, the far bigger challenge is for each of us to work within our own networks of influence, to explore how we ourselves can begin changing the organisations and institutions in which we are embedded.
And it means grounding this effort in completely new frame of orientation, one in which human beings are inherently interconnected, and inter-embedded within the earth; where we are not atomistically separated from the reality in which we find ourselves as technocratic overlords, but are co-creators of that reality as individuated parts of a continuum of being.
Whatever happens out there in the world, the crisis out there is calling unto each of us to become who we need to be, truly are, and always were. And on the basis of that internal renewal, to take radical action in our own place-based contexts to build the seeds of the new paradigm, right here, right now.
… Let us not simply go to a protest. Let us build our own capacity as individuals and members of various institutions to think and do differently within our own consciousness and behaviour, as well as across energy, food, water, culture, economics, business, finance. By doing so, we plant the seeds of an emerging paradigm of life and reality that redefines the very essence of what it means to be alive.
This is the conversation we need to begin having, from our boardrooms, to our governing councils — for those of us who have woken up to what is at stake, the real question is, how can I actually mobilise to build the new paradigm?
From the perspective of the autism rights movement ownership of the definition of autism is a practical question of human rights and social power relationships in the here and now, and not an abstract philosophical problem.
Across the board most autistic people recognise the disabling characteristics of autism, which are socially constructed, exactly in the same way that left-handedness, female sex, or atypical gender identity used to be significantly disabling characteristics in our society.
Here are two concrete examples of how social power relationships in relation to neurodiversity currently play out within academic research organisations:
“There is no staff member in our organisation who is interested in participating in an active role in the context of celebrating and de-pathologising neurodiversity”
When asking about a safe space (a time slot and small venue) that allows neurodivergent people to meet, I was informed that “the organisation has already settled on five priority areas of diversity and that the organisation does not want to add any more [support]”
In order to be of value to the autistic community, and in order not to further endorse and perpetuate the use of the pathology paradigm by researchers, it is essential that future autism research builds on the communal definition of autism and takes care to use non-pathologising language in all resulting publications.
This article is a sad reminder of the mainstream culture we often find ourselves in. This culture is the inevitable result of pathologising autism and other neurological variants; it makes invalid and highly toxic assumptions about human nature that become self-fulfilling prophecies:
Let’s begin with two principles:
People are status-seeking monkeys
People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital
… I begin with these two observations of human nature because few would dispute them …
I can’t comprehend how anyone wants to live in this kind of world. I would like to see research that explores how “status-seeking monkeys” can unlearn some of their assumptions about human nature and become more aware of their cultural programming.
From an ethical perspective, the following guidelines should be mandatory for all future autism research:
Autism is a very broad umbrella term for a multi-dimensional set of traits. In our current society both autistic people with more complex support needs as well as those with less complex support needs suffer from discrimination.
A pathologising label such as “Low Functioning Autism” negates and belittles the capabilities of a group of people, simply because they are non-verbal (here is a good example) or learning disabled.
A pathologising label such as “High Functioning Autism” negates and belittles the support needs of a group of people, simply because they are verbal and not learning disabled. Bullying and autistic suicide statistics are a strong indicator of a lack of support that actually meets the needs of autistic people.
The rationale for using non-pathologising language is straight forward. It is the same rationale that prompts left-handed people, women, the LGBTQIA communities etc. to rightfully demand the use of non-pathologising language. In case non-pathologising language leads to concerns about the ability to publish in influential journals, then the problem clearly lies with the journals and not with the research and the language used.
My work involves the diligent use of language and formal semantic models. I am acutely aware of the power and the limits of language in the context of knowledge transfer, and the role of language in the context of power politics and deception. Our company is not going to be involved in any research that uses pathologising language to describe autism.
The use of pathologising language is fine in relation to physical or mental ailments where a person wishes for a cure or amelioration that is focused on their own body and mind. The use of pathologising language is inappropriate for physical or mental ailments that are caused by the environment.
If someone experiences pain in their foot because I stand on their foot, the person does not have a foot pathology but their environment is a source of pain that needs to be addressed. If an autistic person experiences mental and emotional pain due to sensory overload or due to cultural demands for conformance with culture specific arbitrary rituals (eye contact is a great example of a cultural ritual that is painful or stressful for many autistic people, and small talk can be similarly stressful), the person does not have a mental disorder but their environment (including cultural expectations) is a source of pain that needs to be addressed.
