Attempting to articulate “solutions” to the current human predicament within the simplistic religious frame of the invisible hand helps so-called leaders maintain the illusion of contributing towards a better world in a meaningful way. All the good words would make sense if the invisible hand actually worked according to the religious dogma of financial economics.
Unfortunately, the invisible hand does not have any of the magical powers attributed to it, and any reliance on financial economics is an illusionary attempt at self-soothing – wishful thinking.
Studying the evolution of primates over the last 6 million years gives us a better starting point for understanding humans, human societies, and the role of cultural evolution over the course of the history of the human species. Importantly, it highlights the roles of the human capacities for symbolic thought and language, and the relevance of shared mental models in the context of creative collaboration and cultural evolution.
Over the last 50 years we have learned a lot about the neuroscience of language and thought. Prof George Lakoff offers a good introduction to this topic. Please note that some of the linguistic examples of frames and metaphors provided apply to Western cultures and to the English language – they are part of WEIRD psychology and do not translate one to one to other cultures and languages. However, the abstract categories of frames and metaphors are foundational for understanding symbolic thought.
Some frames are foundational, but many metaphors and frames are culture specific, and are closely tied to specific languages or language families. For example there are cultures and languages where the past is conceptualised as what can be seen, i.e. in the direction we are facing, and where the future is conceptualised as what can’t be seen, i.e. in the opposite direction that lies behind us.
Overton was an ardent libertarian, and while associated with the Mackinaw Center in Midland, he promoted and studied free-market principles for over ten years while travelling to more than a dozen countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America…
The term [Overton window] is named after American policy analyst Joseph Overton, who stated that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within this range, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences. According to Overton, the window frames the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme to gain or keep public office given the climate of public opinion at that time...
The effectiveness of neoliberal social engineering can be seen by the way in which the 3-dimensional metaphor sphere of discourse, which can shrink or expand, has increasingly been replaced with the metaphor of a small 2-dimensional window for “allowable discourse”, which can only be shifted or nudged a little. This profound shift in the way society thinks about political possibilities is best illustrated with data from Google Books Ngram Viewer, i.e. the use of these two competing abstract metaphors in published books.
Neuronormative people primarily learn by imitation, adopting the metaphors of the dominant culture, and only much less frequently do they invent entirely new metaphors based on patterns of first hand non-linguistic sensory input. In contrast, Autistic people learn more from conscious processing of raw sensory information, creating a space for imagining new possibilities.
To expand our horizons of symbolic thought, we are well advised to look at other cultures and at Autistic or otherwise socially “less well adjusted” people.
The concept of an Overton window gained relevance on the heels of the exponential rise of [digital] social media and algorithmic social control. This becomes obvious if you reflect on the timing of the rise of social media and related discussions, and overlay references to social media onto the graph that shows how the Overton window is cannibalising and squashing the sphere of discourse.
Note: The use of the term social media is orders of magnitude greater than the use of the other two more technical terms, so the social media graph has been rescaled to show how the Overton window has become a relevant metaphor in the era of social media.
Once we understand the foundational role of metaphors in human thought, we can understand how propaganda works, and beyond that, how hypernormative cultures / cults are able to generate a level of paradigmatic inertia from which it is very hard to break free, especially for “well adjusted” people.
Just as our sensory capabilities limit the fidelity of what we can perceive in the here and now, our culturally informed cognitive capabilities limit what we actually do perceive, can understand (make sense of), and are driven to act on in the world – all of which is mediated and constrained by the frames and metaphors we have internalised.
Human cognitive limits are adaptive if we live in a human scale society, and if the frames and metaphors of our mental models are in tune with the ecosystems that we are part of. At human scale our abilities are enhanced by shared metaphors that act as powerful thinking tools, allowing us to engage with the living world around us in intuitive ways – to act and make decisions in ways that are easily recognised and understood by others.
However, internalised frames and metaphors create massive problems in large, i.e. super human scale societies, misleading us to believe that we understand more about the world than we actually do. Complex industrialised societies overload us with social information from more people than we are capable of understanding, and incrementally alienate us from the non-human environment that we depend on for our basic needs and wellbeing.
By the end of the century, both the overall human population and the overall economy will be smaller, perhaps significantly smaller, and humanity will inhabit a world of damaged but rapidly adapting ecosystems and largely depleted resources. That’s not a future that many of us as individuals would willingly choose, but it is the one that we have collectively determined through decades of fossil-fueled overpopulation and over- consumption. The point to remember is that it is a future in which we will still have agency. We can optimize the Great Unraveling with cooperation and foresight, or we can ensure a worse outcome through denial and conflict…
…Our immediate goal should be to prevent harm to people and the more-than- human world while fostering resilient, diverse, ecological, nonviolent, compassionate, and more self-reliant communities. Our ultimate goal must be a way of life that offers security, fairness, and wellbeing while using energy and resources at sustainable rates and restoring natural systems rather than further degrading them.
As we work toward long-term goals, we must maximize certain short-term benefits and rewards along the way in order to maintain collective emotional health and social cohesion. By reducing inequality, by prioritizing the contributions of the creative arts, and by encouraging participatory cultural events, communities can increase their members’ quality of life even when average consumption levels decline.
Framing cultural organisms as sets of relationships, not even limited to species barriers, allows for evolution and nuance, creating a boundary layer of relationships that connect a cultural organism to the outside world, like the semi-permeable membrane of a biological cell. In this frame, just like a cell, a cultural organism has many critical interdependencies with the outside world; the state of environmental health is deeply entangled with the internal state of health of the cultural organism.
Autistic life is incompatible within a society that lives within an Overton window. To understand why, look no further than the way in which Helen Mirra is conceptualizing autistic experience as holotropic:
Neurology is often a trap that reifies a misleading narrative that our brains determine “who we are”, and this is reified by the compound word “neurodiversity”. It concerns the brain, and neglects the heart. It doesn’t recognize that the mind is not separable from the body. We prefer the term neurosomatic diversity. Our brains have evolved to support our lives, which can only be fulfilling in feeling.
We’ve found monotropic theory to be a very helpful paradigm for a major swath of autistic experience, and the theory is supported by considering its own wellspring. Synthesising monotropic theory with deep ecology and holistic anatomy, we have found a multi-dimensional, spacious, edgeless terrain under the monotropism map. We are calling it holotropism. This perspective may elucidate the high co-occurrences of synaesthesia, mirror-touch, dyspraxia, and hypermobility among us autistic people.
To be holotropic is to have naturally wide open sensory gates. To participate in/as the immense world without becoming overwhelmed, we holotropes have two central methods: in, by hyperfocusing our attention on one sensory or cognitive path, and as, through synthesising our experience into coherence. A sense of wholeness occurs through both of these processes – less consciously in hyperfocus, more consciously in coherence.
Hyperfocus may occur within singular (monotropic) or connective (syntropic) attention paths (tunnels and rhizomes). Both types of paths create flow states wherein one is deeply engaged. Hyperfocus is a kind of flooding of certain pathways which therein quiets dissonance from conflicting inputs. To be monotropic is to be focused with fidelity. To be syntropic is to be immersed and perhaps inventive. While autistic people are not the only ones capable of absorption, it is the signature of a holotropic life.
If hyperfocus is flow, coherence is profound rest. It is effortless integration. While it has been given little consideration in autism studies, embodied coherence is arguably our true gift, that we can both receive and give. When we are able to abide in receptive open awareness, we find we are wholeness itself.
(the above is an edit specially made for the Autistic Collaboration Trust of a longer essay titled Holotropism.)
The evolution of human cultural organisms can be understood in terms of the axioms of collaborative niche construction. The concepts of cultural organisms, cultural species, and collaborative niche construction are abstract, but they relate to more than ten years of lived experience with the NeurodiVenture operating model, an emergent cultural species that is able to survive and even thrive in the dynamic social and ecological context in which we find ourselves.
There is a case to be made that collectively, Autistic people are shaping the transition from the information age to the second knowledge age. Autistic collaborations constitute the relational nervous system between societies that allows tacit knowledge to flow freely to where it can be put to good use.
Culture shapes what people attend to, perceive, remember, and how they think, feel, and reason
WEIRD intellectuals have long argued that olfaction is the least important of the five senses, and this has been the standard view in psychology and even in anthropology. Yet, this may be a WEIRD bias… Recent work among both forager-horticulturalists in Bolivia and hunter-gatherers in Malaysia suggests that these populations are superior at identifying scents and possess a richer vocabulary that includes an array of basic (abstract) scent terms (Majid & Kruspe, 2018; Sorokowska et al., 2013)… While philosophers have recognized some of this important work on olfaction (Barwich, 2020), it’s less clear that the field has fully digested the implications of relying on WEIRD neuroscience (Han et al., 2013; Kitayama et al., 2017, 2019)…
… sex differences in navigational cognition don’t always emerge. In East Africa, sex differences in navigational abilities were not found among participants still living a traditional foraging lifestyle; instead, they only arose among participants from communities located closer to the market towns, where people tended to be less mobile and had smaller range sizes (Cashdan et al., 2012). Likewise, among Tsimane adults, where men and women both travel far for food, sex differences in navigational ability were not observed (Trumble et al., 2015).
