Pathologisation of life and neurodiversity in W.E.I.R.D. monocultures

W.E.I.R.D. stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. As long as society confuses homo economicus with homo sapiens we are more than “a bit off course”.

The exploitative nature of our “civilised” cultures is top of mind for many neurodivergent people. In contrast, many neuronormative people seem to deal with the trauma via denial, resulting in profound levels of cognitive dissonance.

Earlier this year I attended an online course on collective trauma, and once the trauma inflicted by the structural constraints imposed by our civilisation was mentioned, many participants had the courage to acknowledge this source of trauma.


The evolution of W.E.I.R.D. cultures can be easily understood from an anthropological perspective or via the social model of disability.

evolution of weird

The box of constraints that W.E.I.R.D. monocultures impose on neurodivergent people is reflected in rates of depression, PTSD, and suicides, and can be illustrated with very few words using the Japanese concept of Ikigai:ikigai1

The box of constraints of W.E.I.R.D. monocultures (“profession”)

Certain skills and certain tasks clash with the unique cognitive lens and sensory profile of a neurodivergent person. Non-typical learning profiles are disabling within W.E.I.R.D. monocultures:ikigai2

Disabled non-typical learning profiles (“vocation”)

Disabled neurodivergent people that refuse to permanently confine themselves to the box of W.E.I.R.D. constraints tend to be pushed into completely meaningless work that harms them and others:


Exploiting others (“what you can be paid for”)

Neurodivergent people have to spend enormous time doing what they are good at rather than what they love, to get to the point where they can be paid for some things. Neuronormative people don’t see and far less understand why this work is necessary:


Trying to make sense of the world (“what you are good at”)

Creating companies around the talents and interests of people and around trusted relationships makes a huge difference, especially for neurodivergent people:


Valuable work that you love and are good at (“ikigai”)

Healthy relationships are based on mutual trust, an explicit set of shared values (at least one) that both parties are committed to, and a genuine appreciation of the individual differences in knowledge, perspectives, and experiences. Mutual appreciation is the joy of helping each other and learning from each other. You can call that the “purpose” of good company. It does not involve any social power games.

  • A company C of N people is the set of N*(N-1)/2 relationships between N people. Its purpose is the dynamically evolving purpose of all these relationships.
  • You are in good company when all N*(N-1)/2 relationships are in good health. The evidence supporting Dunbar’s law/constraint tells us that in a good company N < 150. Larger companies are sources of misunderstandings, lack of contextual awareness, and conflicts.
  • A collaboration between C1 and C2 is the set R12 of all the relationships between N1 and N2, which contains between 1 and N1*N2 elements. Its purpose is the dynamically evolving purpose of all these relationships.
  • Your company C is in optimal health if all collaborations (relationships) with other companies are in good health. This is only possible if N << 150, so that there is adequate cognitive capacity for healthy external collaborations.

Often neurodivergent people get penalised for attempting to do any of the cool things that they love and would like to learn more about. W.E.I.R.D. cultures kill curiosity & intrinsic motivation, and they do so systematically, resulting in a dangerous collective learning disability:


Important things you are curious about (“mission”)

Doing what they love, without any constraints, is the forbidden zone for neurodivergent people, even if these often solitary activities don’t harm anyone else:


Doing what you love (“what you love / passion”)

Social power is a highly addictive drug for typical humans. Primate dominance hierarchies induce a collective learning disability. There are very good reasons why “pre-civilised” societies enforced strong norms to prevent individuals from wielding power over others. To develop institutions that better serve people and the planet we need to throw out simplistic and deeply flawed assumptions about “human nature”. Without a shift in fundamental values a healthier society will remain out of reach.


To move forward, we need to align our social operating systems with a more optimistic – and less ideologically constrained – perspective on human potential.

As human interactions are increasingly mediated by digital technologies, this entails acknowledging the ideological inertia of our current technologies. The bias that is baked into many of our technologies transforms all human interactions into a bizarre competitive game of likes, followers, and views.

W.E.I.R.D. societies face a choice between:

  • (A) Co-designing and embracing a less W.E.I.R.D. digital technosphere that catalyses new forms of collaboration and that actively discourages toxic competitive games.
  • (B) Officially renaming our species to homo economicus, and relying on W.E.I.R.D. technologies to squash any ideologically inconvenient collaborative or altruistic human tendencies.

In terms of developing a more collaborative social operating system it turns out we don’t have to start from scratch. Here is an example of the kind of economic framework that might actually work for the planet and people:

economy of mana

W.E.I.R.D. societies can learn a lot from indigenous cultures and from other minority cultures, such as autistic culture. Pathologisation of autism and other dimensions of neurodiversity is a social power game that removes agency from neurodivergent people. Social progress is overdue.

regeneration of health

From collective delusion to creative collaboration

If you consider any potential outcomes beyond a ten year time horizon the current path of industrialised “civilisation” must be described as a form of collective delusion.

When I use the term “collective delusion” I am referring to a the most extreme form of cultural inertia that can affect a group of people. A couple of useful working definitions:

Cultural inertia : The tendency within a society to maintain an established set of social practices, norms, technologies, and metrics, even in the face of changing environmental conditions.

Cultural inertia can be beneficial when social practices, norms, technologies, and metrics buffer a society from the detrimental effects of short-term random fluctuations in environmental conditions (think of floods and droughts, and events such as earthquakes).

