Guidelines for future autism research

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From the perspective of the autism rights movement ownership of the definition of autism is a practical question of human rights and social power relationships in the here and now, and not an abstract philosophical problem.

Across the board most autistic people recognise the disabling characteristics of autism, which are socially constructed, exactly in the same way that left-handedness, female sex, or atypical gender identity used to be significantly disabling characteristics in our society.

Toxic social power relationships and bullying in society and in the workplace arise out of the pathologisation of autism and other neurological variants that influence the ability to conform to local cultural expectations in one or more areas of social behaviour.

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Here are two concrete examples of how social power relationships in relation to neurodiversity currently play out within academic research organisations:

  1. “There is no staff member in our organisation who is interested in participating in an active role in the context of celebrating and de-pathologising neurodiversity”
  2. When asking about a safe space (a time slot and small venue) that allows neurodivergent people to meet, I was informed that “the organisation has already settled on five priority areas of diversity and that the organisation does not want to add any more [support]”

In order to be of value to the autistic community, and in order not to further endorse and perpetuate the use of the pathology paradigm by researchers, it is essential that future autism research builds on the communal definition of autism and takes care to use non-pathologising language in all resulting publications.

The Autistic Collaboration community curates autistic perspectives and links to research that is deemed relevant from the perspective of the autistic community. The links between neurodiversity and creativity and the mental health implications of systematic discrimination and pathologisation are of particular interest.

This article is a sad reminder of the mainstream culture we often find ourselves in. This culture is the inevitable result of pathologising autism and other neurological variants; it makes invalid and highly toxic assumptions about human nature that become self-fulfilling prophecies:

Let’s begin with two principles:

  1. People are status-seeking monkeys
  2. People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital

I begin with these two observations of human nature because few would dispute them …

I can’t comprehend how anyone wants to live in this kind of world. I would like to see research that explores how “status-seeking monkeys” can unlearn some of their assumptions about human nature and become more aware of their cultural programming.

From an ethical perspective, the following guidelines should be mandatory for all future autism research:

Non-pathologising language

Autism is a very broad umbrella term for a multi-dimensional set of traits. In our current society both autistic people with more complex support needs as well as those with less complex support needs suffer from discrimination.

  • A pathologising label such as “Low Functioning Autism” negates and belittles the capabilities of a group of people, simply because they are non-verbal (here is a good example) or learning disabled.
  • A pathologising label such as “High Functioning Autism” negates and belittles the support needs of a group of people, simply because they are verbal and not learning disabled. Bullying and autistic suicide statistics are a strong indicator of a lack of support that actually meets the needs of autistic people.

The rationale for using non-pathologising language is straight forward. It is the same rationale that prompts left-handed people, women, the LGBTQIA communities etc. to rightfully demand the use of non-pathologising language. In case non-pathologising language leads to concerns about the ability to publish in influential journals, then the problem clearly lies with the journals and not with the research and the language used.

My work involves the diligent use of language and formal semantic models. I am acutely aware of the power and the limits of language in the context of knowledge transfer, and the role of language in the context of power politics and deception. Our company is not going to be involved in any research that uses pathologising language to describe autism.

The use of pathologising language is fine in relation to physical or mental ailments where a person wishes for a cure or amelioration that is focused on their own body and mind. The use of pathologising language is inappropriate for physical or mental ailments that are caused by the environment.

If someone experiences pain in their foot because I stand on their foot, the person does not have a foot pathology but their environment is a source of pain that needs to be addressed. If an autistic person experiences mental and emotional pain due to sensory overload or due to cultural demands for conformance with culture specific arbitrary rituals (eye contact is a great example of a cultural ritual that is painful or stressful for many autistic people, and small talk can be similarly stressful), the person does not have a mental disorder but their environment (including cultural expectations) is a source of pain that needs to be addressed.

There is no doubt that many autistic people (just like non-autistic people) have ailments that are experienced as a disease or disorder, which people would prefer not to have. People do not enjoy having epileptic seizures, migraines, asthma, and many other ailments. All of these health conditions have formal labels that describe related symptoms. None of these health conditions are unique to autistic people, even though some autistic people have some of these co-concurrent conditions more frequently than other people.

Resorting to pathologising language in autism related research that focuses on autistic cognition but not on co-concurrent health conditions amounts to systematic discrimination.

Autism related research that investigates co-concurrent health conditions in the context of autism may use pathologising language in relation to the co-concurrent health conditions, but not in relation to autism.

Social power relationships

Social power relationships are not an intrinsic feature of all societies, even though they are part of all societies that consider themselves (considered in the case of historic societies that have collapsed) to be “civilised”.

We live in times where the very foundations of civilisation have become a major problem. Even non-autistic people are starting to realise that power relationships are a major root cause in this context. Human social behaviour across all levels of scale can not be understood through the lens of any single discipline. The research of Herbert Gintis is an excellent starting point.

Cultural evolution is a topic that “culturally well adapted” (non-autistic) people are ill equipped to discuss, as cultural bias easily creates significant blind spots. A culture without neurodiversity and without an adequate distribution of autistic traits is unable to evolve.

Humans have become more successful than other primates not because we are better at constructing social power hierarchies but because we have recognised the danger of the collective learning disabilities induced by all social power relationships. This allowed pre-civilised humans to collaborate very effectively and to reproduce and more successfully than other primates.

The era of human civilisations and anthropocentrism is a little detour or temporary disruption in the evolution of life on this planet.

It is the role of science to apply a critical lens to our understanding of the world, and in the case of human researchers this means being cognisant of the potential for cultural bias to induce culture-specific implicit assumptions when framing research objectives and when attempting to analyse the social world.

Disability

In the context of autism co-concurrent health conditions – rather than autistic cognition – can be disabling.

Most importantly however, for all autistic people the cultural environment and cultural expectations in most societies are disabling to some extent (see the social model of disability).

This article by Robert Chapman provides serious food for thought on the origins of the pathologisation of autism.

Ethical research objectives

Since autism is not a pathology, research objectives must not include:

  1. The search for a cure for autism
  2. Genetic tests that screen for traits that are common in autistic people, with a view of reducing the prevalence or strength of these traits
  3. Therapies for autistic people that focus primarily on changing the behaviour of autistic people, rather than assisting autistic people to shape their environment in accordance with their unique individual needs

Instead, given the shocking historic track record of autism research and therapies, all autism related research must be subject to ethical approval by a board of autistic people, and must consider the needs of all autistic people, including autistic adults.

It is time to significantly raise the ethical bar for autism research.

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The initiative below illustrates the beginning of a new era of autism research.

The Participatory Autism Research Collective

The Participatory Autism Research Collective (PARC) was set up to bring autistic people, including scholars and activists, together with early career researchers and practitioners who work with autistic people. Our aim is to build a community network where those who wish to see more significant involvement of autistic people in autism research can share knowledge and expertise.

PARC are following in the footsteps of previous autistic-led projects, such as the Autonomy Journal and the Theorising Autism Project, who have been campaigning for more participatory autism research.