… growing evidence suggests that social norms and institutions can shape theory of mind, giving rise to cross-cultural variation in mentalizing inclinations. WEIRD people appear to be “hyper-mentalizers”, lying at the extreme end of the global spectrum (Barrett et al., 2016; Curtin et al., 2020). Although children everywhere reliably develop theory of mind, the trajectory of this development varies across societies. Notably, there is cross-cultural variation in the order of acquisition of theory of mind concepts: while WEIRD children tend to understand that others can have different beliefs before they understand that others can have different knowledge, Chinese and Turkish children show the opposite pattern, potentially reflecting cultural differences related to individualism versus collectivism (Selcuk et al., 2018; Wellman et al., 2006)...
… most Western intellectuals implicitly assume that their intuitions, motivations, preferences, emotions and ways of thinking generalize across all of humanity. But, while this is sometimes the case, we don’t yet have reliable theories that tell us when and where such generalizations are safe. Philosophers should proceed with caution. What if many aspects of our reasoning abilities and judgments are influenced by cultural evolution?
Epistemic norms shape what people (1) attend to when seeking out information, (2) count as evidence and (3) consider as a persuasive argument (Henderson, 2020; Kauppinen, 2018; Littlejohn & Turri, 2014; Tomasello, 2020). Epistemic norms are so-called because they govern not actions or decisions, but the identification of relevant information, the weighting of different kinds of evidence, and the evaluation of various forms of argument. This influences the formation and updating of beliefs. Some norms apply to particular epistemic activities, such as how one ought to make inferences. For example, epistemic norms regulate how one should deal with inconsistencies, interrogate the entailments of, and conflict among, one’s own beliefs, and update one’s beliefs in light of new observations. Other epistemic norms govern more social aspects of information handling (Brady & Fricker, 2016; Goldman & O’Connor, 2019), such as how much confidence to have in the testimony of different individuals or in different kinds of people based on their social identity and group membership (“respect the wisdom of your elders,” “believe women,” or “distrust strangers”). Others prescribe how much to trust the claims made by different institutions and their leaders, and how much authority or deference should be given to experts of different kinds…
In the emerging interdisciplinary field of Cultural Evolution, a rising tide of theoretical and empirical work that has emerged over the last four decades makes a strong case that humans are a cultural species, that both our minds and bodies arose as products of the interaction between genes and culture over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Cultural evolutionists have argued that our capacities for cumulative cultural evolution, the hallmark of our species, produces many of the tools, techniques and heuristics that we think and reason with—ready examples include number systems, fractions, physical concepts (e.g., elastically stored energy and wheels) and perceptual categories (abstract color and scent terms). Social norms and daily demands mean that people habitualize the use of these in ways that recede into the background and become part of how we automatically perceive and process the world. Specifically, humans have evolved genetically to mold our minds and brains to culturally-constructed worlds—adapting to their diverse incentives, affordances, and constraints…
It’s now clear that much of what we find in social and developmental psychology textbooks is simply the “cultural psychology” of WEIRD people and represents a quantitative ethnographic description of how a particular population thinks, remembers, feels and reasons rather than a systematic study of human nature or our species’ evolved psychology. Philosophers, by confronting the WEIRD people problem and harnessing the tools found in Cultural Evolution, can avoid perpetuating a peculiar brand of “culturalphilosophy,” rooted in WEIRD intuitions, and instead begin to construct a philosophy for Homo sapiens.
We keep finding that humans are often honest, kind fair, cooperative. Humans often invest costly resources to help others, to reduce inequality, to sustain social norms. And yet, at the macro level we are finding that deforestation and carbon emissions, in the aggregate continue.
S-frame: the system of rules, norms and institutions by which we live. S-frame changes have created the most important transformations, not I-frame changes.
I-frame: the neural and cognitive machinery that underpins thoughts and behaviours. I-frame policies change behaviour without changing the rules of the game, they are cheap, quick, and politically less contentious. I-frame interventions might delay or even erode the possibilities of S-frame changes.
C-frame: communities, cooperations, collective actions that build institutions (social norms and structures), constrain and align individuals towards group oriented goals, and aggregate processes to elevate their political clout. The C-frame is the the bridge between the I-frame and the S-frame, it is where formal institutions meet individual actions, and where informal institutions emerge, are sustained, or die – it is also where badly or naively designed S-frame policies may fail (social norms and power distribution).
Prof Juan Camilo Cardenas presents examples from Colombia and other countries of changes that become possible when the existence of the C-frame is acknowledged, and when the C-frame receives adequate attention.
Evolution and the human ways of being
A synthesis of the anthropological and biological perspectives
Agustín Fuentes is a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University whose research focuses on the biosocial, delving into the entanglement of biological systems with the social and cultural lives of humans, our ancestors, and a few of the other animals with whom humanity shares close relations. From chasing monkeys in jungles and cities, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining human health, behavior, and diversity across the globe, Agustín is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our close relations tick.
Importantly, and consistent with everything that the neurodiversity movement stands for, Prof Agustín Fuentes uses the concepts of creative and collaborative niche construction to push back against the naive and misleading concept of “human nature” and presents a compelling case for a diversity of “human natures”, without resorting to any pathologising medical model.
We need to change the system. But if the system is made up of individuals, should we start there? Colombian changemaker Isabel Cavalier negates the binary of systems vs individuals, explaining that while cultural change starts from within, its impact and progress can be non-linear—much like climate change. Isabel effortlessly weaves political strategy with spiritual knowledge to explain how culture is the solution to the polycrisis, emphasising that we must re-embed individuals within communities to embody a politics of a better world.
Isabel is a former diplomat who held advisory roles on environmental issues at the Colombian Mission to the United Nations in New York and at the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bogotá. After leaving international politics, Isabel co-founded Transforma, a prominent Bogota-based environmental think tank. She is a writer, story-teller and potter, who trained as a lawyer and in socio-cultural studies at the University of Los Andes. She has a Master of Laws from the University of Cambridge. She has worked and published in diverse fields including human rights, racial and gender discrimination, and climate change.
Isabel advocates for a shift in political focus on local collaboration and decision making, to what I refer to as human scale, and for a diversity of local cultures.
Towards stronger localised low-stress economic structures
The mental health perspective
Gabor Mate speaks with Helena Norberg-Hodge about the economy, happiness, community, and healing. They explore the systemic roots of physical and mental health epidemics, and how these could be remedied through moving away from a disconnecting, stress-inducing global economy, towards stronger localized economic structures.
Helena Norberg Hodge’s work is informed by engaging with human scale traditions in Ladakh over decades, observing how local communities have been affected by the industrialised notion of “progress”. The traditional culture in Ladakh was based entirely on trusted relationships at human scale instead of abstract group identities. The focus on trusted relationships mirrors the way in which Autistic people collaborate and develop Autistic culture – if given the opportunity. In the traditional culture in Ladakh, where every person is appreciated for their unique strengths and weaknesses, it would seem very unlikely for Autistic people to be pathologised.
Repeating patterns of cultural adaptations
From the perspective of the rituals of daily life, culture may not seem to change much from year to year, but if we look closely in the right places, major changes take place every 5 to 10 years. The toxicity of the industrialised paradigm is not the absence of cultural dynamism, but the systematic channeling of all cultural change into frantic busyness within an established and fundamentally misguided paradigm:
Human beings have evolved complex and adaptive strategies for social cohesion. Our neurology is primed to establish rapport with other humans, to utilize reciprocal altruism, and to work toward common goals. Such social relationships require real-world, organic calibration to take effect. The establishment of rapport, for example, depends on eye contact, synchronized respiration, and recognition of subtle changes in vocal timbre.
In virtual spaces, these mechanisms cease to function. In fact, when human beings fail to establish “social resonance” through digital media, they tend to blame not the low fidelity of the medium, but the trustworthiness of the other party. We repeat: the inability to establish organic social bonds through digital media increases our suspicion of one another, not the medium through which we are failing to connect.
This creates the perfect preconditions for memetic attack. The people, newscasters, friends, and experts we encounter through digital media are not trusted. The bots, algorithms, images and ideas to which we are exposed, on the other hand, are accepted at face value.
The only surefire safeguard against this state of vulnerability is to reaffirm the live, local, social, organic relationships between the people in the target population. This means challenging the value of time spent socializing and entertaining themselves on digital platforms, and giving people enough minutes of non-connected, social experiences each day to anchor live human-to-human connection as the primary form of social engagement.
People with some live experience of local politics, mutual aid, and environmental maintenance will be more resistant to the memetic constructions of the synthetic ideological landscape. They will be more likely to blame low fidelity on technology than one another, and less likely to accept the false, anti-social premises of angry, sensationalist memes. The less alienated a population is from one another, the harder it is to turn them against one another through polarizing memetics.
Where are values? … Objects are value-free, … science claims to be objective, … indifferent to values. This attitude is everywhere. It has permeated science and all disciplines that aspire to emulate science.
“This is called the ‘fact-value’ dichotomy, and it has been basically unchallenged in Western philosophy for several hundred years. The question quality – values – morals – basically has been banished. They are not part of the object, so they just become part of the subject, and thus subjective.”