Paradigmatic inertia : The tendency within a “civilised” society to maintain established institutional structures, i.e. complex social groups with specific social roles, even in the face of long-term shifts in environmental conditions away from earlier long-term averages.

Paradigmatic inertia is never beneficial. It constitutes a collective learning disability. Unless it is identified, understood and addressed by shifting to a more appropriate paradigm (or mix of paradigms) that acknowledges the shift in environmental factors (and potentially the inability to reverse the trend), it can result in existential risks for entire ecosystems including humans (think of biodiversity loss and climate change).

Once paradigmatic inertia has led to existential risks, it has to be considered a form of collective delusion.

“Climate change is not a war, it is genocide. It is domination. It is extinction. It is the most recent manifestation of how powerful men throughout history have sought to steal from the less powerful and dismiss them as merely inconvenient.”
Eric Holthaus, autistic meteorologist and climate journalist, from Climate change is about how we treat each other

Overcoming paradigmatic inertia

In the history of “civilisations” to date, paradigmatic inertia is broken by one of more of the following events:

  1. revolutions,
  2. protracted wars,
  3. famines,
  4. plagues.

Plagues and famines represent forces that are at least to some extent beyond human control, with the potential to act as powerful catalysts for wars and revolutions.

As war is increasingly waged via economic and psychological means, wars are less and less capable of inducing paradigmatic changes. At the level of nation states “civilised” war is focused on presenting other cultures as “threats”, and internally on widening the inequalities between the elites and the rest of the population. The latter is achieved by pretending that established institutions are capable of addressing the environmental challenges at hand.

Revolutions can be understood as phase shifts that occur when the level of cognitive dissonance that a population experiences between daily life and the fictions that are perpetuated by rulers and elites can no longer be maintained. In a revolution a large part of the population openly dismisses established institutions as dysfunctional and establishes new institutions based on ideas that often have been “fermenting” within the population for decades.

The duration of the transition to a new regime of governance, the extent to which institutions are completely replaced or simply restaffed, and the level of violence involved in the transition vary greatly depending on the context at hand. Only some revolutions constitute a genuine shift in the paradigm of governance. The typical result tends to be a new set of institutions, a revised composition of the elites, and a new set of rules for maintaining a primate dominance hierarchy.

The social burden of famines is always carried by the wider population, and much less by the established elites, but famines can act as effective catalysts for revolutions and wars.

Plagues (pandemics) are interesting in that they represent a threat to entire societies, with little discrimination between elites and the rest of the population. Since history is typically written by historians commissioned by or at least tolerated by the ruling (victorious) elites, most history books focus on wars and revolutions, and present plagues as disruptions or setbacks on the path of human progress towards more “advanced” forms of “civilisation”. A critical review of written historical records allows for a reduction in anthropocentric bias and a different interpretation that acknowledges the role of pandemics in acting as triggers for genuine paradigmatic shifts in human societies.

Pandemics and pandemic risks prompted the development of better sanitation, antibiotics and vaccines for many human pathogens, leading to large improvements in the quality of healthcare services and human health over the last two centuries, such that in most societies, and in particular in the so called “developed” countries, pandemics with mortality in the 0.3 to 1% range or above were no longer part of living memory until 2020.

COVID-19 punched a big hole into the progress myth of of our “civilisation” and has exposed cultural practices that have substantially increased the risks of pandemics over the last 50 years.

In a globalised world, the necessary responses to contain the impact of COVID-19 triggered rapid cultural evolution in virtually all societies, and have prompted governments and local populations to reflect on the longer-term implications of the SARS CoV2 pandemic.

Collective delusion in 2020

At this stage our societies are still in the early stages of (re)learning essential knowledge about pandemics. The growing risks of much deadlier pandemics emanating from industrial animal agriculture practices, natural ecosystem destruction, and accelerating climate change (also leading to increasingly extreme weather events, crop failures, and resource conflicts) are not yet part of the public discourse.

The collective delusion of maintaining cultural inertia will be resolved one way or another within the next 20 years. Pandemics are typically deadlier than wars, and they can’t be stopped or prevented by wars. Famines and revolutions are common downstream effects of pandemics and wars.

Creative collaboration

To what extent human societies will experience famines, wars, and violent revolutions in the coming decades depends on two factors:

  1. How many governments pro-actively and systematically discount the interests of capitalised busyness in favour of the immediate and the long-term (200+ year horizon) needs of human communities and ecosystems.
  2. The extent to which human communities deploy easily (re)configurable digital technologies that are co-designed to meet local and bioregional collaboration needs, to serve as the backbone for non-violent “revolutions” in shared values, shared knowledge commons, and new (much less energy intensive and more collaborative and diverse) ways of living.

I think it unlikely we get out of this, at this point, without abandoning swaths of cities and nations in a band around the equator (too hot & humid for humans), and many coastal cities and regions (uneconomic to wall them). I hope I’m wrong. Let’s fight hard to save what we can.

This is a conclusion I draw from my personal synthesis of all that I’m taking in: model projections, paleoclimate, politics, sociology, and psychology, for whatever that is worth. There’s a ton I don’t know, there’s a ton I can’t know, but there’s also a ton I do know.

Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab who uses satellite data and models to study the rapidly changing Earth, focusing on boundary layer clouds and ecological forecasting.

Depending on what paths human societies choose to take, the above scenarios will play out over 20, 50, 100, or 200 years. Our actions now will determine the level of pain of our children and future generations.

In this timely interview with Daniel Christian Wahl, Dennis Meadows (one of the authors of The Limits to Growth report (1972) observes that the myth of endless growth in industrialised societies tells us “to love to get what we want” and that on a finite planet we need to learn “to love to want what we get”.

In 2014, the University of Melbourne confirmed that the predictions from Limits to Growth were largely correct and that we are very close to tracking the “busyness-as-usual” scenario.

Dennis Meadows is worthwhile listening to. His insights reflect 50 years of failed attempts to communicate the impossibility of endless growth, but I also believe that he ignores the potential for positive cultural change that could be activated by depathologising neurodiversity and by recognising autistic people in particular as the agents of a healthy cultural immune system within human societies.

I want to end on a positive note, pointing to two longer articles on human potential:

  1. The dawn of the second knowledge age (from an anthropological perspective)
  2. A language for catalysing cultural evolution (from an evolutionary perspective)

These articles are also intended to provide a backdrop for presenting the history of the concept of neurodivergence as part of the Neurodiversity Documentary project.

Update : a few hours after writing the article, this timely call for climate action in New Zealand landed in my news feed.

Autism – The cultural immune system of human societies

If neurodiversity is the natural variation of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species, then what role do autistic traits in particular play within human cultures and what cultural evolutionary pressures have allowed autistic traits to persist over hundreds of thousands of years?

The benefits of autistic traits such as autistic levels of hypersensitivity, hyperfocus, perseverance, lack of interest in social status, and inability to maintain hidden agendas mostly do not materialise at an individual level but at the level of the local social environment that an autistic person is embedded in.

  1. Hypersensitivity allows autistic people to perceive details and to recognise patterns that escape non-autistic people, but at the cost of behaviour that often clashes with established cultural norms.
  2. Hyperfocus and perseverance allow autistic people to develop levels of understanding and domain specific skills that surpass the abilities of non-autistic people, but at the cost of disregarding other skills that are regarded as basic life skills by the local culture.
  3. Lack of interest in social status and lack of inclination and ability to self promote greatly reduces social distractions and further amplifies the ability to hyperfocus and persevere, but at the cost of being perceived as non-cooperative, problematic and disrespectful.
  4. The inability to maintain hidden agendas enables autistic people to develop and maintain trusted relationships and very effective long term collaborations, but this ability is crippled in psychologically unsafe environments, and it makes autistic people dangerous from the perspective of anyone who is seeking to maintain and enhance their social status, resulting in the systematic side-lining of autistic people in competitive social environments.

Within the bigger picture of cultural evolution autistic traits have obvious mid and long-term benefits to society, but these benefits are associated with short-term costs for social status seeking individuals within the local social environments of autistic people.

The neurochemistry of autism

Regardless of whether specific autistic traits have a genetic basis or are the result of early learning experiences made by autistic children in their local social environment (we don’t play “the right way”, we are absorbed in “our own world”, we ignore social status, we show little or no interest in participating in competitive games, etc.), the hypersensitivity and pattern recognition abilities of autistic people shape the specific experiences and situations that trigger neurochemical rewards in ways that differ significantly from cultural norms.

Many autistic people intuitively avoid copying the behaviours of non-autistic people. Life teaches autistic people that culturally expected behaviour often leads to sensory overload, and furthermore, that cultural practices often contain spurious complexity that have nothing to do with the stated goal of the various practices, such that a little independent exploration and experimentation usually reveals a simpler, faster, or less energy intensive way of achieving comparable results.

In contrast, non-autistic people receive significant neurochemical rewards from conforming to cultural expectations, such that they are often incapable of recognising spurious cultural complexity when they encounter it in established “best practices”.

Pre-civilised societies

Available archaeological and anthropological evidence points towards highly egalitarian social norms within human scale (i.e. small) pre-civilised societies. In such societies social norms against wielding power over others will have allowed the unique talents and domain specific knowledge of autistic people be recognised as valuable contributions.

In a psychologically safe environment at human scale (up to Dunbar’s number of around 150 people) the inability to maintain hidden agendas becomes a genuine strength that creates a collaborative advantage for the entire group. In fact autistic honesty will also have made autistic people prime candidates for maintaining trusted collaborative relationships with other groups.

In pre-civilised societies adversarial encounters with other groups would have been the only situations where the non-autistic human capability to deceive others would have been advantageous for the group. But such situations and costly conflict could easily be minimised by migrating and carving out a new niche in a different ecosystem.

The unique human ability to adapt to new contexts, powered by neurodivergent creativity and the development of new tools, enabled humans to minimise conflicts and establish a presence in virtually all ecosystems on the planet. This level of adaptability is the signature trait of the human species.

“Civilised” societies

“Civilised” societies are the result of increased human population densities and increased levels of inter-group conflicts. As the number of small scale human groups increased and as local resources became scarce, the ability and inclination to “out-compete” other groups became valuable, but this capability came at a cost – an appreciation of the ability to deceive other groups.

The people who are successful in maintaining hidden agendas to out-compete other groups are the same people who are capable of maintaining hidden agendas within their own social group.