There is no doubt that many autistic people (just like non-autistic people) have ailments that are experienced as a disease or disorder, which people would prefer not to have. People do not enjoy having epileptic seizures, migraines, asthma, and many other ailments. All of these health conditions have formal labels that describe related symptoms. None of these health conditions are unique to autistic people, even though some autistic people have some of these co-concurrent conditions more frequently than other people.
Resorting to pathologising language in autism related research that focuses on autistic cognition but not on co-concurrent health conditions amounts to systematic discrimination.
Autism related research that investigates co-concurrent health conditions in the context of autism may use pathologising language in relation to the co-concurrent health conditions, but not in relation to autism.
Social power relationships
Social power relationships are not an intrinsic feature of all societies, even though they are part of all societies that consider themselves (considered in the case of historic societies that have collapsed) to be “civilised”.
Cultural evolution is a topic that “culturally well adapted” (non-autistic) people are ill equipped to discuss, as cultural bias easily creates significant blind spots. A culture without neurodiversity and without an adequate distribution of autistic traits is unable to evolve.
It is the role of science to apply a critical lens to our understanding of the world, and in the case of human researchers this means being cognisant of the potential for cultural bias to induce culture-specific implicit assumptions when framing research objectives and when attempting to analyse the social world.
In the context of autism co-concurrent health conditions – rather than autistic cognition – can be disabling.
Most importantly however, for all autistic people the cultural environment and cultural expectations in most societies are disabling to some extent (see the social model of disability).
This article by Robert Chapman provides serious food for thought on the origins of the pathologisation of autism.
Ethical research objectives
Since autism is not a pathology, research objectives must not include:
The search for a cure for autism
Genetic tests that screen for traits that are common in autistic people, with a view of reducing the prevalence or strength of these traits
Therapies for autistic people that focus primarily on changing the behaviour of autistic people, rather than assisting autistic people to shape their environment in accordance with their unique individual needs
Instead, given the shocking historic track record of autism research and therapies, all autism related research must be subject to ethical approval by a board of autistic people, and must consider the needs of all autistic people, including autistic adults.
It is time to significantly raise the ethical bar for autism research.
The initiative below illustrates the beginning of a new era of autism research.
The Participatory Autism Research Collective
The Participatory Autism Research Collective (PARC) was set up to bring autistic people, including scholars and activists, together with early career researchers and practitioners who work with autistic people. Our aim is to build a community network where those who wish to see more significant involvement of autistic people in autism research can share knowledge and expertise.
The project was initially based at London South Bank University, where PARC has held a number of events, contributed to research projects and to publications. The group is has since expand activities to other Universities such as Birmingham, Sheffield Hallam and Nottingham.
The Neurodiversity Reader – Call for Submissions Twenty years on – tracing the influence of the neurodiversity movement on theory and practice.
The topics that generate conversations around the Autistic Collaboration community increasingly overlap with the topics that participants are bringing to the quarterly CIIC unconferences in Auckland and in Melbourne, which draw in many people with autistic cognitive lenses.
I have recently summarised the multiple crises of civilisation on the CIIC website, so there is no need to repeat theses observations as part of this article. I would rather like to highlight the deep levels of indoctrination that stand in the way of addressing the root causes of what is best described as extreme anthropocentrism or as “civilisation disorder”.
Human civilisations have incrementally produced more and more sophisticated tools for inducing and maintaining collective delusions. The increasing level of pathologisation of neurodiversity over the last century (measurable in the rise in diagnoses of “neurological disorders”) is a good indicator of deepening levels of indoctrination rather than an indicator of an evolutionary shift in human neurocognitive functioning.
Another good indicator of the multi-generational depth of cultural indoctrination becomes visible when examining shifts in the meanings of the words we use to describe human social behaviour within groups and between groups.
In the English language words that originally referred to companionship, ways of life, skilled handicraft, and track (I love how that relates to autistic focus and perseverance!) are used interchangeably with words that originally referred to anxiety, being busy, and marking of ownership with a burning iron. As part of the neoliberal capitalist agenda the words “business” and “brand” have found their way into many other languages in Europe and beyond.
The origin of “brand”: Old English brand ‘burning’, of Germanic origin; related to German Brand, also to burn. The verb sense ‘mark with a hot iron’ dates from late Middle English, giving rise to the noun sense ‘a mark of ownership made by branding’ (mid 17th century), whence brand (the noun) (early 19th century).
The origin of “business”: Old English bisignis ‘anxiety’ (see busy, -ness); the sense ‘state of being busy’ was used from Middle English down to the 18th century, but is now differentiated as busyness. The use ‘appointed task’ dates from late Middle English, and from it all the other current senses have developed.