Artists, visionaries, sometimes even religious figures see reality in a different way that compels people so thoroughly that they shift society. These people were dynamic — if they saw the world in static ways they would have never made those breakthroughs. They weren’t seeing the world from intellect, limited by the subject-object duality, but from “Quality”. As the book says, “if it were not mysterious and unexplainable, it would not be quality”.
The difficulty, though, … for every Christ or Buddha that changes civilization, there are thousands of crackpots who claim to be doing the same thing but are just distractions. Or in other words, all good new ideas come from dynamic patterns, but all new bad ideas come from those dynamic patterns as well.
The futility of within-paradigm incrementalism only becomes fully visible from a transdisciplinary viewpoint. For the Neurodiversity Movement this means that engaging exclusively with the pathologising silos of W.E.I.R.D. psychiatry and psychology is a dead end.
Not only do we find that the Homo economicus predictions fail in every society (24 societies, multiple communities per society), but instructively, we find that it fails in different ways in different societies. Nevertheless, after our paper “In search of Homo economicus” in 2001 in the American Economic Review, we continued to search for him. Eventually, we did find him. He turned out to be a chimpanzee. The canonical predictions of the Homo economicus model have proved remarkably successful in predicting chimpanzee behavior in simple experiments. So, all theoretical work was not wasted, it was just applied to the wrong species.
Juan Camilo Cardenas’ work illustrates the counterproductive effects of the individualistic and competitive W.E.I.R.D. conception of “self”. At the risk of over-simplification, psychiatry tells us what is “wrong” with individuals from within a broken hypernormative frame and through a medical lens, and then psychology offers “help”, by telling people what they want to hear to feel better about themselves, to better cope within a fundamentally broken social operating model.
Designing filtering, collaboration, thinking, and learning tools for the next 200 years
The language of evolutionary design encapsulates and formalises the timeless principles that can be traced back to the earliest rock paintings and diagrammatic representations, which enabled important knowledge to be transmitted reliably in otherwise largely oral human scale cultures over tens of thousands of years. Evolutionary design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.
As events beyond human control force us to pay attention to the much richer metaphors of living systems, Autistic people are rediscovering the beauty of collaborating at human scale, and co-creating beautiful works of art as an antidote against the emergence of social power dynamics and the competitive logic of hate and violence.
The relatively sparse local distribution of Autistic people and the diversity amongst Autistic people, i.e. sometimes very different sensory profiles – and needs, and different areas of core interests, conspire to make it difficult for Autistic people to form thriving local communities in any given location.
That said, even though the Autistic interest profile tends to be noticeably narrower and deeper than considered typical, whatever an Autist is interested in beyond their core areas of expertise, the interest is driven by genuine curiosity.
Neuronormative knowledge and skill profile
Example of an Autistic knowledge and skill profile
This opens great opportunities for friendships between Autists on the basis of complementary areas of deep expertise, and this is how over time areas of deep expertise may even shift. The caveat is, speaking from experience, that the limited number of Autists in any geographic location, in combination with the often precarious life situation of Autistic people, reduces the available opportunities for forming long term local Autistic collaborations.
Established collaborations and friendships tend to persist, but are often pulled apart again geographically due to economic constraints. This fact of Autistic life won’t change until local communities are are prepared to much better support Autistic community formation, for example by investing in a centre of Autistic culture that is designed and operated by and for local Autistic people. Traumatised people tend to be isolated, and the same is true for most Autistic people, even for the minority that is not significantly traumatised.
This raises the question of how local Autistic community formation can be nurtured within the current absence of Autistic centres of culture. There are many examples of multi-generational Autistic families, if fact, this is probably the default scenario. It just so happens that our parents may not be the people or the only people we want to spend the rest of our lives with.
In the pre-industrialised past, only a few hundred years ago, life was more collaborative and relational, and less hyper-competitive and transactional, and local communities would have been less alienating for Autistic people. The above problem has only become acute in an increasingly toxic hypernormative society. I have already written in some detail about the role that Autistic people have always played and will always play in all human groups in the context of multi-generational cultural evolution.
Agents of the cultural immune system within groups
Autistic people – agents of the cultural immune system within groups – this makes for interesting reading in the abstract, but it looks very different from the perspective of Autistic people who repeatedly find themselves in hostile and impossible situations, and who continuously push back against toxic social expectations and toxic social power gradients in hypernormative societies.
In an effort to “be the change”, in the industrial era, many Autists end up being sand in the gears of busyness as usual.
Luckily, thanks to the Internet, this is not the end of Autistic people. Whilst in isolation, in our role as agents of the cultural immune system, we can easily get crushed, we are also the ones who have co-created the Internet and the digital tools that mediate much of human communication and collaboration today. This is not quite accidental.
A human cultural immune system engages with cultural expectations and norms that are harmful – ultimately for all humans and for most of our non-human contemporaries.
To operate in this space requires access to human communication and collaboration channels, and this is something we have achieved at scale, together with all other humans, as part of the evolutionary process that gave us the Internet. It is not accidental that the rich modalities of communication and collaboration we have co-created on top of the digital substrate include many that are more suited for Autistic needs than linear spoken human language.
Autistic collaborations constitute the relational nervous system between groups
The relationships between people and all the information flows between people constitute a network that serves a role comparable to a nervous system, and this has become much more obvious since humans have started using digital communication tools.
Such relational nervous systems exit within within each cultural organism, and also between cultural organisms.
Culturally well adjusted people maintain many relationships within their local context, i.e. within a local cultural organism. This obvious truth has significant implications for the design of digital technologies. This was first noticed in 1967 by Mel Conway, when he submitted a paper called “How Do Committees Invent?” to the Harvard Business Review. Here is one form of the paper’s thesis:
Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.
Many Autistic people, as discussed above, only have few local relationships. Instead, Autistic communities and collaborations have evolved primarily between compatible neurodivergent people with shared interests and complementary talents and skills, via the Internet, and across the boundaries of cultural organisms.
Connected via the Internet and Open Source software for around thirty years, Autistic people have collaborated on the development of new digital user experiences, trustworthy domain specific interoperability standards, and better language systems for knowledge archaeology and knowledge sharing amongst humans, and throughout, Conway’s law has remained relevant. The birth of Autistic communities is deeply entangled with the birth of the Internet.
To sum up, Autistic people play two important roles in human societies at large:
Autists are agents of the human cultural immune system within all societies.
Autistic collaborations constitute the relational nervous system between societies that allows tacit knowledge to flow freely to where it can be put to good use.
For most Autists, digital technologies are essential tools for navigating daily life. In the domain of healthcare, where the stigma of being Autistic remains high, I regularly collaborate with undercover Autistic educators, Autistic scientists from a broad range of disciplines, Autistic clinicians of all stripes, Autistic nurses, and of course, Autistic health informaticians.
Adhere to idiosyncratic moral value systems rather than social norms
Are okay with exploring ideas that upset the “social order”
Spend much more time experimenting and implementing ideas that others would consider crazy or a waste of time
Have untypical life goals: new forms of understanding, making a positive impact, translating ideas into artistic expression
Autists in particular have unusually developed pattern recognition abilities and an unusual ability to persevere
There is a case to be made that collectively, Autistic people are shaping the transition from the Information Age to the second Knowledge Age. We’ve been at a similar cultural inflection point before, at the dawn of humanity, when we first combined the human capacity for cultural transmission with the human capacity for imagination and creative collaboration, which allowed us to survive and thrive in nearly all ecosystems on the planet.
The opportunity that presents itself today is to reflect critically on human hubris and human cognitive limitations, and on all the irreversible damage we have already inflicted on the Earth’s ecosystems and the biosphere. We can only do so if we see past the many shiny new digital toys and nauseating competitive social games powered by the “new Oil”, which in turn rely on burning more and more fossils.
We are literally putting fire to the tree we are sitting on. Our primate cousins may differ from our opinions on which primates are more “intelligent”.
The W.E.I.R.D. scientific approach to knowing
These developments go hand in hand with the limits we are encountering in the W.E.I.R.D. scientific approach to knowing, as if the only things that count are the ones that can be quantified and measured, and as if there is little to nothing to learn from indigenous people, who still know how to train their senses on taking in all the many diverse signals from the local ecosystem directly, and who are able to perceive important changes and trends, without the help of digital tools.
This is not to say that our modern instruments can’t give us complementary of insights, but it is a reminder that humans have survived without digital tools for hundreds of thousands of years, and that dismissing all associated insights may well the fastest route towards the end of our species and countless other species.
To reiterate this point, we should always remain cognisant of the limits of human science, which is subject to human cognitive limits and not immune to human mistakes and weaknesses. When systems get complex, then the science gets complex, and with complexity, as any good scientist knows, certainty goes out the window, and then all we are left with is statistics – and sadly, very often bad statistics.
Without an intimate understanding of the limits of quantification and of the models we are creating, science deteriorates into scientism. After writing this article I came across the following excellent diversity affirming 5 minute introduction to the difference between science and scientism.