Whilst cultural norms can successfully minimise the immediate or short-term collective cost that comes with granting social powers to competitive and deceptive individuals in the context of inter-group conflict, over the longer term hierarchical social structures dampen feedback loops, and thereby induce a collective learning disability – replacing cultural adaptability with cultural inertia.

Social power gradients became a permanent feature once the frequency of external conflicts increased to the point that such conflicts were considered a “normal” part of the human experience.

It is easy to see that autistic people are continuously at risk of being marginalised within “civilised” societies in which “collaboration” mainly refers to “negotiating social status & power gradients, and competing against each other using culturally defined rules”.

The creative capacity of autistic people continues to be relevant in “civilisation”, but the resulting capabilities and tools tend to be exploited for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening social power gradients.

Cultural immune systems

The competitive social environments that characterise “civilised” cultures systematically disable autistic people. However, whilst autistic people are usually not interested in social status and are therefore considered “socially naive”, they are very astute observers, and learn to decode competitive social motivations – not intuitively, but intellectually, via careful analysis of social interactions and behavioural patterns observed over longer periods of time.

Often autistic children are traumatised by their experiences with culturally “well adjusted” parents, peers, and the education system.

Depending on the extent to which autistic children are prevented from developing their unique interests and are forced to comply with social expectations, their trauma may lead them into extreme levels of social isolation or prompt them to seek out a low visibility role within society that minimises their need to participate in the “civilised” social game.

Those who have grown up in relatively safe environments with at least one autistic parent, and have been encouraged to let their unique autistic cognitive lens shape their interests and activities, initially retain the courage to explore the world on their own terms, but then often run into major challenges in the social environments at work.

Within “civilisation” autistic people tend to be highly concerned about social justice and tend to be the ones who point out toxic in-group competitive behaviours.

Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society.

This would have been obvious in pre-civilised societies, but it has become non-obvious in “civilised” societies. To retain their sanity, autistic people consistently work against in-group competition, and they often suffer the consequences for doing so. Autistic people within human societies counteract what Steve Silberman has fittingly described as the “truth dysfunction” in non-autistic people.

Societies with disabled cultural immune systems

Michael Moore’s new documentary Planet of the Humans makes the claim that humans are losing the battle to stop climate change because so-called “leaders” have taken us down the wrong road. “Civilisation” seems to have reached a dead end:

  1. Without a radical reduction in our level of energy and resource consumption a transition to renewable energy sources will not lead to a sustainable human presence on this planet.
  2. Projects that shift energy production to large-scale wind and solar farms are easily co-opted by corporate interests. The drive for profit extraction creates strong incentives for corner-cutting and often overrides environmental concerns.
  3. The development of local micro-grids and new ways of living that involve much less consumption are paramount for scaling down the human ecological footprint to sustainable levels.

A viable future of transportation won’t include heavy 1.5 to 2 tone electric cars and large numbers of electric air planes, and will likely include much less travel, and many more electric bikes, velomobiles, and trains. Capitalism systematically favours capital intensive – and hence energy intensive – investments. The world is awash in ads for Tesla and lacks awareness of alternative technologies like the following.

This extensive interview with Daniel Schmachtenberger offers an excellent introduction to the root causes of social dysfunction within our “civilisation”. It is interesting that even without considering the cultural implications of neurodiversity Daniel Schmachtenberger arrives at the following conclusions:

  1. There have always been non-competitive societies and subcultures, but such subcultures are marginalised within civilisations.
  2. The disorders identified by Western psychology are a refection of cultural bias rather than a reflection of human potential.
  3. The level of competitiveness and collective delusion within our civilisation has led to existential risks.
  4. The scope of trusted relationships is constrained by human cognitive limits (according to Robin Dunbar’s research, a human can maintain a maximum of 150 relationships at any point in time) and the ability to scale trusted collaboration beyond these human scale limits depends on using and developing communication technologies that assist us in maintaining trusted relationships between groups.
  5. The survival of the human species now depends on evolving new collaborative social operating systems that are based on mutual support rather than on social power gradients and a myth of meritocracy.

Note that it takes Daniel Schmachtenberger 3.5 hours to explain the rationale for developing a new collaborative social operating system. He is explaining what is self-evident to most autistic people who have spent three or four decades on this planet.

Eric Weinstein, the interviewer, offers good insights into the level of cultural indoctrination that underpins our “civilisation” – what I refer to as the collective learning disability of our society. It is fascinating how cultural bias has prevented an otherwise intelligent person from ever thinking about the full implications of the glaringly obvious truth dysfunction induced by competitive human behaviour.

Both Daniel and Eric seem to be unfamiliar with the concept of neurodiversity, and the one casual reference to autistic traits via a mention of “spectrumy people” indicates a very limited of understanding of the cultural role of autistic people.

The web of life

Agency at super-human scale (groups larger than 150 members) is an emergent phenomenon that can not be attributed to any specific individual. If we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of human “civilisations”, the emergent rules for coordinating at super-human scale will have to allow for and encourage a rich diversity of human scale organisations.

Human 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.

NeurodiVentures are a concrete example of an emerging cultural species that provides safe and nurturing environments for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.