The project was initially based at London South Bank University, where PARC has held a number of events, contributed to research projects and to publications. The group is has since expand activities to other Universities such as Birmingham, Sheffield Hallam and Nottingham.

The Neurodiversity Reader – Call for Submissions
Twenty years on – tracing the influence of the neurodiversity movement on theory and practice.

The future is neurodiversity friendly!

The topics that generate conversations around the Autistic Collaboration  community increasingly overlap with the topics that participants are bringing to the quarterly CIIC unconferences in Auckland and in Melbourne, which draw in many people with autistic cognitive lenses.

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I have recently summarised the multiple crises of civilisation on the CIIC website, so there is no need to repeat theses observations as part of this article. I would rather like to highlight the deep levels of indoctrination that stand in the way of addressing the root causes of what is best described as extreme anthropocentrism or as “civilisation disorder”.

Cultural indoctrination

Human civilisations have incrementally produced more and more sophisticated tools for inducing and maintaining collective delusions. The increasing level of pathologisation of neurodiversity over the last century (measurable in the rise in diagnoses of “neurological disorders”) is a good indicator of deepening levels of indoctrination rather than an indicator of an evolutionary shift in human neurocognitive functioning.

Another good indicator of the multi-generational depth of cultural indoctrination becomes visible when examining shifts in the meanings of the words we use to describe human social behaviour within groups and between groups.

In the English language words that originally referred to companionship, ways of life, skilled handicraft, and track (I love how that relates to autistic focus and perseverance!) are used interchangeably with words that originally referred to anxiety, being busy, and marking of ownership with a burning iron. As part of the neoliberal capitalist agenda the words “business” and “brand”  have found their way into many other languages in Europe and beyond.

  • The origin of “brand”: Old English brand ‘burning’, of Germanic origin; related to German Brand, also to burn. The verb sense ‘mark with a hot iron’ dates from late Middle English, giving rise to the noun sense ‘a mark of ownership made by branding’ (mid 17th century), whence brand (the noun) (early 19th century).
  • The origin of “business”: Old English bisignis ‘anxiety’ (see busy, -ness); the sense ‘state of being busy’ was used from Middle English down to the 18th century, but is now differentiated as busyness. The use ‘appointed task’ dates from late Middle English, and from it all the other current senses have developed.
  • The origin of “trade”: Late Middle English (as a noun): from Middle Low German, literally ‘track’, of West Germanic origin; related to tread. Early senses included ‘course, way of life’, which gave rise in the 16th century to ‘habitual practice of an occupation’, ‘skilled handicraft’. The current verb senses date from the late 16th century.
  • The origin of “company”: Middle English: from Old French compainie; related to compaignon (see companion).

Today those who object to branding and busyness are pathologised. To top it off, many people are so brainwashed that they are afraid of the collapse of civilisation.

The term “civilisation” traces back to notion of “city”, labels which also carry baggage related to wielding social power beyond human scale that people no longer think about.

Origin of “city“: Middle English: from Old French cite, from Latin civitas, from civis ‘citizen’. Originally denoting a town, and often used as a Latin equivalent to Old English burh ‘borough’, the term was later applied to the more important English boroughs. The connection between city and cathedral grew up under the Norman kings, as the episcopal sees (many had been established in villages) were removed to the chief borough of the diocese.

Of course the label of “city” entails many functions beyond the old connection to social power. Valuable aspects of cities include all the other infrastructure functions of cities beyond the provision of a substrate for social power games.

Beyond civilisation

Creating more humane societies involves surgical removal of social power games from our institutions and relationships.

Without self-awareness about the depth of cultural indoctrination and without many years of practice in the use of [critical] thinking tools any attempt to consciously construct a different and more humane society is destined to fail.

Whatever changes well intentioned cultural designers have in mind will quickly be picked up and co-opted by established power structures, leading to watered down objectives and activities that create an illusion of change, whilst actually reinforcing power gradients and an anthropocentric concept of civilisation, where civilised humans represent the pinnacle of valuable life forms, and where lesser humans and other species are relegated to lower rungs on the ladder of life, deemed unworthy of influencing the future of life on this planet.

The only potential avenue to escape the patterns of collective insanity known as civilisation is an educational approach that delivers compelling evidence that all civilisations have a dark side that eventually becomes the dominant characteristic, and thereby leads to the abuse and disillusionment of the “inmates” of civilised society.

Only those who have understood in their minds and who feel in their hearts that civilisation is not a worthwhile objective for human society are able to see the alternative that is waiting for us: a life within small (human scale) collaborative groups, embedded in a planetary network of life that includes all species.

Prior to the short era of civilisations, humans have spent several hundred thousand years in human scale egalitarian groups. This capability – the potential to develop and maintain egalitarian norms over many generations – distinguished us from other primates, and it enabled us to become more successful than all other primates.

What civilisation has taught us is that humans still have the potential to fall back into cultural norms that reinforce primate dominance hierarchies. This potential in combination with the relatively large size of the human brain enables

  • super-human scale social groups,
  • super-human scale cities,
  • and spurious cultural complexity that manifests itself in dominance hierarchies and in increasingly energy intensive and self-destructive competitive social games.

From my discussions with other autistic people it seems that many of us would happily trade civilisation for life at human scale. Some of us are desperate to leave “civilisation” behind.

Life in human scale collaborative groups is possible today, and the number of non-hierarchical organisations is growing. In contrast to our pre-civilised ancestors we now have ubiquitous access to technologies that enable global peer to peer communication. The opportunity at our disposal consists of localised human scale organisation (minimising our ecological footprint) and global peer to peer sharing and validation of knowledge (maximising our learning opportunities).

Life at humane scale is life in a post busyness society. How much longer will it take for the majority of humans to reject the failed busyness of civilisation?

We don’t need to give up the infrastructure functions provided by our cities and technologies, we only need to give up super-human scale (inhumane) social structures and group identities.

The catch is that this may be easy for autistic people on the fringes of society, but it seems to be far from easy for most non-autistic people. Typical humans have a very hard time to differentiate culturally transmitted beliefs and desires from basic human needs and the innate human preference for peer to peer collaboration at eye level.

My conclusion: anthropocentric “civilisation” is a dead end. Humane neurodiversity friendly collaboration may hold the key to the future of human cultural evolution – not as a way of building a new civilisation, but as a way for identifying a viable niche for our descendants within the context of a thriving living planet.

The trigger for cultural change has been pulled

It is heartening to see Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power.

Established institutions will continue to use their powers and propaganda machines to create the illusion of change, in an attempt to turn climate breakdown into yet another big busyness opportunity.

But like many other autistic people Greta sees right through the attempts of social engineering. Her real achievement lies in reaching a global audience by riding on top of the media machines that work on behalf of the establishment, and by simply pointing out the obvious truth to everyone – that the emperors have no clothes.

Now the global public knows that everyone else knows that the emperors have no clothes. From now on all established institutions are operating on borrowed time.