Population exposed outside of the human temperature niche:
Climate change has already put ~9% of people (>600 million) outside this niche. By end-of-century (2080–2100), current policies leading to around 2.7 °C global warming could leave one-third (22–39%) of people outside the niche.
The diagnostic criteria for autism cover a broad and diverse umbrella of people, and they obscure the Autistic lived experience of toxic cultural norms that are ultimately detrimental for all people. The inappropriate pathologisation that results from the hypernormative medical lens gets in the way of providing Autistic people with optimal support throughout the lifespan.
In my experience Autistic people of all stripes seem to share two broad characteristics:
Divergent sensory profiles – unique profiles of hyper- and hypo-sensitivity across various senses, and corresponding differences in cognitive processing.
A reduced capacity for cognitive dissonance, resulting in an inability to successfully maintain hidden agendas in the social domain over any significant periods. In a competitive environment some may try, but this is not an Autistic strength. When an Autistic person disagrees with you or is angry with you, you will either be told so immediately or soon find out one way or another.
These neurological characteristics describe the set of Autistic people, many of whom identify with the communal definition of Autistic ways of being and with being socially disabled by our hypernormative society. It does not make any sense to pathologise or medicalise these highly variable characteristics. Attempting to trace these characteristics to specific genes is also futile.
There are dedicated medical labels for speech and language disabilities that make speech difficult and unreliable (apraxia), which are studied by neurologists who specialise such disabilities, and these can be used independently or alongside the label Autistic. This leads to the set of people with speech and language disabilities.
Non-speaking Autistic people are a subset within the set of people with speech and language disabilities. Non-speakers can be understood as having further difficulties with motor control, to the extent that speech becomes impossible – attempting to teach non-speakers to speak is at best a waste of time, and experienced as highly frustrating and nonsensical by non-speakers.
Autistic communities include speaking and non-speaking Autists with varying communication preferences. For some the ability to speak varies from day to day. Mutual aid and respect for individual communication preferences are essential aspects of Autistic culture and multi-generational Autistic whānau.
We do not deal properly with the issue of climate change. We do not deal properly with the issues of peace, war, immigration, food resources, water resources, public health, and all these important issues. We became incompetent because society as a whole began to focus on how to deceive and trick people. – Jaron Lanier, VR technology pioneer, 2019
The notion of life as a competitive game found its way into the science of biology by interpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution through the cultural lens of capitalism. The complementary perspective of life and evolution as a cooperative game as described by Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902) was largely ignored in so-called “developed” capitalist societies throughout most of the 20th century.
The diagnostic process often assumes that speech disabled and non-speaking Autistic people are also intellectually disabled, and in many cases this assumption is invalid, in exactly the same way that Deaf people are not necessarily intellectually disabled, resulting in a failure to provide appropriate communication support.
In summary, the majority of Autistic people identify as disabled, and all Autistic people have divergent sensory profiles and a reduced capacity for cognitive dissonance. For the most part, the social model of disability offers an appropriate frame for understanding the way in which Autistic people are disabled by society. Like wheelchair users need access to ramps, Autistic people need access to means of communication and non-discriminatory social environments.
Since the vast majority of Autistic people experience their neurological characteristics as part of their core identity, and would never wish to be cured of their Autistic way of being, the pathologisation of Autistic people is entirely inappropriate. Instead, the social model of disability and the strong sense of solidarity, shared lived experiences, and shared cultural practices in terms of appreciation of individually unique sensory profiles and diversity of communication preferences, point to human rights based and design justice based approaches as the most promising avenues for improving the lives of all Autistic people.
Depathologisation of Autistic people as demanded by Autistic rights activists does not negate being socially disabled, and need not prevent anyone from gaining access to appropriate means of communication and other forms of social support. On the contrary, such support would be much more straightforward to provide via established disability and need specific diagnostic labels that exist independently of Autistic ways of being.
Finally, given the extent to which most Autistic people are systematically disabled by social norms and expectations, as well as by the sensory overload in contemporary social environments, Autistic people have an elevated risk of being traumatised, often from a very young age, within their families, within educational settings, within healthcare settings, and later within workplace settings.
Untold harm is being caused by not identifying sensitive Autistic children before they are heavily traumatised by their social environments, and later, by not identifying trauma as the root cause of mental distress and mental illness that requires therapy and appropriate treatment. The most alarming aspect in the way our society mistreats Autistic people is the Autism Industrial Complex, which actively traumatises Autistic children by subjecting them to conversion / normalisation “therapies”.
The biosphere of this planet is our only home. A shift from a brittle W.E.I.R.D. monoculture to ecosystems of resilient human scale ecologies of care eliminates the spurious technological complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains and even grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity and the mutual aid that emerges when we reduce cognitive dissonance by (re)aligning the human ecological footprint with bioregional ecosystem functions.
We know from indigenous cultures that humans have the capacity to think up seven generations ahead when making decisions. Alarmingly, in the cult of busyness of industrialised societies, we have lost this collective capacity.
Spurious technological complexity wastes energy – it is the result of humans working against biological evolution, whereas adaptive cultural complexity saves energy – it is the result of humans engaging in collaborative niche construction as a part of biological ecosystems.
The embedded links and videos in this article provide more in-depth explanations and refer to relevant transdisciplinary research.
We are part of the web of life, including our imagination. An important commonality that many Autistic people share with members of other marginalised groups is a deep desire for social justice and a corresponding preference for genuinely egalitarian social operating models.
We are part of the web of life, including our imagination. As agents of the human cultural immune system we can expand the language of life and (re)imagine cultures that reconnect us to biological life and local biological ecosystems. The evolution of human cultural organisms is best understood in terms of the axioms of collaborative niche construction:
The life expectancy for healthy cultural organisms is upwards of 200 years
Most interactions between healthy cultural organisms are relational feedback loops grounded in depowered dialogue
Each cultural organism consists of cultural organs (households) and cultural cells (relationships) that perform specific functions within the cultural organism
Most interactions with and within healthy cultural organs are relational feedback loops grounded in depowered dialogue
The self selection of cultural cells that function as cultural organs are one primary factor of collaborative niche construction, in this case within the context of a cultural organism
The limits of human scale are another primary factor of collaborative niche construction, resulting in the spawning of self selected human scale organisms, in this case within the context of a cultural species
The set of cultural organisms that share common patterns of core functions (relational patterns within and between cultural organs) constitute a cultural species
In the same way that biological species engage in collaborative niche construction across multiple generations, within the context of a bioregional ecosystem, cultural species engage in collaborative niche construction across multiple generations within a bioregional cultural ecosystem
Healthy cultural cells (depowered relationships) connect cultural niche construction (one evolutionary factor) with genetic niche construction (another evolutionary factor)
This framework of concepts can be used to constrain the values and principles we live by to those that are conducive to life and de-powered human relationships. The axioms of collaborative niche construction also provide a scaffold for mapping our understanding of microbiological immune systems onto the domain of culture and cultural evolution. Given the fractal nature of living systems, it is not at all surprising to see patterns from the cellular and molecular scale reappear with additional nuances at the scales of cultural cells (relationships) and cultural organs (households). Amongst other things the axioms of collaborative niche construction help explain why:
The strongest social norms in healthy cultural species (those whose life expectancy is not severely compromised by cultural disease) are norms that clamp down on the emergence of social power gradients
Within a healthy cultural organism humans experience their life in terms of nurturing lifetime depowered relationships (life creates conditions conducive to life)
The Western cultural notion of self is one of the symptoms of a cultural disease that shifts the focus from cultural cells (de-powered relationships, i.e. the atomic unit of cultural learning) to self-centred individuals (powered-up relationships, i.e. learning disabled units of cultural learning)
Cultural health can be measured in terms of the extent to which explicit cultural operating principles and systems of social norms as found in religions prioritise (or not) (a) human scale cultural organisms vs (b) other levels of scale and/or powered-up relationships (examples of how aspects of this play out in terms of capitalism, religions, and the cult of the self)
All super human scale “civilisations” inevitably end in collapse
“Understand there are actions that are bringing the Earth to the brink. But you can be part of other actions. Don’t underestimate your contributions. I work with seeds. The seed is so small… The smallness is what allows it to multiply, on its own… So appreciate your smallness, because it gives you new flexibility, … And keep good company, and hang out with people you love, and give them energy, and take their energy … The more people join in this solidarity, the more we will be able to create wellbeing by using less…” – Vandana Shiva.
Small groups of 20 to 100 people are the primary organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound. Humanity is experiencing a phase transition that is catalysed by a combination of new communication technologies, toxic levels of social inequalities, and existential crises. It is time to curate and share the lessons from marginalised perspectives, and to reflect critically on the human evolutionary journey and on the possibilities and limitations of human agency.
In my experience, beyond focusing on human scale, the biggest factor that influences human wellbeing and human health is the way we deal with cognitive dissonance.
In industrialised societies, culturally well adjusted people are unable to speak about their many fears, and their health suffers accordingly. Trauma is a major cause of ill health amongst Autistic people. What I have found is that purging cognitive dissonance from my life has by far been the most beneficial thing I have done for my wellbeing and health. This is not something that culturally well adjusted clinicians and mental health professionals tend to encourage, they very rarely if ever encourage changes in the way we live our lives that deviate from accepted – yet toxic – mainstream culture. I acknowledge the oppressive culture around us with open eyes, depressing, but at the same time providing a clear focus for my agency. I avoid cognitive dissonance like the plague, by refusing to conform to norms and expectations that I am uncomfortable with.