NeurodiVentures are built on timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating trusted collaboration that predate the emergence of civilisation. All members share a commitment to:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock the tacit knowledge within the group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

This short video is a great example of collaboration amongst autistic people, and it blows many popular misconceptions about autism that are still peddled by the autism industry out of the water:

Digital communication and collaboration technologies enable NeurodiVentures to act as a catalyst for trusted collaboration between groups. This is particularly relevant in a world of growing existential risks, where the energy and resource demands of competitive “civilised” social operating models, precisely for the reasons outlined by Daniel Schmachtenberger and documented in detail by historian Joseph Tainter, are exceeding the productive capacity of the biosphere.

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that we have created a global digital network for sharing knowledge and misinformation. It apparently takes a virus like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift cultural norms away from sharing misinformation and towards sharing knowledge.

Competitive autists?

I have yet to meet an autistic person who is capable of maintaining a hidden agenda. This means that autistic people are ill equipped for the competitive social game of “civilisation”.

However, in all domains that require specialised skills and deep knowledge, some of the best professionals (in terms of their level of experience and problem solving abilities) have strong autistic traits. It is very likely that these people will be misunderstood by their colleagues on a regular basis, and may be perceived as “competitive”, simply because they may not stick to all the social rules of politeness at all times.

A relevant extract from an earlier article on bullying:

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:

  1. 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”)
  2. The autistic professional is highly competent in her / his core areas of expertise (which can easily be interpreted as arrogance)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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)

The future role of autistic people

Hierarchical social structures stand in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale. In the face of existential risks, the cultural inertia of “civilisation” will either lead to the extinction of the human species, or humans will rediscover an interest in genuine collaboration (without hidden agendas) at human scale.

In the latter scenario autists are uniquely equipped to act as catalysts and translators between different cultures and groups, because (a) they have to spend conscious effort on understanding each individual, and (b) they are trustworthy due to their inability to maintain hidden agendas.

My favourite example to illustrate the potential for autistic people to act as catalysts for collaboration is Paul Erdős. In a psychologically safe environment, an autist is enabled and not disabled:

  • Erdős utmostly believed mathematics to be a social activity, living an itinerant lifestyle with the sole purpose of writing mathematical papers with other mathematicians.
  • He was known both for his social practice of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle.
  • He spent most of his life as a vagabond, travelling between scientific conferences, universities and the homes of colleagues all over the world.
  • He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.

Autistic analysis of COVID-19


You may have read articles like this one that point to different ways of recording COVID-19 mortality in different jurisdictions. The concerns raised about variability in data collection are mirrored in commentaries by pulmonologists and other clinicians who have observed many flu seasons. This perspective is easily missed by those who focus on the characteristics of the specific virus rather than the bigger picture of the global patterns of flu infections.

A few people, including some clinicians, are dismissing the notion of a pandemic on the basis that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease) is just one small part of the annual cocktail of influenza like viruses and nothing to worry about is misleading. I find it interesting that even some pulmonologists can get caught up in this level of siloed reasoning, along the lines of “we’ve always had different strains of the flu, and this is simply yet another bad flu season”. This line of reasoning does not explain why locally, in some places, thousands of people are severely ill and dying, to the point where healthcare services are completely overwhelmed.

The WHO on influenza

Seasonal influenza is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, cough (usually dry), headache, muscle and joint pain, severe malaise (feeling unwell), sore throat and a runny nose. The cough can be severe and can last 2 or more weeks. Most people recover from fever and other symptoms within a week without requiring medical attention. But influenza can cause severe illness or death, especially in people at high risk (see below).

Illnesses range from mild to severe and even death. Hospitalization and death occur mainly among high risk groups. Worldwide, these annual epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 290 000 to 650 000 respiratory deaths.

In industrialized countries most deaths associated with influenza occur among people age 65 or older (1). Epidemics can result in high levels of worker/school absenteeism and productivity losses. Clinics and hospitals can be overwhelmed during peak illness periods.

Overall, globally, the COVID-19 mortality thus far is only a small part of a much bigger picture of respiratory deaths – but only because China, and now more and more countries, are adopting “extreme” measures to reduce the spread. The interesting question is, why are these measures necessary? Why have they not been necessary in earlier bad flu seasons?

I think the answer to that question has three parts:

Part 1

Some flu seasons or pandemics are not only bad, they are very bad, as the history of pandemics teaches us.

The people alive today simply have not experienced any really bad pandemic in their lifetimes, and hence the “surprise”. Modern medicine has left people in the false belief that there is a pill or vaccine for every possible dangerous infectious disease, or that one can always be developed just in time.

UPDATE (22 March 2020): To understand the difference between a flu season and a pandemic, watch this advice from Prof John Ashton, a UK public health expert.

Now people are waking up to the fact that health professionals are not always “in control”, and that their own behaviour actually matters, i.e. contributes to or can reduce risk exposure.

This is scary for “civilised” people who believe in “leaders” and “authorities”.

The positive effect is that the current situation is one of the rare moments where neurotypical people get a glimpse of the collective delusion known as civilisation and the dangers associated with faith in “leaders” and “authorities”, including the myth of “being in full control” typically peddled by such people.

Part 2

Our technological capabilities provide us, including health professionals, with more data than ever.


Our analytical tools allow us to ‘see’ many of the pathogens that make us ill, and modern media delivers the images into every office and into every home.