The origin of “trade”: Late Middle English (as a noun): from Middle Low German, literally ‘track’, of West Germanic origin; related to tread. Early senses included ‘course, way of life’, which gave rise in the 16th century to ‘habitual practice of an occupation’, ‘skilled handicraft’. The current verb senses date from the late 16th century.
The origin of “company”: Middle English: from Old French compainie; related to compaignon (see companion).
Today those who object to branding and busyness are pathologised. To top it off, many people are so brainwashed that they are afraid of the collapse of civilisation.
The term “civilisation” traces back to notion of “city”, labels which also carry baggage related to wielding social power beyond human scale that people no longer think about.
Origin of “city“: Middle English: from Old French cite, from Latin civitas, from civis ‘citizen’. Originally denoting a town, and often used as a Latin equivalent to Old English burh ‘borough’, the term was later applied to the more important English boroughs. The connection between city and cathedral grew up under the Norman kings, as the episcopal sees (many had been established in villages) were removed to the chief borough of the diocese.
Of course the label of “city” entails many functions beyond the old connection to social power. Valuable aspects of cities include all the other infrastructure functions of cities beyond the provision of a substrate for social power games.
Creating more humane societies involves surgical removal of social power games from our institutions and relationships.
Without self-awareness about the depth of cultural indoctrination and without many years of practice in the use of [critical] thinking tools any attempt to consciously construct a different and more humane society is destined to fail.
Whatever changes well intentioned cultural designers have in mind will quickly be picked up and co-opted by established power structures, leading to watered down objectives and activities that create an illusion of change, whilst actually reinforcing power gradients and an anthropocentric concept of civilisation, where civilised humans represent the pinnacle of valuable life forms, and where lesser humans and other species are relegated to lower rungs on the ladder of life, deemed unworthy of influencing the future of life on this planet.
The only potential avenue to escape the patterns of collective insanity known as civilisation is an educational approach that delivers compelling evidence that all civilisations have a dark side that eventually becomes the dominant characteristic, and thereby leads to the abuse and disillusionment of the “inmates” of civilised society.
Only those who have understood in their minds and who feel in their hearts that civilisation is not a worthwhile objective for human society are able to see the alternative that is waiting for us: a life within small (human scale) collaborative groups, embedded in a planetary network of life that includes all species.
Prior to the short era of civilisations, humans have spent several hundred thousand years in human scale egalitarian groups. This capability – the potential to develop and maintain egalitarian norms over many generations – distinguished us from other primates, and it enabled us to become more successful than all other primates.
What civilisation has taught us is that humans still have the potential to fall back into cultural norms that reinforce primate dominance hierarchies. This potential in combination with the relatively large size of the human brain enables
From my discussions with other autistic people it seems that many of us would happily trade civilisation for life at human scale. Some of us are desperate to leave “civilisation” behind.
Life in human scale collaborative groups is possible today, and the number of non-hierarchical organisations is growing. In contrast to our pre-civilised ancestors we now have ubiquitous access to technologies that enable global peer to peer communication. The opportunity at our disposal consists of localised human scale organisation (minimising our ecological footprint) and global peer to peer sharing and validation of knowledge (maximising our learning opportunities).
Life at humane scale is life in a post busyness society. How much longer will it take for the majority of humans to reject the failed busyness of civilisation?
We don’t need to give up the infrastructure functions provided by our cities and technologies, we only need to give up super-human scale (inhumane) social structures and group identities.
The catch is that this may be easy for autistic people on the fringes of society, but it seems to be far from easy for most non-autistic people. Typical humans have a very hard time to differentiate culturally transmitted beliefs and desires from basic human needs and the innate human preference for peer to peer collaboration at eye level.
My conclusion: anthropocentric “civilisation” is a dead end. Humane neurodiversity friendly collaboration may hold the key to the future of human cultural evolution – not as a way of building a new civilisation, but as a way for identifying a viable niche for our descendants within the context of a thriving living planet.
But like many other autistic people Greta sees right through the attempts of social engineering. Her real achievement lies in reaching a global audience by riding on top of the media machines that work on behalf of the establishment, and by simply pointing out the obvious truth to everyone – that the emperors have no clothes.
Now the global public knows that everyone else knows that the emperors have no clothes. From now on all established institutions are operating on borrowed time.
From now on autistic people will be appreciated for an innate trait that has been systematically engineered out of our societies and institutions: our deep aversion to lying and our inability to maintain hidden agendas.
Over the course of several hundred thousand years evolutionary forces have honed the human ability to learn by imitation, but evolutionary forces have also kept alive the genes and levels of neurodiversity that are needed to survive during periods of rapid environmental change.