Attempting to conform to toxic expectations in the past had major negative health effects, and I am no longer up for that.
A few observations based on lived experience
The two major challenges that make it difficult for Autistic people to form thriving local Autistic communities:
The level of social stigma of openly identifying as Autistic, which in many contexts is comparable to the stigma faced by people with suicidal ideation and other forms of mental illness and distress. Furthermore, due to traumatic experiences many Autistic people are part of both stigmatised groups.
The relatively small number of Autistic people in any given location. Even if we assume that one in 25 people is Autistic, in the absence of safe and easily accessible Autistic centres of culture, it remains a challenge to establish and nurture local Autistic collaboration and community building activities.
Additionally, amongst people who have only recently discovered Autistic community, based on initial positive experiences online, I sometimes come across the misconception that all Autists are effortlessly able to get along with each other. Even though Autistic people are much more likely to get along well with other Autistic people than with culturally well-adjusted people, this does not mean that everyone in a random group of Autistic people will immediately get along with everyone else in the group. In fact, due to the narrower and deeper interests of Autistic people, the diversity of personalities between Autistic people tend to be greater than amongst culturally well adjusted people.
Autistic unwillingness or inability to maintain hidden agendas tends to make communication between Autistic people more straightforward and less confusing than communication with non-Autistic people, even if there are disagreements. Higher levels of baseline sensitivities result in above average levels of traumatic life experiences within the hypernormative cultures we are embedded in. These commonalities constitute the substrate from which Autistic cultures emerge in the context of Autistic relationships and small groups of Autistic people.
One important commonality that many Autistic people share with members of other marginalised groups is a deep desire for social justice and a corresponding preference for genuinely egalitarian social operating models. This observation holds the key to understanding the cultures that emerge within Autistic communities.
The definition of normality in the industrial era is based on the metaphor of society as a factory and on the metaphor of people as machines. Our laws and social norms have been shaped by these metaphors to a far greater extent than most people are able to comprehend without an in-depth explanation.
A culture that indoctrinates children in cultural techniques and tools via an “education” system based on age cohorts that actively encourages individual competition and obedience within a hierarchical structure of social power differentials
From the perspective of any human scale culture that has any level of appreciation for biological life, a hypernormative culture with the above characteristics is denying the wonder of life, the complexity of living systems, and the endless possibilities for developing de-powered human cultures.
The three tools of the trade for “success” at the competitive social game are:
The pathology paradigm ensures that all defective people are identified, and to the greatest possible extent, are corrected by suitable therapies and medical interventions, to get as close to normal “functioning” as possible. The diagnostic criteria for hypernormative societies can be traced back to the implicit assumptions of the pathology paradigm. It is impossible to take most “autism research” seriously, because it brims with circular reasoning and cultural bias. The pseudo-science used to justify pathologisation is a reflection of the exploitative nature of “civilised” industrialised society.
Industrialised society has become increasingly normative in many ways. The term “hypernormalisation”, coined in the Soviet era, and transposed into the Western context in an extended documentary by Adam Curtis (2016), is quite appropriate.
April is Hypernormative Culture Awareness Month. Please spare a moment for all culturally well adjusted people, who are unable to speak about their many fears and the many sources of cognitive dissonance in their lives. We can support them by nurturing shared understanding in a deceptive world.
Ban of conversion therapies
I can not imagine the horrors that some Autistic children must go through today, when exposed to intensive “early intervention” autistic “conversion therapy”, i.e. 20 to 40 hours of what is known as Applied Behaviour Analysis or Positive Behaviour Support. Autistic children are systematically taught that their needs and feelings don’t matter at all. All that matters are the demands of “therapists” (maybe better “the rapists”), and ambitious parents and teachers who are concerned about “functioning levels” according to a fictitious and irresponsibly simplistic model of “human development” that simply ignores the diversity of human neurocognitive functioning and lived experience.
Please join us. Now is the time to act and ban all forms of “conversion therapy”, including conversion therapies that target Autistic children, which are often branded as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) or Positive Behaviour Support (PBS).The time for change is now.
This article reflects the foundation of Autistic collaboration between Jax Bayne, Jorn Bettin, Sam Davis, Star Ford, Svanhildur Kristjansson, and a growing human scale neurodivergent team.
We are all travelling through life at human scale, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.
Whether we like it or not, we are all subject to human cognitive and emotional limts. This means we all have the capacity to live in a household with up to around 5 people that constitute our most intimate relationships, to collaborate with around 15 close lifetime friends on a weekly basis, and to maintain up to 50 further friendships. All these genuine relationships that we maintain, if they are in a healthy state, are based on a foundation of mutual trust, compassion, and mutual aid – and not on the transactional logic of the invisible hand of the market.
The bus on which we travel through life
For the purpose of understanding the purpose of our life, the trustworthy relationships we maintain constitute that bus on which we are travelling through life. In our time of multiple collective existential risks, our wellbeing depends significantly on whether we feel we are on the right bus, whether all the people on our bus have a shared understanding of the general direction that the bus is heading towards, or whether we feel increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of travel.
The following questions can help to reflect on your overall sense of wellbeing:
Which bus are you currently on?
Which bus would you like to board?
Where and how do you find the bus you would like to board?
What stands in the way of boarding your preferred bus?
The bus routes listed below describe five distinct broad directions of travel. If you are not entirely clear how these routes differ, watching one or more of the embedded videos may help clarify the differences in perceptions and lived experiences.
Busyness as usual
Pedal to the metal
No system is perfect, and what we’ve got is the least possible evil. No matter what lies ahead, capitalism is the best religion that has ever been invented. The Koyaanisqatsi documentary from 1982 (crazy life; life in turmoil; life out of balance, life disintegrating; a state of life that calls for another way of living) visually captures the essence of industrialised busyness as usual without any spoken or written words. In this case a picture is worth a thousand words, and thousands of pictures explain more than a million words.
We’re driving over the cliff in the belief that the invisible hand will carry our bus far beyond the cliff on a trajectory of infinite growth.
Apparently normality remains perfectly fine, even in 2019, and our main challenges are our individual inadequacies in being able to cope with life. The top comment on this more recent documentary hints at the possibility of a different truth:
If everyone needs to be on psychiatric meds, the problem is with the way we live, not with our brains.
driving over the cliff of planetary boundaries at slower speed with enlightened capitalism, carbon trading, and green growth.
Powered by electricity
The arrow of technological progress has brought us this far, we already have most of the technology needed for a transition to clean energy. There is no reason to believe that we can’t engineer ourselves out of the mess that we now realise we have created. We need more engineers and fewer politicians. We’ll be just fine, …
driving over the cliff of resource constraints and ecosystem collapse, with the latest technologies.
The potential of collective Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent creativity should not be underestimated, but neither can the material resource constraints of a finite planet be dismissed or magically reframed into a challenge that can be overcome by applying our creativity in combination with wishful thinking.
plunging into the ocean beyond the horizon due to unforeseen externalities.
Coming back to life
Sitting in a bus and the delusion of having a driver who is “in control” are dangerous distractions. The arrow of progress is broken beyond repair. Instead of rearranging the seating order in a powered-up bus, it is time to board a de-powered bus or lifeboat. The chances of survival in a bus driving over a cliff are slim, and the chances of having fun along the way are zero. It is time to slam on the brakes, stop at the cliff, and get out the climbing gear, and to have some fun along the way.
The lifeboat is found at the bottom of the cliff.
With human ingenuity at human scale, mutual aid, and true and tried de-powered technologies, we look for creative ways of climbing down the cliff, towards a simpler and much less energy intensive life.
Being on the wrong bus
Sitting in the wrong bus feels wrong, often deeply wrong, to the point where you just want to get off the bus. I’ve written many articles about how this feels, but often others probably do a better job at communicating key points to a broader audience beyond Autistic communities.
What are the impacts of overfishing? What if the world’s garbage, sewage and toxic waste had been piled up on land instead of dumped in the ocean? Global Warming: Are the penguins and polar bears doomed? How much will the sea level rise in the 21st Century? Can we avoid Ocean Apocalypse?
Life beyond economics
There is much more to life than accumulation of material “wealth”. Sam Bowles points to examples of cultures with limited tolerance for social inequalities, and to examples of how the undoing of emerging social inequalities can be an integral part of healthy social operating systems.
What is and is NOT for sale? What have we already “sold” to feed an insatiable appetite for more energy and more materials? And where will we draw the line between what humanity is willing to “sell” and what we decide is sacred and non-negotiable? Have we thought about what might be ‘for sale’ in our own lives in the future – and what will not be?
The wonder of life prevails
‘Somehow the wonder of life prevails’ by Mark Kozelek and Jimmy LaValle.
Boarding the lifeboat of Autistic collaboration
Below is an example of an Autistic life story about making the seemingly impossible possible at human scale with Autistic perseverance.