From now on autistic people will be appreciated for an innate trait that has been systematically engineered out of our societies and institutions: our deep aversion to lying and our inability to maintain hidden agendas.

Over the course of several hundred thousand years evolutionary forces have honed the human ability to learn by imitation, but evolutionary forces have also kept alive the genes and levels of neurodiversity that are needed to survive during periods of rapid environmental change.

Employee-owned, non-hierarchical companies like the one I founded 16 years ago illustrate that neurodiversity is a collaborative advantage.

It is encouraging to see that we are not alone, and that more and more people and organisations are rejecting hierarchical forms of organisation.

The future is already taking shape.

Either humans have no future or the future is neurodiversity friendly!

Myths that help keep the autism indu$try in bu$yne$$

Currently the most visible way in which autism contributes to the economy is by providing a substrate from which a growing autism industry can extract profit.

What CAN be misunderstood WILL be misunderstood. Unless you are autistic there is no difference between “cure” and cure. Sadly, there is no shortage of “autism professional advice” and “cures” that amount to a sarcophagus for autistic individuals. The result is a bullet proof technique for creating mental health problems and selling further “treatments”. The first step towards progress could not be simpler:

Let the set of cures remain empty, and reduce the set of “cures” to the empty set.

To identify the “cures” it is important to understand the myths that are still perpetuated by the autism industry or by individual “autism professionals”.

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Myth 1: Autists lack empathy

Reality: There is a double empathy challenge.

It is not only the autistic person who struggles to read the intentions and motivations of non-autistic people, but the same can also be said in reverse.

Myth 2: Autists are bad at teamwork

Reality: Many of us can be great at teamwork.

One of the persistent negative stereotypes is that we are poor at collaboration. I am on a mission to demonstrate the opposite. Collaboration can take many forms, and different people have different needs and preferences. Autists learn and play differently, and only have a limited if any interest in competitive social games. We communicate and enjoy ourselves by sharing information and knowledge, and not by negotiating social status.

Myth 3: There are only very few female autists 
– and autists have an “extremely male” brain

Reality: There may be as many female as male autists, and quite a number of us struggle to identify with a gender identity.

Looking into the Autistic Spectrum has given us more insight into how we humans think, and how our brains are wired differently. We have various ways of thinking that can be perceived as odd to neurotypical’s. Looking into gender identity is no different, as various autistic’s prefer not to follow traditional gender labels.

Myth 4: All autists are introverted

Reality: Some of us are extroverted.

I’m an extrovert Aspie. You’re a what now? Yes, you read it correctly, I’m an extrovert Aspie.

Now I can see you all frowning at your screens. Isn’t autism supposed to be all about being shy, and not talking to others and such? Indeed the common belief is that women with Asperger’s Syndrome tend to keep to themselves, only speak when spoken to, and are more observers than participants.

So how does this work when you have a very outgoing personality? I will make a list of things that might help you understand…

Myth 5: Crippling anxiety and depression are an inevitable aspect of being autistic

Reality: Anxiety and depression are often the result of bullying and discrimination.

… first impressions of individuals with ASD made from thin slices of real-world social behavior by typically-developing observers are not only far less favorable across a range of trait judgments compared to controls, but also are associated with reduced intentions to pursue social interaction. These patterns are remarkably robust, occur within seconds, do not change with increased exposure, and persist across both child and adult age groups. However, these biases disappear when impressions are based on conversational content lacking audio-visual cues, suggesting that style, not substance, drives negative impressions of ASD …

Myth 6: Those autists who are able to mask their autistic traits are “cured” or don’t need support

Reality: Masking takes significant amounts of mental energy and requires recovery time.

Masking and trying to communicate can feel like paddling downwind in a sea kayak, in a small swell that has been whipped up, where the speed is limited to the speed of the waves. No matter how hard you paddle and how much effort you put in, it is impossible to paddle over the small wave into which the tip of the kayak is pointing.

The energy loss associated with masking is best described as autistic burnout.

It’s taken me six weeks to start writing an article about Autistic Burnout, because I’m going through Autistic Burnout… If you saw someone going through Autistic Burnout would you be able to recognise it? Would you even know what it means? Would you know what it meant for yourself if you are an Autistic person?  The sad truth is that so many Autistic people, children and adults, go through this with zero comprehension of what is happening to them and with zero support from their friends and families.

Myth 7: Learning to mask autistic traits is the key to a successful autistic life

Reality: Continuous masking is a major contributor to autistic suicide.

Adults with autism who camouflage are eight times as likely to harm themselves as those who don’t.

This statistic tells us more about the severe illnesses that afflict our society than about autistic people. In our society hardly anyone is familiar with the social model of disability. Below a timely slide from a recent talk by Judy Singer on this topic.

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Myth 8: Autism is a one-dimensional spectrum that ranges from mild to severe

Reality: The autism spectrum is multi-dimensional.

My inspiration for this project comes from the multi-lens structure found in the compound eyes of insects, where each lens captures a unique perspective. The objective is to create a library of authentic autistic voices as a counterbalance to the diagnostic language used by the medical profession and the autism industry.

Myth 9: Autists are looking for partners who can replace their mothers

Reality: We choose autistic partners at rates that are 10 times greater than random choice.

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The pathologising language used by the researchers illustrates where society currently is at in terms of fully appreciating the value of neurodiversity. In spite of the growing body of evidence – and in spite of the double empathy challenge that is well recognised within the autistic community, some of the most visible figures in the autism industry like Tony Attwood think nothing of perpetuating a myth that likely sets up many autists for severe disappointments in forming trusted relationships and partnerships.

Myth 10: Autists are manipulative

Reality: We are incapable of maintaining a hidden agenda, but in certain environments sensory issues or anxiety may impact on our ability to interact or function

…The strip lights overhead, flickering constantly in pulsing waves, each one shooting through my eyes and down through my body; I can physically feel each pulse humming and vibrating…

… So we take more and more on, we allow our plates to get fuller and fuller, our anxiety heightens, our sensory processing becomes more difficult to maintain, our Executive Functioning abilities spin out of control and again this attributes to burnout.  We aren’t generally terrific at juggling plates.

Jeanette Purkis, who is an Australian Autistic, an absolutely wonderful writer and a Member of my network organisation, The Autistic Cooperative, has written an excellent piece called “‘Too Nice’: Avoiding the traps of exploitation and manipulation.” In it Jeanette says:

“There is an actual concrete reason that we tend to be taken advantage of and it starts with the difference in communication between autistic people and neurotypical people. Autistic communication is generally on one level. We are honest, up front and do not often do things like manipulation and deceit. We generally do not lie although many autistic people are capable of lying if they feel the need but usually it doesn’t come naturally.

Note : This list of myths is not exhaustive!

Autistic life beyond the myths

the last 20 years have seen the rise of an “autism epidemic” and a profitable “autism industry”. Social progress in relation to autistic rights is overdue.