This again is very scary for “civilised” people, in particular if you can see and read about dying people on a daily basis.


The positive effect is that people are made aware of the fact that all humans are more or less equally exposed to the risks of many pathogens, and that wealth and money may not offer much if any protection – and may actually increase some risk factors. According to the laws of probability, we might see a few heads of state or heads of corporations die, to reinforce the message.

Part 3

The hyper-social busyness of civilisation has far outpaced our capacity to comprehend the effects of our behaviour,

… and it has turned what was perceived as a “competitive advantage” in relation to other species into a relative disadvantage in relation to viruses in particular. So far I am not seeing this framing amongst the medical experts, but there is no shortage of people who see the virus as a welcome relief from busyness as usual. Mental health and suicide statistics point towards social/cultural environments that are in conflict with human biological needs.

Beyond the increasingly visible destruction of the non-human natural environment and significant increases in severe weather events and ocean acidification, what has changed? I think there are several factors that come together, with a collective effect not dissimilar to the multiple stressors that contribute to the species extinction rates of insects, birds, and various marine species:

  1. Human population growth, roughly doubling every 50 years, and now starting to flatten, indicative of the extreme pressure we exert on our ecosystems.
  2. A 10-fold increase in air travel over the last 50 years; just watch the activity at Flight Radar to get an intuitive feeling for the level of busyness, even with the current reductions/restrictions in place.
  3. Increasing levels of urbanisation, exemplified by the mega-cities in China, resulting in hyper-social busyness related to work and commuting.

It would be highly surprising if these conditions do not lead to increased collective intelligence and evolutionary success amongst viruses that have discovered humans as a habitat. These viruses are not out to get us, they are developing symbiotic relationships with humans. Note that SARS-CoV-2 is provoking deaths and a human response that works directly against the three trends above.

UPDATE (28 March 2020): This interview with Prof Kim Woo-Ju, South Korea’s leading COVID-19 expert, provides an excellent overview of the latest understanding of SARS-CoV-2, and it also mentions the global increase in air travel as a major challenge in dealing with pandemics.

His warning: “The moment we become arrogant, we´ll lose”.

Given current human population numbers, any attempt to bring back air travel and busyness to pre-COVID-19 levels will be increasingly suicidal for the human species.

The positive effect of the cultural changes induced by COVID-19 in record time is that pollution levels and green house gas emissions are sinking at record rates, far beyond what environmentalists and climate activists would have imagined possible even a few months ago. The fear induced by the data our technological capabilities serve us on a daily basis (part 2 above) acts as a strong force against reverting to busyness as usual, and the risks will increasingly lead to (a) an appreciation/re-discovery of human scale, including strong social norms against super-human scale groupings of humans, and (b) strong social norms against all forms of deception and manipulation of data, because at the limits of planetary capacity deception is a recipe for collective suicide within a single generation.

What makes viruses so intelligent relative to humans?

The answer may surprise civilised humans but it might not have surprised pre-civilised humans.  Viruses are not organised hierarchically and they do not pretend to be in control of anything – they don’t suffer from a collective learning disability. Instead they can be considered experts at mutation and creation of diversity at rates that the genomes of “higher level” life forms can’t. SARS-CoV-2 has figured out a very effective combination of infectiousness, incubation period and mortality.

The intelligence of complex life forms that manifests in neural networks is usually quite limited. Only the human capacity for complex material cultures, which depends amongst other things on the dexterity of human hands and on the anatomical features that enable human language, have allowed this intelligence to accumulate and scale to collaborating groups of humans in ways that are impossible for other primates.

The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, and driven by the suicidal busyness of civilisation (cancerous myths of superiority that have infiltrated human societies around 10,000 years ago), we have created a global network for sharing knowledge and misinformation. We now learn that it takes viruses like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift cultural norms away from sharing misinformation and towards sharing knowledge. There will be many further learning opportunities beyond COVID-19.

Planetary intelligence is achieved by creating a feedback loop of mutual learning between the rapid learning cycles at the smallest scales and learning cycles at human scale, which are now amplified via a global digital network at super-human scale. We are learning the hard way that messing with that network for misinformation and attempts of hierarchical control works against humans and the entire planetary ecosystem.

What’s next?

As humans start to re-familiarise themselves with human scale, a new generation of children will be taught corresponding values, and the interest in super-human scale control and hierarchical power structures will fade and will become a taboo. It will be important to preserve accurate recordings of what happened to “civilisation”. As a result, the risks of “civilisation”, and in particular the risk of super-human scale conflict will be reduced significantly. It takes “leaders” to persuade and manipulate people into going to war, and once people with “leadership aspirations” are again recognised as the biggest threat to society, our capacity for culture may once again make us more intelligent than the other primates – but still not as smart as our little invisible friends.

There is no competition for collaboration at human scale 😀.

Together with our viral and microbial friends we are not that stupid after all 😜.

We are starting to experiment with ways to reduce interactions to human scale and are starting to learn. We may even learn that there are many different ways to contain the virus, but a focus on human scale and a bias against super-human scale busyness will be the common thread through all these approaches. When I wrote this article on collaboration for life six months ago, I could not have imagined how close we are to the proliferation of new human scale cultural species.

To close off, here is some good advice on staying safe from an [obviously autistic?] clinician with a special interest in material science and engineering, who is now doing a video series on COVID-19:

In search of psychological safety

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.