Autistic people support each other, love each other, and care for each other in ways that go far beyond the culturally impaired neuronormative imagination. Most Autists are not born into healthy Autistic families. We have to co-create our families in our own space and time. In a healthy culture Autistic children are assisted in co-creating their unique Autistic families, but in our “civilisation” this cultural knowledge has been lost and is suppressed.
In many indigenous cultures children with unique qualities are recognised, are given adult mentors with similarly unique qualities, and grow up to fulfil unique roles in their local community, connected to others with unique knowledge and insights, perhaps even in other communities. If we are embedded in an ecology of care, we can thrive and share the pain and the joy of life.
In terms of co-creating sustainable, more self-sufficient communities, the following links point to valuable resources:
Building a Better World with the Power of Community. Our vision is to ensure every child has a village. We believe that in order to achieve this, we need a collective response to meeting the needs of our communities and develop our own resilient solution. Common Unity is about coming together, united to make a difference in the local and wider community. We see beauty in the rough. We actively encourage the extraordinary from the ordinary and nurture everyday heroes, who in turn go on and make a difference within the local community.
“Evolutionarily speaking, we’re just a carbonic fart in the wind… Philosophically speaking, ‘human’ and ‘self’ are very recent and not even especially interesting identities. Whatever humans are is just one form of life, and however modern humans understand themselves is only one form of understanding.”
“The first point about understanding, of course, is that you can’t understand. That some things just do not fit into monkey brain. You can feel them but you can’t understand them. Understanding has to start with the humility that some things cannot be understood.”
Making sense of the current state of humanity as a whole
Circling back to the observation that we’re all travelling through life at human scale, humanity as whole can be understood as millions of buses driving over the cliff of planetary boundaries. Most of these buses are travelling on the Busyness as Usual or the Net Zero Carbon route. The chances are high that you find yourself on one of these buses. If so, it is likely that your sense of wellbeing is being compromised. If that is the case, please know that whilst the vast majority of buses are not worthwhile boarding, there are many thousands of buses that are travelling on the kind of route you would like to travel.
The buses on uncommonly travelled routes tend to be easy to identify. It’s worthwhile looking around to locate the bus stops that are frequented by these buses, which tend to differ from the stops operated by big corporations and big government departments that serve mainstream routes.
A few weeks ago the authors of this article had the wonderful opportunity to hear from and to learn from a neurodivergent community in Iceland. We agreed to learn more about each other and to look for ways of ongoing collaboration. We are all excited about learning from each other, sharing our lived experiences from different parts of the world and from a diversity of different Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent life paths.
One of our goals for 2023 is to all meet on-site in Iceland to develop closer relationships and to focus ongoing collaboration on the overarching objective of catalysing the development of further neurodivergent communities, including the development of NeurodiVentures to minimise and distribute the burden of interfacing with the hyper-normative cultures around us.
All of our work so far has been self-funded by taking a creative entrepreneurial approach towards co-creating Autistic livelihoods and communities. This presentation is a good introduction to the way in which AutCollab is integrated with S23M and other NeurodiVentures that offer valuable services to the wider world and create neurodivergent livelihoods at the same time. S23M acts as an interface to the toxic hypernormative world around us, via services that benefit neurodivergent people and communities:
What we want to learn when visiting the unique Sólheimar community in Iceland in 2023:
How Sólheimar got started (intention, people, land, other resources, funding)
How has Sólheimar evolved over time (lessons learnt, adaptations to the evolving mainstream culture, pain points, etc.)
Learning about the current operating model and integration into society (hands-on participation, learning by doing)
Identification of commonalities and variabilities with the NeurodiVenture model (based on our lived experience)
How would we go about creating self-sustaining communities today? (In Iceland, in the EU, in countries further afield, with very different cultures)
Deciding in which location we start with replicating (US, Mexico, Aotearoa, etc.)
What essential skills we need to have in a local bootstrapping team (based on our collective lived experience, taking into account contextual cultural and jurisdictional differences, especially in terms of mandated interactions with local institutions, i.e. “compliance”)
What skills/advice can be added remotely (from Sólheimar and/or our distributed AutCollab community)
Envisaged results and ongoing collaboration:
Making further valuable knowledge and wisdom available to Autistic / ND communities worldwide
Documentation of an ND and Autistic community bootstrapping and replication process
Documenting a second and third replication in different contexts
Distilling commonalities and variabilities
Co-creating a ‘toolkit’ (documentation plus supporting resources and services) for reliable yet culturally adaptive replication
We are all excited about the next steps.
How you can contribute and assist
The trustees of AutCollab are formally committed to never charge Autistic individuals and their families for any services delivered. Our board of trustees and also our advisory board consists exclusively of people who openly identify as Autistic.
We engage in three broad categories of activities (a) education (b) peer support (c) Autistic research as illustrated below.
The AutCollab team overlaps with the S23M NeurodiVenture, which is a commercial entity that engages with organisations rather than people and families. S23M currently sponsors nearly everything that AutCollab does. Nearly all funding for AutCollab is generated in collaboration with S23M, and it all comes from organisations that have money, rather than from Autistic people, who often hardly have any money to spare.
Autists who have shed their internalised ableism are on exactly the same page as indigenous people. The intersectional solidarity that we experience on a regular basis in our work in Aotearoa is an important part of our lives. We recommend collaborating with indigenous people.
We currently need additional funding for visiting the neurodivergent Sólheimar community in Iceland, and for related investments to provide support and establish livelihoods for Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people. In 2023 and in the coming years we envisage bootstrapping a number of self-sustaining ND / Autistic communities / lifeboats in other parts of the world.
If you benefit from the peer support and the Autistic knowledge and wisdom that the AutCollab team curates, you can help us grow our capacity to assist Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people in the following ways:
Help us sell the services mentioned above to your employer and to other organisations that you are able to influence. You don’t need to do all the work on your own – we can help you introduce and explain these services to your colleagues and acquaintances. This is one of the most effective ways in which you can contribute to improving the lives of many Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.
You can encourage your employer and organisations that are your customers to support our work through regular donations.
You can support our work through donations. These are much appreciated, but we don’t want to take any money away from those who need it most. Instead we see much greater potential in encouraging healthcare organisations and medical colleges to purchase our eduction courses, and in encouraging employers to subscribe to our intersectional community powered employee wellbeing service.
If you currently offer services to Autistic people as a therapist or coach, consider the impact of any fees on your clients, and consider supporting the AutCollab peer support network and our capabilities, perhaps via regular donations to AutCollab.
Many medical doctors, engineers of all stripes, economists – and all other professions that serve the established social order, as well as celebrities, are co-opted into the cult of individual busyness, where they all defer the most important decisions to power drunk “leaders” in industry and government.
I have yet to see any design initiative from a larger organisation that does not have the primary objective (often unspoken) of maintaining and strengthening established power gradients. The unspoken ‘universal law of social design’: Institutional power must be reinforced. The discipline of design has been co-opted to perpetuate and strengthen established oppressive systems of power.
This is why it so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives fail.
This is why Autistic perspectives are marginalised in autism research.
This is why government strategies to deal with existential threats are based on incrementalism and on kicking the can down the road.
People engage in magical thinking when they believe they contribute to genuine change by making things a bit less bad within a small silo within an established system of power that optimises for profit and material growth. Less growth is still growth. Less unsustainable is still unsustainable. And no level of incrementalism within the system will ever lead to a reduction in the overall ecological and material footprint of humans. It is common practice to obscure the universal law of social design by relabelling institutions, changing reporting structures – known as reorganising, but nothing ever changes for those at the receiving end of institutional power.
William C. Rees does an excellent job of describing how the construction of social “reality” has completely decoupled from the physical and biological world – humans are animals, and this decoupling is having massive health impacts. Most of W. C. Rees’ observations are spot-on, but he underestimates the long-term multi-generational perspective that is baked into some if not many indigenous cultures. Internalised social norms can either amplify the short-term thinking, or they can maximise the human capacity for long-term thinking within the constraints of human cognitive limits.
My understanding of individual human cognitive limits, social dynamics, and collective human capabilities is informed by what I have observed in many different small team environments that are embedded in larger institutional settings, in the context of what I refer to as ‘knowledge archaeology’. I have seen and measured several fold reductions in spurious cultural complexity that become possible in small high trust de-powered (i.e. safe) social environments.
I empathise with much of what Daniel Schmachtenberger talks about, and the way he is looking for ways to protect humans from our own stupidity, but in doing so, at times I feel he over-estimates (a) the potential and usefulness of digital technologies and (b) our ability to understand the world beyond human scale – by definition we can’t. Being able to think in abstract terms about super human scale systems does not equate to a deeper understanding of such systems, it does not give us additional predictive powers, but it can alert us to super human scale phenomena that we should be monitoring and measuring. It comes down to how low or how high we want to set the bar for what we consider “understanding”. You can listen to the following interview with Walid Saba on the state of the art of human language processing and then think about how this fits together with André Spicer‘s observations on institutionalised and sanctified BS and genuine concerns about big junk data.
