Autistic cognition decoded for earthlings


Just for a minute, imagine …

  • not getting pleasure out of successfully copying the behaviour of others, and instead experiencing discomfort when copying others;
  • and not getting pleasure out of social status or out of exerting power over others, and instead experiencing extreme discomfort when expected to exert power over others.

Then try to imagine how we experience everyday social behaviour of individuals and groups within society. One of us recently illustrated his experience of the social world as follows:

Want to understand autistic experience better? Here’s an insight: the way most decent, honest, rational human beings see Donald Trump and his stooges is essentially the same way I’ve always seen the vast majority of non-autistic people. #AutismAwareness

We have weaker social symbolic filters, resulting in a richer and more intense sensorial experience of raw information. As a result we can become easily overwhelmed in social situations, and may respond in atypical and unexpected ways.

As babies and young children we don’t tend to play “the right way” with others, which generates negative reactions, and which in turn shapes our first experiences of social interactions with other humans.

Because we notice small variations in sensory input streams, and because we are not instinctively compelled to imitate, decoding social cues can take significant conscious effort. Beyond the human social world, in the physical and biological realm, our hypersensitivity with respect to certain categories of stimuli means we are very astute observers and critical learners.

The non-social world provides us with a rich and interesting environment for exploration and experimentation.

Technically speaking, from within the established pathology paradigm, delayed or reduced habituation to new stimuli due to hypersensitivity, or needing time to distil a more nuanced mental model from the inputs, is considered to be a learning disability. The question of who is learning disabled is entirely a matter of perspective.

From our perspective anyone who trusts second hand human opinions from the social world more than first hand experiences from the physical and biological realm suffers from a learning disability.

As humans we can apply our intelligence and simulation powers (sometimes also known as mentalising powers) to two very different use cases:

  1. Understand the physical and biological realm we inhabit at all levels of scale, and explore how we can influence this realm
  2. Understand the human social world we inhabit, and and explore how we can influence this world

The second use case is highly problematic in the hands of anyone who gets a neurochemical reward out of social status and exerting power over others. This has been the curse of all human civilisations to date, and it brings up an interesting question: Why are humans still around?

I believe the answer clearly lies in neurodiversity. Humans have only been able to survive because neurodiversity within the human gene pool guarantees that there are always a few people who do not get any rewards out of social status and power.

At the same time, getting pleasure out of successfully copying the behaviour of others can be a great strategy for propagating valuable knowledge – but it only really works well during times when the environment is highly stable and not undergoing rapid changes within a single generation. Throughout human history periods of reasonably stable local environments over fifty to a few hundred years will have been quite common.

Evolutionary forces thus have honed the human ability to learn by imitation, but evolutionary forces have also kept alive the genes that are needed to survive during periods of rapid environmental change.

The only catch is that getting pleasure out of successfully copying the behaviour of others is on a slippery slope to getting pleasure out of exerting power over others. If the latter trait is combined with a lack of empathy, the result is the human capacity for unlimited propagation of harm in the social world and beyond.

Autism professionals have yet to understand that we have a capability for advanced mental simulations, but are simply not compelled in any way to deploy this capability in the social world in the typical way.

We have to learn in very painful ways what happens if we do not oppose or at least ignore demands by others who ask us to do things that are only designed to let them or others enhance their position of power.

We are very helpful if people tell us in clear language what their genuine needs are. But there are two factors that can get in the way:

  1. Via painful application of conscious simulation powers to the social context we conclude that your perceived need is part of a social power game. In this case don’t expect us to “help”.
  2. We are in a situation of sensory overload, or you are asking us to do something that would likely trigger sensory overload.

Suppressing autistic cognition may not be such a smart idea, even in case all you really care about is the human social world!

What society can learn from autistic culture

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

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

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

cognitive diversity.png

I prefer to talk about collaborative advantage.

Inclusive culture is minimalistic. Adopting a small backbone of explicit first principles that have a track record of encouraging trust building and learning helps. In contrast, relying on the social transmission of hundreds of unspoken rules via “osmosis” is not only distinctly autism unfriendly – but also stands in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale.

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

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


Autists learn very early on that the only way to confirm shared understanding is by asking explicit and sometimes probing questions. This behaviour is not rude, it is the only way to establish bridges across cultural boundaries.

Autists are like the canary in the coal mine of mainstream society. We are amongst the first who are affected by pathologically hyper-competitive cultures.


Whilst in this recent interview I intentionally highlight the great potential of autistic collaboration, the full extent to which society currently still discriminates against autistic perspectives and behaviours must not be forgotten.

Only last week I met an autist who had lost three friends to suicide and I heard stories about psychologists who are afraid of openly identifying as autistic because such disclosure still represents a significant risk to their careers. This presentation on the link between neurodiversity and creativity contains references to the suicide statistics that affect the entire autism spectrum. Here is a concrete example from last year that should provide serious food for thought. There is an urgent need for changes in society.

It is time for society to acknowledge the level of mutual interdependence between all humans. By being able to effortlessly and subconsciously adopt and benefit from unspoken rules and socially constructed beliefs – regardless of whether these beliefs create negative social and environmental externalities, those with a rather typical cognitive lens are ill equipped to recognise the level of support that society affords them, and the level to which their survivals depend on assistance by others.

In contrast, those with an autistic cognitive lens have to rely on explicit questions to discover unspoken rules and are instinctively inclined to critically assess socially constructed beliefs in terms of systemic impact before embracing them. A critical perspective on the status quo and entrenched beliefs is a prerequisite for progress across all human endeavours.


Social – The big misunderstanding

The stereotype that autists have difficulty with collaboration is the result of a fundamentally different perspective on the purpose of social interaction.

The autistic understanding of “social”

  1. Naive assumption: “social” refers to 
interaction to learn from each other
  2. Naive assumption: “social” refers to 
collaborating with others towards a shared goal
  3. An autistic individual may take decades to decode the typical meaning of “social”

The prevalent neurotypical understanding of “social”

  1. Unspoken assumption: “social” refers to negotiating social status and power gradients
  2. Unspoken assumption: “social” refers to competing against each other using culturally defined rules
  3. A typical individual may take decades to appreciate non-social interests

Aut Collab has been set up as a platform for autistic collaboration and as a platform for sharing the results of autistic collaboration.