Timothy R Clark

psychological safety

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.

Timothy R Clark

Creating and maintaining a psychologically safe environment is fundamental for the flourishing of all staff, yet in most organisations psychological safety is the exception rather than the norm. Observations from a study of redesign projects in the UK on improving the capabilities of organisations in the NHS illustrate why the importance of nurturing psychological safety can not be overstated:

“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.”

Further examples from:

  1. The education sector
  2. The software industry
  3. The healthcare sector

Given our first hand experience with innovation in these sectors and our involvement in autistic self advocacy and neurodiversity activism, the S23M team has decided to conduct a global survey on psychological safety in the workplace. The resulting data will be of particular interest for autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people who are experiencing bullying and more or less subtle forms of discrimination at work.

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.


Please note:

  • 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”.

Celebration of interdependence

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.

The concept of social status improvement for blacks. A miniature black man standing in a pile of coins.


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 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:

  1. the inability to maintain hidden agendas, and
  2. hypersensitivities, including in the social realm, rejection of all forms of social status.

We know how to create egalitarian and inclusive societies, but we must leave behind the ideological shackles of civilisation. The indoctrination of our society is deep.

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


Magic happens when you combine collaboration and neurodiversity, because then the result is diversity and creativity rather than groupthink.

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:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock valuable tacit knowledge within a group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. 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.

The evolution of evolution


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

“Civilised” humans

“Civilised” societies are characterised by an absence of egalitarian cultural norms, and by the construction of primate dominance hierarchies and perpetuation of supporting myths of superiority that tend to dehumanise outsiders and non-conformists.

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.

It is akin to troops of chimpanzees and everything is mired in unwritten rules and social niceties specific to your place in the hierarchy. Shining excessively in terms of performance is often penalised because immediate superiors interpret it as a challenge to their dominance.

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).

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.

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.

On the one hand modern industrialised empires, states, and corporations have unprecedented abilities to influence and manipulate large populations, and on the other hand, there is nothing that can stop autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people from connecting and collaborating across spatial and cultural boundaries.

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:

  1. the inability to maintain hidden agendas, and
  2. 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.

This tweet brought to you by people arguing that autism should be cured because some autistics will never be independent. All humans are hard-wired to be interdependent on each other. There is nothing shameful about needing someone else. You’ve been duped by capitalists.

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.

Autistic people are much better off self-organising on autistic terms. It is a toxic and incorrect myth that we are not good at collaboration. The opposite is true.

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.

If autistic people lack “theory of mind” it’s only “theory of non-autistic mind” AND non-autistic people are DEFINITELY lacking in “theory of mind” when it comes to understanding autistic people.

The chasm that manifests as the double empathy problem can be understood in terms of fundamental differences in social motivation.

Typical social motivations:

  1. Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs and cultural needs.
  2. Truth – truth as it appears through the lens of a particular human culture.
  3. Recognition – approval for compliance with cultural expectations.

Autistic social motivations:

  1.  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.
  2. Truth – truth as it appears through the lens of our current level of human scientific understanding.
  3. 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.

Mental health statistics tell us that mainstream culture has diverged too far from autistic culture. In many organisations bullying has reached toxic levels. Trends in mental health statistics in the wider population hint at a problem far beyond the autistic community. Large parts of society are already paralysed by irrational fear of change, i.e. “the system is bad but at least it’s familiar”.

Techniques for creating shared understanding

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.

Why autistic people continue to suffer

So I’m studying neuroscience at a prestigious UK University and many of the papers we read are very offensive, backward, and just plain wrong with regard to neurodiverse populations (autistics included). Indeed my own tutor refers to us (autistics) as “diseased patients”.

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.

Your neurotypical person has a natural language disorder. Rather than using language to convey ideas, they may focus on its strategic & manipulative function to get other people to do what they want.

In an unsafe environment we operate under burn-out conditions, resulting in mental and physical health problems. Additionally, autistic ways of developing trust and making friends differ from the norm. This creates significant challenges for autistic individuals without a strong support network.

Pathways to good company


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.

Potential hints:

  • 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
  • When in traditional leadership or managerial positions, experiencing strong feelings of never really fitting in anywhere, struggling to cope in general, and experiencing severe physical symptoms of stress
  • 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.

For this group of people engaging with the autistic community and comparing notes can be a first step towards learning to appreciate their own autistic traits.

Isolated autistic adult

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.

For this group of people the only way forward is to find the courage to again reach out to the autistic community, by contacting helpful openly autistic autism rights advocates and members of the neurodiversity movement, either directly, or in small and welcoming non-public online groups, and away from the often toxic public places on online social media platforms.

Autistic adult who has found autistic community


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.

A useful next step for people in this category is to compare notes about autistic forms of collaboration and about the ways in which autistic people find ways of developing and maintaining trusted relationships.

Autistic adult engaged in autistic collaboration


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 identify 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.

The most valuable step that non-autistic parents of autistic children can undertake is to connect with and learn from the adult autistic community – and without any delay, to facilitate access of their child to autistic peers and adult mentors.

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.

There are many examples of multi-generational autistic families. Autistic adults choose autistic partners at rates that are 10 times greater than random choice. This perhaps is the strongest indicator that social progress in terms of autistic rights and self-determination is overdue.