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Genuine appreciation of neurodiversity

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Society should be moving beyond autism awareness and autism acceptance towards  appreciation of all forms of neurodiversity. However, the label of neurodiversity is being co-opted. I cringe when I read statements and absurd goals like this one:

“SAP has announced an intention to make 1% of its workforce neurodiverse by 2020″—a number chosen because it is less than the percentage of autistic people in the general population.

Co-opting of neurodiversity is the flag of convenience for exploitation. The reality: SAP, Microsoft et al. make a big deal out of aiming at 1% of “proper, certified by the autism industry” autists within their workforce, whilst at least another > 9% of their workforce don’t dare to openly identify as autistic, because they know what it would do to their career prospects.

This is Autwashing and not the celebration of neurodiversity. Autism awareness has translated into a proliferation of stereotypes. Autism acceptance has translated into the realisation that we are not going away. is the opposite of .

Social diseases

Our culture is sick. We don’t even have a good language to talk about diseases of society. Instead our society cultivates a language for describing ways in which individuals are “deficient” and “deserve to be rejected”.

The theme of the upcoming CIIC workshop on 22 September in Auckland is the Anthropocene. I wonder when our culture will start to acknowledge the link between mental health problems and social diseases – diseases of society that negatively impact people and the environment. “Treating” individuals is only addressing symptoms and not any of the root causes.

Mental health professionals have developed an increasingly rich diagnostic language to talk about individual mental heath, but we do not have any nuanced framework to talk about social / cultural / environmental diseases.

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Rather than being scientific disciplines, marketing and large parts of psychology are the twin children of the Western ideology of capitalism and industrialism that has conquered the world.

The underlying assumption of neoliberal psycho-marketecture is that human behaviour at all levels of scale can be explained as competition according to culturally defined rules.

This ideology nurtures instead of curbs the latent human tendency develop an arbitrary socially constructed sense of entitlement and to construct deep social power hierarchies.

The social norms that operated in small stateless societies and in hunter gatherer societies prior to the advent of large scale civilisations and empires did exactly the opposite, and curbed any attempts to gain power over others. Such egalitarian social norms allowed human primates to become much more successful than all other primates, and being very much compatible with autistic social motivations, they allowed neurodivergent creativity to flourish.

There is every reason to believe that contemporary human societies survive in spite of neoliberal psycho-marketecture and thanks to the exploitation of neurodivergent people, and especially those with autistic traits.

The catch is that non-autistic people have a big emotional attachment to status within their culture and social groups, whereas autists usually don’t. Therefore, whenever we say or do something that questions the established social order we are perceived as not having empathy. Until the 1980s most of us were simply seen as weird, and some people even genuinely appreciated the qualities that came with our weirdness.

If you find yourself in a work environment where you frequently have to mask or tend to be penalised for taking risks, making mistakes, raising problems, asking questions, or disagreeing with your colleagues, you are in an unsafe environment.

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You can use the Bullying Alert System on this website to report the context of your situation in anonymised form.

The wider population is still ignorant and is completely unfamiliar with the social model of disability. Pathologising stereotypes keep getting circulated, leading to the perpetuation of support for organisations that advocate Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and research on the slippery slope towards eugenics like this New Zealand branch of the autism industry. No autistic person is in sight, only geneticists and “normalisation” therapists.

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This article provides an excellent summary of the level of appreciation afforded to neurodivergent individuals:

“Too many depictions of autistic people rely on tired clichés. The neurotypical world needs to take note of our own voices… Imagine describing an organisation as institutionally black, institutionally female or institutionally Muslim … Yet, somehow, intelligent people can drop ‘autistic’ into conversation whenever they want to draw a contrast between the unfeeling, insensitive, uncreative parts of this world, and their bright, emotional, magnificent selves.

Autistic culture

Judy Singer was one of the first people to write about the rise of autistic culture and community in her thesis in 1998:

For me, the significance of the “autism spectrum” lies in its call for and anticipation of a “politics of neurodiversity”. The “neurologically different” represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class / gender / race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability. The rise of neurodiversity takes postmodern fragmentation one step further. Just as the postmodern era sees every once too solid belief melt into air, even our most taken-for granted assumptions: that we all more or less see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and sort information, in more or less the same way, (unless visibly disabled) are being dissolved.

From “Odd People In: The Birth of Community Amongst People on the “Autism Spectrum”: A personal exploration of a new social movement based on neurological diversity”

The internet has enabled autistic people to connect, share knowledge and collaborate at scale. A large number of closet autists play key roles in the sciences and in all kinds of industries and pursuits that depend heavily on deep bodies of knowledge and on specialised skills.

One of the most obvious and visible results of autistic collaboration is the Open Source software movement and the fact that most parts of the internet run on Open Source software.

The role of Open Source in our society provides a good example of exploitation of neurodivergent people. Our economic paradigm does not recognise the value of the majority of contributors to Open Source and instead attributes most of the value to corporations that wrap Open Source software into commercial software products and related professional services.

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Autistic people are power users of online tools, but significant numbers of us also prefer to collaborate and interact with autistic peers in the physical world. Statistics on mating preferences within the autistic community clearly highlight the preference for interactions with autistic peers, with the odds of autists choosing an autistic mate being more than 10 times higher than a random choice.

Full appreciation of neurodiversity and social progress in relation to autistic rights is overdue. To get involved, and to fully embrace neurodiversity, engage with the neurodiversity movement, for example via these projects, these people, and these neurodiventures.

What CAN be misunderstood WILL be misunderstood

Autistic social motivation is deeply rooted in the desire to share knowledge and in the desire to learn, and this has big implications for the protocols that are used in autistic communication. In contrast, the societies we grow up in and live in value abstract social status symbols more than developing a shared understanding, and this leads to the communication challenges that define our social experiences.

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When I read this Tweet from Ted Nelson last year it occurred to me that he has articulated the fundamental axiom of autistic social experience.

Challenges

Linear verbal or written language is a poor medium for reliable transmission of knowledge. Being aware of the limitations of language is highly frustrating and reduces the desire to initiate conversation in all contexts where it is obvious that the communication partner or audience lacks big chunks of the context that is essential for avoiding major misunderstandings.

When making a conscious effort to structure and sequence communication so that relevant context is included in the reasoning and the flow of statements, it easily results in long and elaborate expositions that conflict with typical expectations of the level of interactivity or “chattiness” of the typical human communication protocol.

The situation is often further complicated by a likely mismatch in social motivation. Especially in the case of verbal communication the listener’s primary motivation may be cultural, influenced by the listener’s conception of the perceived group identities and social hierarchies that frame the context of the conversation. Cultural expectations can largely negate all efforts by the autistic speaker to convey context information in a culturally agnostic format to assist the transmission of personal experience and domain knowledge.

If the autistic speaker is familiar with the cultural context of the listener, she may go to great lengths to weave culturally expected phrases into the transmission of knowledge and context. She may even allow for some level of interactivity – conscious of the risk that it

  1. may completely derail the transmission,
  2. introduces a significant potential for misunderstandings, and
  3. may take a herculean effort to get the conversation back to the point where the intended transmission of experience or knowledge can be closed off.