In much of the W.E.I.R.D. world BS is the only thing that still “sells”. The entire economy is a game of perception management, there is no substance left underneath. The evidence is now everywhere. If you attempt to sell anything that is not largely BS, something that actually delivers or contributes towards valuable services to people at the grassroots level, by definition you are not advancing the perception management game, and hence none of those who attempt to secure their position within the established system will buy from you.
Life is too short for BS. The competitive corporate way of life is not healthy for anyone. Most people are trapped by the culture that surrounds them, they are prisoners. In contrast, the few Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people who focus entirely on what they consider ethical and genuinely valuable, who grow their competency network this way, co-create initiatives with the people they deeply appreciate and genuinely trust, and ultimately that’s what matters.
The institutional crisis, especially in W.E.I.R.D. countries, is very real. The disease is terminal. In the Autistic community we are open about this and about the harm this causes in terms of mental and physical health. More “culturally well adjusted” people are likely having similar experiences, only they don’t talk about it nearly as openly and honestly in a society that is built entirely around “success” and “growth”.
In this interview Nate Hagans is chatting with Berry Liberman in Australia, who is beginning to get her head around the extent to which “investment” is broken. Money as we know it is a legacy technology. Less “developed” countries are a big step ahead. Their populations are used to not being able to rely on institutions, and this gives them a much better grasp on reality.
High fidelity conceptual models of our rich internal worlds
The atoms of thought
Human mental models have been around for much longer than human language. To understand the core mechanisms of human reasoning and thinking, and to appreciate the dangerous limitations of human language, we need to step back in time and look at how language evolved from a biological perspective.
Here is a synopsis of thinking tools that predate human language:
Humans and a some other animals are capable of shared attention. I can look at something and detect that another animal is looking at the same thing, and I understand that we are both seeing the same thing, whilst realising that we may have wildly different perspectives on the thing (associations with past experiences) that we see. Someone who has never seen or heard of a gun may not know that it can kill. I can also observe two people who are looking at some object, and I understand that their minds are focused on that object.
Beyond awareness of shared attention humans have evolved limbs that allow us to point to things, to further disambiguate and make it more obvious what we are focusing on.
Humans and other animals create mental representations (= models) of the things we interact with.
Furthermore humans and some animals can identify commonalities between things (abstract/generalise) and create mental models of groups of similar things (= categories).
… and can identify spatial relationships between things (containment and connectors) and create mental models of these relationships (= graphs).
… and can identify changes over time (movement of things) and create mental models of patterns of movements (= operations).
Humans and perhaps also some animals can apply their pattern recognition and abstraction abilities to operations, leading to mental representations that contain abstract operations.
Humans and perhaps also some animals rely on their mental models to conduct extensive simulations to predict events and arrive at decisions. In some domains this happens subconsciously and very fast, and in other domains we are capable of slower and deliberate conscious simulations.
We and other animals can do all of these things without talking. No spoken or written language is required. Mental models and reasoning clearly came first. Human language came second.
I have gained extensive experience simply by living with fairly severe autism for my lifetime. Difference can be wonderful, and autism shouldn’t be tampered with, or altered. Autistic people shouldn’t be changed…
The autistic individual certainly has a right to this special home within. It is not a dream world as some dictionaries imply. It’s not a spot in the mind filled with hallucinations. Rather the person sees what is around him with extra-acute sight…
An autistic experiencing the outside world experiences it as surreal, not as a made-up work of art in the mind. You can’t judge the world of another as inferior, because you don’t live in that world…
The autistic world is comfortable. It is a safe place to ground oneself in. Autistic children can keep their inner sanctuaries, as well as grow and learn, and become educated…
It is a very bad idea to force one’s way into an autistic’s world. That is a grave threat to the autistic person. … All things coming from the outside must be gentle, sometimes devoid of emotion, so as to not overwhelm…
The arts, and music, and mathematics are human scale tools for communicating the essence of complex patterns of mental states (knowledge, feelings, and awareness of agency and motivations) that don’t survive simplistic attempts of serialisation and de-serialisation via stories. The outputs of the arts, music, and mathematics are highly generative, they can’t be described in any simple story. Instead they open up and invite a multitude of complementary interpretations.
The arts and music are essential communication and exploration tools for feelings, agency, and motivations, and the application of mathematical theories has become a critical part of a growing number of knowledge intensive disciplines. The essence of the scientific method is the combination of the atoms of thought with the technique of validation via instantiation.
The art of explanation
Paul Lockhart (2002) describes mathematics as the art of explanation. He is correct. Mathematical proofs are the one type of storytelling that is committed to being entirely open regarding all assumptions and to the systematically exploring all the possible implications of specific sets of assumptions. Foundational mathematical assumptions are usually referred to as axioms.
Formal proofs are parametrised formal stories (sequences of reasoning steps) that explore the possibilities of entire families of stories and their implications. Mathematical beauty is achieved when a complex family of stories can be described by a small elegant formal statement. Complexity does not melt away accidentally. It is distilled down to the its essence by finding a natural language (or model) for the problem space represented by a family of formal stories.
A useful model encapsulates all relevant commonalities of the problem space – it provides an explanation that is understandable for anyone who is able to follow the reasoning steps leading to the model.
Explaining the language of symbolic thought
As humans we are familiar with spoken human language, and with written human language, encoded in one of the established symbol systems (or alphabets) that predate the invention of modern computers. Additionally, humans have developed specialised symbol systems for recording definitions of music, for expressing mathematics, for traffic signs and signals, electronic circuit designs, etc. – all these symbol systems are considered as languages in the mathematical discipline of model theory. In fact, symbol systems predate humans by billions of years; the genetic code is clearly a language in the model theoretic sense – and even pheromones constitute a language.
Without delving into the formal mathematical details, the significance of model theory is best appreciated intuitively by considering the following observations:
Linguistics as pioneered by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and 1960s as well as the work on generative semantics and metaphors by George Lakoff can be formalised via model theory.
The work of model theorists goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, and was motivated by mathematicians who were concerned about potential logical inconsistencies in the mathematical symbol system and the conventions governing its use.
The resulting introspective research into symbol systems has led to a mathematical theory that can be used to formalise any symbol system, not limited to the languages invented by humans, and including the genetic code.
All non-linear symbolic diagramming notations can easily be formalised mathematically.
The desire to understand and be understood
Human minds are the tools that connect the physical dimension of our existence to other living creatures, and to a rich internal world, which integrates our own perceptions into a seemingly coherent representation of the external world around us. Human minds can develop amazing capabilities, but at the same time, our cognitive capacities are limited. To ensure we understand each other, we must know our limits, and we must co-create safe spaces for engaging in de-powered dialogue.
As soon as spoken language entered our world, initially as a serialisation format for communicating simple references to things within our local context, things started to get messy. We started to reference abstract things, references to references, and experiences that occurred many years ago. From that time onwards I suspect the number of misunderstandings in communication grew exponentially.
Language allows us to create rough and speculative models of what might go on in another mind. But since people can not visit the past of other people, this lead us down the path of extensive social delusion, where we started to assume that we understand each other much better than we actually do.
Validation of shared understanding by instantiation of abstractions with concrete examples usually only comes into play when harsh reality points people to concrete misunderstandings. In many contexts something like the 80 / 20 rule is good enough for language to be a useful and viable tool. Making correct assumptions 80% of the time is good enough for many day to day life scenarios for the majority of people.
With the evolution of the human capacity for language, the seeds for storytelling had been sowed. The first human hive minds emerged. Written language made things even worse in terms of the scope of the social delusion, it gave people opportunities to “read” large volumes of information out of context in space and time. Many of the written words of old and distant texts seem familiar – as needed with the help of a translator (another source of potential misunderstandings), and people end up importing many thousands of references to very unfamiliar abstractions into their mental models on top of their first hand experiences.
We all know that human imagination knows few limits, but at the same time we like to believe that we “understand” what others have written, without necessarily realising the contradiction. The human tendency to believe in the validity of our imagination after hearing or reading a story allowed storytelling and belief systems to rise to new heights.
With language, human culture increasingly became defined by myths residing within hive minds. At that stage a few people started scratching their heads about weird human social behaviours and associated rituals and beliefs. In today’s society, within the pathology paradigm of Western medicine, such people would be labelled Autistic.
Being hypersensitive in a hyper-normative world
Autistic people easily get depressed and develop physical health conditions when having to survive in social environments that deny Autistic authenticity and that continuously expect Autistic people to conform to neuronormative cultural rituals. Sooner or later, unless the Autist is able to shift or change the environmental context, recurring traumatic experiences result in chronic depression and Autistic burnout.
Autistic and other hypersensitive people are traumatised by being punished for being authentic, for example by asking clarifying questions or for being honest about our feelings or our knowledge, or alternatively, by the cognitive dissonance of attempting to conform to toxic social expectations.
Autistic people are mostly made to suffer for being authentic. If we attempt to conform, due to our limited capacity for cognitive dissonance, we experience existential depression at a very young age, often as children, and without any agency to construct or retreat to a safe environment, without access to Autistic community. We grow our compassion and mutual understanding by de-powering all our Autistic dialogues, which is the only path for healing in a hyper-competitive deceptive world.