Autistic collaboration for life

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.

I define autistic community as follows:

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.

Thanks to

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.

Figure 1: Human societies in the context of the living planet

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:

  1. Healthy relationships between specific individuals that are based on  mutual trust
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. Adversarial relationship between a culturally “well-adjusted” neurotypical person and an autistic person, as illustrated by the rates bullying and suicide of autistic people
  5. Healthy set of relationships between neurodivergent people that have agreed to long-term collaboration based on (a) a small set of shared values, in particular an appreciation of neurodiversity and (b) a shared inability to maintain hidden agendas – and therefore an inability to play competitive social games
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. Healthy set of relationships between two NeurodiVentures that have agreed to long-term collaboration based on complementary capabilities and capacity
  9. Healthy cultural context of a human scale organisation, based on shared beliefs and rituals, commonly underscored by a shared language
  10. Interdependencies between levels of scale; interdependencies between a large-scale network of living entities and either smaller-scale networks or relationships between individual living entities
  11. Adversarial group identity between a smaller super-human scale structure within a larger super-human scale cultural context that is characterised by explicit competition rather than collaboration
  12. Challenging cultural context of a NeurodiVenture that is characterised by many challenging relationships with organisations that are constructed via abstract social identities
  13. Adversarial group identity generated by a conformist culture that is ignorant of the existence and the value of NeurodiVentures, resulting in social pressure to conform with cultural norms imposed by the dominant cultural species (think corporations)
  14. Adversarial interdependency between levels of scale; humans vs the web of life rather than humans as part of the web of life – in short: Anthropocentrism

The consequences of the social dysfunctions outlined in the list above can no longer be overlooked. Today everyone:

  1. is able to observe ecological destruction first hand,
  2. is experiencing the effects of climate breakdown to some degree,
  3. is confronted with the disconnect between economic dogma and the reality of severe social inequality,
  4. is noticing the inability of institutions to meet human needs,
  5. is affected by mental health problems, either personally or within their immediate social environment.

Neurodivergent collaboration

The potentially transformational role of neurodivergent collaboration is illustrated below, using the purpose of S23M within the context of the living planet as an example.

Figure 2: Examples of organisational purpose relating to different levels of scale

The semantics of the colour coding in the diagram:

  • Green: living agents
  • Orange: valuable knowledge resources produced
  • Red: purpose

The NeurodiVenture operating model is the social DNA of an emergent cultural species that has developed an immune system that enables it to survive and even thrive in three complementary contexts:

  1. within super-human scale societies afflicted by terminal cancer
  2. within social environments that contain a growing number of NeurodiVentures
  3. within social environments that contain other human scale cultural species within the human genus

The purposes at different levels of scale in the diagram above map to concrete activities and related triggers and results as follows:

Maximising biodiversity

Enabling knowledge to flow to all the places where it can be put to good use

Equipping autistic people for collaboration for life

Creating good company and maintaining healthy relationships at human scale

Creating systems that are understandable by future generations of humans & software

My collaboration for life at S23M can be summarised and visualised in the logistic lens:

collaboration for life at S23M
Figure 3: My collaboration for life at S23M in the visual language of the logistic lens

The future web of life

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:

Figure 4: Future human scale societies in the context of the living planet

The numbers in the list below map to the numbers in figure 1 and figure 4:

  1. Healthy relationships between specific individuals that are based on  mutual trust
  2. Healthy group identity between a neurotypical person and a human scale organisation
  3. No longer applicable: Adversarial group identity between a neurotypical person and a super-human scale organisation
  4. Challenging relationship between a culturally “well-adjusted” neurotypical person and an autistic person, characterised by a risk of misunderstandings
  5. Healthy set of relationships between autistic people
  6. Challenging relationship between between members of different genera, characterised by a limited level of mutual understanding
  7. 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
  8. Healthy set of relationships between two NeurodiVentures
  9. Healthy cultural context of a human scale organisation
  10. Interdependencies between levels of scale
  11. No longer applicable: Adversarial group identity between a smaller super-human scale structure within a larger super-human scale cultural context
  12. Healthy cultural context of a NeurodiVenture that is characterised by many  relationships with organisations that appreciate neurodivergent collaboration
  13. No longer applicable: Adversarial group identity generated by a conformist culture that is ignorant of the existence and the value of NeurodiVentures
  14. 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.

People management and bullying


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.

Management by fear

The following extract is from a current article about sales techniques / training / management at the Commonwealth Bank Australia. The techniques are similar to ABA techniques – only that small children are subjected to ABA for up to 40 hours per week!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

hierarchy.jpgThe 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.

In civilised society “collaboration” is conceptualised as follows:

  • negotiating social status and power gradients
  • 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:

  1. Niche construction and symbiosis rather than competition 
– to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community
  2. Company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy
  3. Values rather than value – to avoid continuously discounting what is priceless
  4. Physical waste rather than wealth – to focus us on the metrics that do matter
  5. Human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable
  6. Competency networks rather than leadership – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides
  7. Coordination rather than management 
– to address all the stuff that can increasingly be automated, management is often the biggest obstacle to automation
  8. 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:

  1. 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”)
  2. The autistic professional is highly competent in her / his core areas of expertise (which can easily be interpreted as arrogance)
  3. 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)
  4. 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)
  5. 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.