All this conscious communication effort can be summed up as the linguistic part of autistic masking.

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Coping strategies

From an autistic perspective the extreme energy input required for any reasonably successful communication leads to the development of a number of complementary coping strategies for various situations. My approach is the following:

I have developed a strong preference for written communication, which is a very effective strategy for avoiding the need for linguistic autistic masking.

I have always been attracted to formal systems of reasoning and to mathematical formalisms, which provide a system for making all assumptions explicit, and for articulating domain knowledge in compact and unambiguous notations.

To minimise the energy cost of successful transmission of knowledge, and also as a way of connecting with the few people that have any genuine interest in the bodies of knowledge that I am interested in expanding, I often write in the public domain or talk at relevant conferences. This is a great strategy for mutual learning and for discovering others who are working on related bodies of knowledge.

Roughly 18 years ago I discovered Open Space Technology. Since then I have been relying heavily on this format for setting up and running workshops for sharing, validating, and expanding bodies of knowledge. It seems as if the Open Space principles and the Law of Two Feet have been designed specifically for autistic communication and collaboration needs. Even the way of initiating conversations in Open Space feels highly intuitive from an autistic perspective: (1) write down and briefly explain a problem statement, (2) listen to other problem statements, and then (3) allow participants to self-organise around specific topics of interest.

I make heavy use of whiteboards and conversations around whiteboards. This allows for interactive knowledge validation and elaboration. The content on the whiteboard acts as a tool for articulating semantic links in a format that is much more compact and less ambiguous than linear language. Pointing to elements on the whiteboard helps to connect lines of verbal reasoning to the semantic models that are evolving on the visual canvas. As an added bonus from an autistic perspective, focus on the whiteboard largely eliminates typical cultural expectations around eye contact.

I avoid networking events and conversations with random strangers about random topics like the plague. I gain nothing from such encounters, and others may walk away with snippets of information that will in all likelihood be misinterpreted due to a lack of essential context.

I make use of online tools to seek out what other autists with compatible interests are reading and writing. This creates great opportunities for mutual learning, and it leads to trusted relationships with peers who also tend to be acutely aware of the pitfalls of communication, who do not over-complicate communication with cultural expectations, and who do not have any hidden agenda.

I have become very concious of the energy budget needed for communicating with typical people, and I consciously limit the number of non-autistic people I interact with. I invest my energy into building deep relationships with specific people, and I avoid wasting energy on creating large number of shallow “relationships”. This strategy is essential for survival and for keeping sane. Investing in relationships allows the incremental construction of shared context, and it allows the construction of an optimised communication protocol for each relationship based on mutual trust and shared understanding.

Knowledge creation, validation and dissemination, as well as collaboration in neurodivergent teams have become my core areas of expertise.  The combination of all of the techniques above have culminated in the MODA + MODE meta-paradigm for interdisciplinary research, design, and knowledge engineering, and have led to the development of a corresponding formal meta language (the Cell meta language) and related graph based visual representations of formal models and semantic domains (the MODA + MODE human lens).

human lens.jpg

Languages that are better than all linear languages

Using linear language to communicate experiences and knowledge involves hard work that mostly goes to waste. It can feel like paddling downwind in a sea kayak,  in a small swell that has been whipped up, where the speed is limited to the speed of the waves. No matter how hard you paddle, it is impossible to paddle over the small wave into which the tip of the kayak is pointing. No matter how much effort you put into communication in linear language, there is always going to remain a sizeable residue of misunderstandings.

language design.jpg

As part of the S23M team I am designing and building technology that supports more and more aspects of the MODA + MODE meta-paradigm, to create a visual human scale language system that allows humans to reduce the level of misunderstandings by one or more orders of magnitude.

Such language tooling not only benefits autists, it can also assist us in putting machine learning to good use and assist us in designing better systems of collaboration. A shift towards more visual and genuinely human scale languages goes a long way towards improving the ability of any group of humans to develop a greater level of shared understanding of each other’s needs, and of the environment that the group lives and operates in.

The dynamics resulting from the interplay of neurodiversity and culture

Why do humans cooperate?

solidarity

This week Nature published a focus issue on human cooperation that brings together research from evolution, anthropology, ecology, economics, neuroscience and environmental science — to spark interdisciplinary conversation and inspire scientific cooperation.

Cooperation lies at the heart of human lives and society — from day-to-day interactions to some of our greatest endeavours. Understanding cooperation — what motivates it, how it develops, how it happens and when it fails to happen — is therefore an important part of understanding all kinds of human behaviour.

We know that children acquire notions of fairness from a surprisingly early age. However, coordination among adults often fails. Adult participants apparently contribute more when establishing a new collective good, but contribute much less to maintain an existing resource. This should remind us of the comments on teamwork made by  W. Edwards Deming more than 30 years ago.

Furthermore, typical anti-corruption strategies may have negative impacts on cooperation that depend on the cultural context. There are no universally applicable recipes that offer a quick fix.

Cooperation often fails when individuals are uncertain about the relative importance of their own effect on a critical, environmental threshold.

Hence, to avoid counter-productive levels of in-group competition, and to encourage cooperation, economic ecosystems and organisations must provide incentives that make cooperation the more attractive option.

Some powerful theories and empirical insights have expanded our knowledge of cooperation over the past few decades — but much remains to be understood. Integrating questions and approaches from different fields may provide fertile ground to achieve this.

What becomes apparent is that mainstream research into human cooperation (so far), with very few exceptions, ignores the influence of neurodiversity.

The damage caused by hyper-competitive cultures

Research into the effects of inequality shows that the frequency of bullying is 10 to 15 times higher in highly unequal societies.

Growing levels of social inequality correlate with a rise in mental health issues throughout the population. The root cause may well relate to the formation of increasingly absurd group identities and associated signals of social status that make it acceptable to exclude the less fortunate. From evolutionary biology we know that in-group competition has negative survival value – it is the opposite of intelligent behaviour.

Apparently the following little anecdote is highly relatable.

hyper-competition

Multiple studies confirm that the suicide rates for autists are are several times higher than in the general population.

Elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide apply across the entire autism spectrum. These co-morbid conditions are a reflection of experiences made in the social environment rather than a reflection of autism specific neurology. The latest research confirms that bullying plays a major role:

“Autistic people and families have told us that mental health is their top priority for research. This is not surprising as we know autistic people experience high rates of chronic mental health problems which lead to tragically high rates of suicide. Yet, our knowledge of autism and depression has remained poor. This excellent study tells us that symptoms of depression are elevated in autistic adolescents. The authors found that it was bullying rather than genetic differences which drove an increase in depressive symptoms in autistic people. We now urgently need to carefully understand bullying and other traumatic experiences in autistic people as we’re now finding they can have devastating impact.”

Why do autists often become the targets of bullying?

Due to differences in social cognition neurotypical people are less willing to interact with autistic peers based on thin slice judgements.

judging

… first impressions of individuals with ASD made from thin slices of real-world social behavior by typically-developing observers are not only far less favorable across a range of trait judgments compared to controls, but also are associated with reduced intentions to pursue social interaction. These patterns are remarkably robust, occur within seconds, do not change with increased exposure, and persist across both child and adult age groups. However, these biases disappear when impressions are based on conversational content lacking audio-visual cues, suggesting that style, not substance, drives negative impressions of ASD …

There is a strong consensus within the autistic community that bullying is one of the most important issues that needs to be addressed.

Autists are often noted for their their honesty, their naivety, and their inability to be exploitative. Autistic neurological differences manifest in significant differences in social motivation, setting the scene for a mismatch with cultural expectations. From personal experience, the following situations easily lead to profound misunderstandings:

  • Reliance on personal competency networks and ignorance of social hierarchies is easily interpreted as arrogance and not as a critical scientific approach to learning.
  • Unwillingness to agree with specific assumptions or conclusions is easily interpreted as having a strong ego and a desire to be right, and not as a cautious reluctance to jump to conclusions or reluctance to endorse assumptions in the absence of adequate supporting evidence.
  • Giving others full autonomy over how they do their work is easily interpreted as a lack of management skill, and not as a form of trust based non-hierarchical collaboration that welcomes creativity and individual agency.
  • Providing others with clear and detailed description of expected results of a piece of work is easily interpreted as a form of micro-management, and not as a clean separation of concerns based on deep domain knowledge.
  • Pointing out unknowns and uncertainties is easily interpreted as a lack of relevant experience or a lack of confidence, and not as an honest assessment of the situation at hand based on deep domain knowledge.

Neurodiversity at the core of anti-bullying initiatives

The lack of social competition in predominantly neurodivergent teams affords such teams a distinct collaborative edge, especially when compared against typical teams within a highly competitive socioeconomic context.

Neurodivergent teams are uniquely positioned to identify spurious cultural complexity within organisational systems and interaction patterns. This creates interesting learning opportunities for organisations that are plagued by counter-productive in-group competition.

competition.jpg

Establishing one or more predominantly neurodivergent teams can act as a catalyst for cultural change in neighbouring teams.

Everyone can relate to the toxic effects of bullying, yet only few people are familiar with neurodiversity and autistic cognition from a first-hand perspective.  Launching an anti-bullying initiative is a great opportunity to frame neurodiversity in a positive and non-pathologising way, and to educate people about the social model of disability. 

Further steps towards appreciation of neurodiversity

In Auckland, I am currently planning the following activities:

  1. Regular Meetups to offer mutual support for neurodivergent 
families and individuals.
  2. A series of public discussion between autistic people, to present a realistic non-pathologising picture of autism and of living in a neurotypical world from an autistic perspective. Dialogues between autists are one of the most powerful forms of sharing autistic experiences. Otherwise we tend to be dismissed as individuals with amusing opinions. If you know of aspies and autists in Auckland who might be interested in participating please let me know. 

The aim is for students, academic staff, teachers, parents, and the general public to learn more about neurodiversity and autism, and also about the connection between neurodiversity and human creativity.  These activities are a further practical step to reduce workplace bullying.

Celebrating neurodiversity in your organisation

Organisations that claim to be supportive of neurodiversity must shift from a pursuit of a competitive edge to the pursuit of a collaborative edge.

Recommended steps include:

  1. Focus on organisational / team based performance, and abolish of all forms of individual performance reviews as advocated by W. Edwards Deming, to establish an environment that does not encourage in-group competition.
  2. Establish teams with a clear autistic / neurodivergent majority, to prompt the development of specific collaborative practices that are aligned with the purpose of the organisation.

If you have questions, consult the autistic community, for example one of these autists who are committed to autistic collaboration.

If you find yourself in a work environment where you frequently have to mask or tend to be penalised for taking risks, making mistakes, raising problems, asking questions, or disagreeing with your colleagues, you are in an unsafe environment.

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You can use the Bullying Alert System on this website to report the context of your situation in anonymised form.

Taking ownership of the label

Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant that can not be understood without the social model of disability.

autistic.png

Members of the autism civil rights movement adopt a position of neurodiversity that extends the LGBTQIA+ kaleidoscope of identities by recognising autistic traits as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species. Major goals of the autism rights movement include the following:

  1. Liberation from the socially constructed pathology paradigm
  2. Acceptance of autistic patterns of behaviours
  3. Education that teaches neurotypical individuals about autistic cognition and motivations, including communication skills for interacting with autistic peers; as well as education that teaches autistic individuals about typical cognition and motivations, including communication skills for interacting with neurotypical peers
  4. Creation of social networks, events, and organisations that allow autistic people to collaborate and socialise on their own terms
  5. Recognition of the autistic community as a minority group

In the absence of a comprehensive neurological and genetic description, the best way to describe the essence of autism is in terms of first hand experience of autistic cognition and autistic motivations. The highlighted parts of this article focus on the core of autistic experience rather than on other features that are not unique to autistic experience and are therefore better described separately.

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. Our suicide and mental health statistics are the result of discrimination and not a “feature” of autism.

All autists experience the human social world significantly different from typical individuals. The difference in autistic social cognition is best described in terms of a heightened level of conscious processing of raw information signals from the environment, and an absence or a significantly reduced level of subconscious filtering of social information.

The best way for non-autistic people to understand lack of social filtering is by analogy. Before a human child learns to read letters and words, it perceives written text in terms of complex shapes and patterns. A young child may be intrigued by all the commonalities and variabilities between shapes, and may easily perceive the differences between two “i”s in different fonts to be greater than the difference between “i” and “l” in one specific font.

As a child learns the alphabet, it develops subconscious cognitive filters to recognise specific characters and to associate them with corresponding sounds, without having to consciously decode and map from perceived shapes to familiar sounds. As the child then progressively learns to read, the development of subconscious cognitive filters for written language progresses to the point where familiar words and even common sequences of words are mapped onto familiar sounds and corresponding mental representations (“mental models”) without any conscious effort.

Typical children develop similar subconscious filters for decoding non-verbal signals from the social world.

Autistic children tend to take longer to learn how to decode non-verbal signals from the social world, in particular signals related to abstract cultural concepts related to the negotiation of social status.

It is a common misconception that autistic people do not register social signals such as facial gestures. We do see all the movements, but we must consciously process most of the inputs instead of subconsciously mapping them to corresponding meanings.

Autists are easily overwhelmed in social situations, and may need to be explicitly taught the purpose of specific social gestures and rituals. Once specific social signals have been understood, autists can decode them with conscious effort. The cognitive load can be compared to attempting to read a book when holding up the book close to the sun, or to attempting to understand someone over the phone when the sound is so loud it is distorted.

Given the increased cognitive load in social situations, autists have to choose between either focusing on a literal interpretation of the verbal content of a conversation or on attempting to decode the non-verbal social context of the conversation. In many cases attempting to do both at once leads to the worst possible outcome. Focusing on the verbal content is by far the easiest option from the autistic perspective.

Eye contact is experienced as an unneeded and sometimes stressful distraction. Focusing on the mouth of the person speaking tends to be a good compromise, leading to the appearance of maintaining eye contact whilst further assisting the decoding of the verbal content, especially in noisy environments.

Many autists are also hyper- and/or hypo-sensitive to certain sensory inputs from the physical environment. This further complicates social communication in noisy and distracting environments. With respect to autistic sensory sensitivity there are huge differences between autists. Some autists may be bothered or impaired by a broad range of different stimuli, whereas others are only impacted by very specific stimuli.

Some autists remain non-verbal, and others may become selectively mute in specific situations, but this in no way is any indication of the level to which the individual is able to process and understand incoming information, or an indication of intellectual impairment. Self-reflection and thinking is much older than human language.

Individually unique cognitive autistic lenses result in individually unique usage patterns of the human brain, and often in unique levels of expertise and creativity within specific domains of interest and related autistic inertia and perseverance.

Autistic inertia is similar to Newton’s inertia, in that not only do autists have difficulty starting things, but they also have difficulty in stopping things. Inertia can allow autists to hyperfocus for long periods of time, but it also manifests as a feeling of paralysis and a severe loss of energy when needing to switch from one task to the next.

Further related factors are the difficulty autists have devoting attention to tasks that are outside the range of personal interests and getting enough sleep when in hyperfocus mode. It is common for autists to work on ideas that others would consider a waste of time or impossible, and not uncommon for them to succeed.

“The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness.”Nick Walker

“You see things that others don’t; you miss things that others see. Intricate detail and social signals are given different priorities in the autistic brain. I have an insatiable passion for knowledge, understanding and ‘projects’ – I’m not called ‘the Oracle’ for nothing.”Sarah Hendrickx

Differences in the experience of being human

The autistic experience involves the following set of cultural artefacts:

  1. Language(s), including various idiosyncratic forms of communication
  2. Written rules for interaction, in particular in relation to interacting with the physical and biological world
  3. Tools of all kinds
  4. Knowledge related to the making and use of tools

In contrast, the neurotypical experience involves the following set of cultural artefacts:

  1. Language(s), including an understanding and appreciation of abstract cultural status symbols
  2. Written and unwritten rules for social interaction, in particular in relation to status symbols
  3. Tools of all kinds
  4. Knowledge related to the making and use of tools

Differences in social motivation and experience

The autistic mind is motivated by understanding how some aspects of the world work, whereas the neurotypical mind is significantly motivated by compliance with cultural expectations. These differences in motivations exist alongside the universal innate human motivation to assist others regardless of external rewards.

Autistic social motivations:

  • Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs, in particular love, access to food and shelter, and autonomy over own mind and body, as well as unique needs
  • Truth – as it appears through the lens of our current level of human scientific understanding
  • Recognition – attribution of creative agency

Autistic social motivations are intrinsic and navigate the tension between mutual assistance and the acquisition of new levels of knowledge and understanding, including access to specific objects of study and any required tools.

In summary, autists don’t have hidden agendas, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation in competitive social environments.

Neurotypical social motivations:

  • Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs and cultural needs
  • Recognition – approval for compliance with cultural expectations
  • Truth – as it appears through the lens of human cultures

Neurotypical social motivations navigate the tension between mutual assistance and culturally motivated behaviour, especially the attainment of extrinsic cultural rewards, including money and other desirable concrete and abstract symbols of status. Star Ford has written an excellent book on this topic.

A lot of the misunderstandings and frustrations in collaboration between autists and neurotypical people can be explained in terms of different conceptions of acceptance, truth, and recognition.

“On the plus side, autism brings me a complete lack of regard for status, possessions, hidden agendas, point scoring and spite along with a deep, emotional, sensory connection to nature, animals and music.”Sarah Hendrickx

“I always used to say: There are two types of people in the world. Those who would never let the pursuit of social acceptance get in the way of the pursuit of Truth. And those who would never let the pursuit of Truth get in the way of the pursuit of social acceptance.”Judy Singer

“The motivational differences are not immediately noticeable from the outside. They become obvious when we think about how we develop trust and how we make friends compared to what is considered normal by the rest of society.”Jorn Bettin

Differences in ways of being social

Autistic collaboration involves sharing of knowledge and working towards a shared goal of generating new levels of knowledge and understanding. The individual innate moral compass mediates the tension between the desire to assist others vs the desire learn about the world.

  • These inclinations are reflected in the cultural transmission of new discoveries from children to parents
  • Education of parents by the children focuses on teaching about the focus and boundaries of individual areas of interest
  • Sharing of knowledge and asking probing questions is seen as a “natural” human behaviour
  • Adolescence is a period of intensive knowledge acquisition, where individual areas of interests are explored in great depth, and where in the absence of autistic peers with compatible interests new knowledge is often shared with parents

In contrast neurotypical collaboration involves competition at all levels of scale according to culturally defined rules, which mediate the tension between the desire to assist others vs the desire to gain or maintain social status symbols.

  • These inclinations are reflected in the cultural transmission of boundaries of acceptable behaviour from parents to children
  • Education of children by the parents focuses on teaching the cultural rules and acceptable boundaries
  • Ego and self-promotion is seen as a “natural” human behaviour
  • Adolescence is a period of socialisation, where the cultural rules transmitted by parents are incrementally replaced by the cultural rules encountered in peer groups

“The goal of understanding must not be to punish or reform the child. It must be to learn to love purely, and to nurture that precious, unique, individual spirit hiding within the autistic person. The person must be allowed to remain autistic. It is born into him, and is lifelong. There are no cures, nor should there be. I believe that is why autism has eluded science and baffled physicians. I believe autism is a marvellous occurrence of nature, not a tragic example of the human mind gone wrong. In many cases, autism also can be a kind of genius undiscovered. Autistic people are worth getting to know They are valuable just as they are. They can display innovative thinking.”Jasmine Lee O’Neill

Differences in the way of developing trust

The autistic way

  1. Based on experienced 
domain-specific competence
  2. When young assumes everyone is telling the truth
  3. When older can become very cynical
  4. Can be fooled by people who appear to be logical but who have no scruples fabricating evidence
  5. Is slow in learning to read social cues, and can’t do so in an environment of sensory overload

The neurotypical way

  1. Based on socially transmitted reputation
  2. Quickly learns that deception is part of the social “game”
  3. Is proficient in the social “game”, and may even enjoy it
  4. Relies on social [non verbal] cues to detect deception
  5. Can be fooled by fake social cues, even if these are in conflict with the evidence at hand

Depending on the personal experiences made with their family and cultural environment, some autists choose to completely withdraw from society, like this island recluse.

Differences in the way of making friends

The autistic way

  1. Search for people with shared interests, usually online
  2. Confirm a shared interest
  3. Start having fun by knowledge sharing
  4. Explore what can be achieved with joint capabilities and capacities
  5. Embark on significant joint projects to have more fun

The neurotypical way

  1. Approach people who look attractive or have a high social reputation, 
often in a group setting
  2. Use smalltalk to start a conversation
  3. If an emotional bond is established, spend more time together and do various things together
  4. Spending time together is more important than what the time is spent on

Evolutionary benefits of autistic cognition

Technically speaking, in the language of evolutionary biology, human traits are the manifestation of multi-level group selection in human societies, resulting in a form of gene-cultural co-evolution where culture plays a very significant role.

Depending on the specific culture an individual grows up in, the competitive aspect of “collaboration” may either be significantly reinforced (capitalism, older money based societies, some religions) or weakened (hunter gatherer societies, some religions).

Autistic human traits are the glue that enables new knowledge acquisition to be scaled to the level of groups and groups of groups, providing cultures with the ability to adapt in times of rapid environmental changes.

During times when the environment is experienced as highly stable, autistic traits are likely to be suppressed by the surrounding culture; whereas when the environment is experienced as highly dynamic, autistic traits will be appreciated as a source of essential new knowledge.

The limits of labels

To be clear, neurotypical and autistic are coarse labels. People can be more or less autistic, LGBTQ, etc. – but the more an individual experiences the world through an autistic cognitive lens, the less that person is going to be influenced by the surrounding culture and related subconscious social filters. And just as many people will clearly identify with one gender identity, many people will clearly identify as either being autistic or not. Depending on how autism friendly the surrounding culture is, an ambivalent individual with neurotypical and autistic traits may ultimately gravitate towards a culturally defined identity or towards a clearly autistic identity.

Those who identify as autistic operate on an internal moral compass that does not place much if any value on social status and related cultural rules, but this in no way means that autistic people do not have empathy or are not interested in interacting with other people.

Furthermore, given the strong influence of culture on typical people, it makes little sense to talk about neurotypical behaviour, and it makes much more sense to think and talk about culturally acceptable behavioural patterns – which vary from context to context.

In all social contexts, which relate to one or more of the group identities of neurotypical people, autistic people will be identifiable by their atypical behavioural patterns, and by the level of exhaustion they suffer by attempting to blend in to the local social context.

When autists attempt to blend in it is to avoid suffering the consequences of non-conformance – and not to gain or maintain social status.

autsoc.jpg

The social model of disability

What happens if a society forces people to either negate their autistic traits or to identify with a pathologising description of autism? The results are predictable:

  1. People who lack empathy increasingly gain influence and are able to shape the social status symbols and related rules of social interaction, leading to an increasingly competitive culture that overrides the innate human tendency towards mutual aid and cooperation.
  2. As society becomes more influenced by socially engineered wants and competitive games rather than by basic human needs, autistic traits become an obstacle to social acceptance, and the incidence of mental health problems and suicides within the population rises.
  3. As the exclusive pursuit of status symbols becomes normalised, the more competitive and less sympathetic society becomes towards autists and other neuro-minorities, who feel compelled to point out some of the symptoms of the collective social delusion.
  4. More and more people are systematically disabled by hyper-competitive social games, and end up being pushed towards a pathologising autism diagnosis.
  5. Rising autism diagnoses lead to the growth of an autism industry that caters more for the cultural expectations of parents than the needs and well-being of autistic people on the margins of society.

 

In earlier times autism was, and in less competitive cultures autism is, not necessarily pathologised. There is evidence that autists tended to occupy valuable functions in society as expert tool makers, healers, navigators, etc.

How can a society recover from toxic collective delusions?

Cultural factors, the diversity of autistic interests and the atypical ways of friendship and trust development amongst autistic people have immediate implications for optimising collaboration within and between teams.

Autists are the most productive if allowed to self-organise in teams with a clear autistic / neurodivergent majority, such that interactions with typical teams are limited to the mutual exchange of knowledge and tools in accordance with the agreed purpose of the team, and such that autists are not expected to continuously conform to the social expectations of the surrounding culture.

The lack of social competition in predominantly neurodivergent teams affords such teams a distinct collaborative edge, especially when compared against typical teams within a highly competitive socioeconomic context. Neurodivergent teams are uniquely positioned to identify spurious cultural complexity within organisational systems and interaction patterns.

autperformance.png

This creates interesting learning opportunities for organisations that are plagued by counter-productive in-group competition. In many cases the explicit values of an organisation and the implicit social norms within an organisation encourage rather than discourage in-group competition – resulting in economic inefficiency, poor quality of service, low levels of staff engagement, and high levels of bullying. Establishing one or more predominantly neurodivergent teams can act as a catalyst for cultural change in neighbouring teams.

Call for action

Two people deserve special mention as pioneers on the path towards de-pathologising autism: Judy Singer for coining the term neurodiversity in 1998, and Tony Attwood for his suggestion to reframe autistic traits in positive and encouraging terms in 1999. However, the last 20 years have seen the rise of an “autism epidemic” and a profitable “autism industry”. Even Tony Attwood could not resist the business opportunity. Social progress in relation to autistic rights is overdue.

First steps towards ending the implicit and explicit discrimination against autists:

  1. Full recognition of the evolutionary value of autistic cognitive lenses, which can only be achieved if autists take ownership of the label. This article offers a non-pathologising definition from an autistic perspective.
  2. All cultures that claim to be autism friendly must provide adequate physical spaces that constitute a safe environment for autistic activities, including public spaces that provide protection from sensory overload.
  3. Governments must be encouraged to fund autism acceptance campaigns led by the autistic community, to educate the public about the social model of disability, to counteract the ill-informed and dangerous stereotypes that are associated with autism, and to position the autistic community as the primary source of knowledge about autism.
  4. Governments must stop funding research towards “cures” and “therapies” for autism, and must be encouraged to fund:
    • Educational programmes for non-autistic parents of autistic children
    • A  liaison function between parents and the autistic community
  5. Organisations claiming to be supportive of neurodiversity must shift from a pursuit of a competitive edge to the pursuit of a collaborative edge. Recommended steps include:
    • Abolishment of all forms of individual performance reviews as advocated by W E Deming more than 30 years ago, to establish an environment that does not encourage in-group competition
    • Establishment of teams with a clear autistic / neurodivergent majority, to prompt the development of specific collaborative practices that are aligned with the purpose of the organisation

“We probably sound militant and aggressive to a person who has not experienced the lives that we have. I was told the other day that telling neurotypical people what they are doing wrong regarding autistic people is hypocritical. That we should all be loving each other and holding hands for a better life for everyone. My response:

  • Hypocrisy would be autistic people locking neurotypicals up in mental institutions.
  • Hypocrisy would be autistic people looking for a cure for neurotypicalism.
  • Hypocrisy would be autistics neurologically training neurotypicals to change their personalities and physical manifestations to make us feel better.