In the industrial era human scale ecologies of care have been systematically replaced by atomised families and super human scale abstract group identities (brands, nationalities, parties, sports teams, professional identities, etc.), thereby crippling people’s ecological understanding, their basic understanding of what it means to be alive, including their ability to trust themselves and each other at human scale.
The ability to extend trust to oneself and others depends on, and can only be (re)learned through the lived experience of being embedded in an ecology of care over an extended period. Prolonged absence of a healthy ecology of care can lead to self-hatred and related chronic health problems.
We can reframe the notion of social group, to highlight the relational aspect of social groups as the main characteristic of culture.
A cultural organism : the set of all the relationships of a core set of people, including all the relationships that these people have with people beyond the core set, i.e. a cultural organism always includes a boundary layer that connects the organism to the outside world.
This reflects the complexity and diversity of the world we live in, and it also reflects on the fact that within a group everyone is surrounded by a unique ecology of care – the relationships that each individual maintains. Our ecology of care should be a safe place for Autistic dialogues, where Autistic openness, honesty, and curiosity is appreciated, and where our strong aversion to coercive pressures and all forms of social hierarchies is respected. Autistic culture evolves via Autistic dialogues within a human scale cultural organism:
We discover semantic equivalences between shared mental models
We discover differences in mental models and lived experiences
We consciously agree on the level of shared understanding
We consciously acknowledge differences in lived experiences
We feel seen and understood
We (re)learn to extend trust and be trusted
We develop unique and deep Autistic relationships
We co-create and collaborate as part of unique neurodivergent competency networks
Numerical scientific models that are fitted to observable data
The scientific revolution and the application of numerical mathematical techniques undoubtedly led to a better understanding of some aspects of the world we live in, enabling humans to create more and more complex technologies. But it also created new levels of ignorance about externalities that went hand in hand with the development of new technologies, fuelled by specific economic beliefs about efficiency and abstractions such as money and markets.
In the early days of the industrial revolution modelling was concerned with understanding and mastering the physical world, resulting in progress in engineering and manufacturing. Over the last century formal model building was found to be useful in more and more disciplines, across all the natural sciences, and increasingly as well in medicine and the social sciences, especially in economics.
With 20/20 hindsight it becomes clear that there is a significant lag between model building and the identification of externalities that are created by systematically applying models to accelerate the development and roll-out of new technologies.
Humans are biased to thinking they understand more than they actually do, and this effect is further amplified by technologies such as the Internet, which connects us to an exponentially growing pool of information. New knowledge is being produced faster than ever whilst the time available to independently validate each new nugget of “knowledge” is shrinking, and whilst the human ability to learn new knowledge at best remains unchanged – if it is not compromised by information overload.
Those who engage in model building face the challenge of either diving deep into a narrow silo, to ensure and adequate level of understanding of a particular niche domain, or to restrict their activity to an attempt of modelling the dependencies between subdomains, and to coordinating the model building of domain experts across a number of silos. As a result:
Many models are only understandable for their creators and a very small circle of collaborators.
Each model integrator can only be effective at bridging a very limited number of silos.
The assumptions associated with each model are only known understood locally, some of the assumptions remain tacit knowledge, and assumptions may vary significantly between the models produced by different teams.
Many externalities escape early detection, as there is hardly anyone or any technology continuously looking for unexpected results and correlations across deep chains of dependencies between subdomains.
When the translation of new models into new applications and technologies is not adequately constrained by the level to which models can be independently validated and by application of the precautionary principle, potentially catastrophic surprises are inevitable.
Numerical models in the natural sciences
The usefulness of numerical, statistical, and probabilistic models rests on the assumption that there is an objective reality out there that can be approximated by a set of abstract numerical parameters and formal relationships between these parameters in a way that provides us some level of predictive capability and thereby a deeper understanding of a particular aspect of reality.
This approach has led to impressive results in the natural sciences, in particular in physics, physical chemistry, and computational biology, including techniques for modelling and better understanding some aspects of complex and chaotic systems.
The more parameters and relationships between parameters come into play, the more difficult it typically is to uncover cognitively simple models that shed new light onto a particular problem space and the underlying assumptions. If a particular set of formal assumptions is found to have a correspondence in the physical or living world, the potential for positive and negative technological innovation can be profound. Whether the positive or negative potential prevails is determined by the motivations, political moves, and stories told by those who claim credit for innovation.
Statistical models in the social sciences
Psychology and other social sciences differ from the natural sciences in that they are dealing with humans, i.e. with conscious agents that have rich internal worlds and unique lived experiences on the one hand, and that are heavily influenced by the culture they are embedded in on the other hand.
In the ideology of the invisible hand that applies the industrial factory metaphor to society, the only things that count in are things that can be measured. It is no coincidence that scientific management (Taylorism) was conceived in the wake of the invention of the steam engine and machine assisted manufacturing, to complement the the laws of physics that governed the mechanics and the productivity of the machines on the factory floor. The discipline of economics allowed the scientific approach to managing humans to be extended to the scale of nation states – as a conceptual building block for organising human activities in industrialised societies.
There are a number of parallels between the impact of the development of economic theories on human society and the social impact of the development of the Internet. Neither the Internet nor economics draw directly on an evidence based understanding of physics, biology, and human cognitive diversity.
Both the Internet and economic theories are best understood as prescriptive rather than observational tools – as language systems that are based on specific European/North American cultural conventions that are assumed to be “sensible” (common sense) or “obvious” (self-evident).
With these language systems in place you can measure data flows and economic performance, but only in terms of the scope and the preconceived categories afforded by the formal protocols and languages. The introduction of a formal economic language system and the introduction of formal protocols for digital communication have shaped human culture around the social ideologies espoused by early industrialists and early information technology entrepreneurs.
Over course of the last two centuries governments have become increasingly dependent on economists and information technology entrepreneurs in order to understand and engage with society, and also to understand what what technological possibilities are appearing on the horizon. In this process anything that lies beyond the scope of economic doctrine is discounted as non-essential or unproductive.
The ideological bias in the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry is no less concerning. Psychologists are only starting to acknowledge the scale of the immense harm and the many deaths caused by dehumanising cultural bias and inappropriate use of over-simplified statistical models.
The interview below is a good example of the depth of the ideological bias that has shaped the field over the course of the last 150 years. From an Autistic perspective the persistent behaviourist attempts to impose cultural expectations from the outside, and the level of ignorance about the relevance of rich inner worlds and individually unique mental models remains disturbing.
Many Autistic people have suffered some form of abuse throughout their childhood from their caregivers. Broken trust is at the core of Autistic trauma. We are not equipped for life in industrialised societies that are all about perception management, where even “education” of small children in primary school is focused on topics such as persuasive writing. What is completely lacking in the neuronormative world around us is a culture that appreciates the open dialogues necessary to nurture and deepen shared understanding, and to discover and openly acknowledge the boundaries of shared understanding at each stage of the journey.
Conceptual models vs narratives
Whenever storytelling and related tools of persuasion are used to transmit and replicate beliefs, as is usually the case in politics and marketing, critical validation becomes essential to minimise misunderstandings and attempts at deception. If we value the creation of cultures of thinking, then the risks of deceptive storytelling need to be acknowledged, and exploration and critical validation of knowledge, feelings, agency, and motivations must be encouraged.
Bernays’ vision was of a utopian society in which individuals’ dangerous libidinal energies, the psychic and emotional energy associated with instinctual biological drives that Bernays viewed as inherently dangerous given his observation of societies like the Germans under Hitler, could be harnessed and channelled by a corporate elite for economic benefit. Through the use of mass production, big business could fulfil the cravings of what Bernays saw as the inherently irrational and desire-driven masses, simultaneously securing the niche of a mass production economy (even in peacetime), as well as sating what he considered to be dangerous animal urges that threatened to tear society apart if left unquelled.
Bernays touted the idea that the “masses” are driven by factors outside their conscious understanding, and therefore that their minds can and should be manipulated by the capable few. “Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.”
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
Propaganda was portrayed as the only alternative to chaos.
The purpose of storytelling is the propagation of beliefs and emotions. Stories are appealing and hold persuasive potential because of their role in cultural transmission is the result of gene-culture co-evolution in tandem with the human capability for symbolic thought and spoken language. In human culture stories are involved in two functions:
Transmission of beliefs that are useful for the members of a group. Shared beliefs are the catalyst for improved collaboration.
Deception in order to protect or gain social status within a group or between groups. In the framework of contemporary competitive economic ideology deception is often referred to as marketing.
Storytelling thus is a key element of cultural evolution. Unfortunately cultural evolution fuelled by storytelling is a terribly slow form of learning for societies, even though storytelling is an impressively fast way for transmitting beliefs to other individuals. Not entirely surprisingly some studies find the prevalence of psychopathic traits in the upper echelons of the corporate world to be between 3% and 21%, much higher than the 1% prevalence in the general population.
Storytelling with the intent of deception enables individuals to reap short-term benefits for themselves to the longer-term detriment of society. The extent to which deceptive storytelling is tolerated is influenced by cultural norms, by the effectiveness of institutions and technologies entrusted with the enforcement of cultural norms, and the level of social inequality within a society. The work of the disciples of Edward Bernays ensured that deceptive storytelling has become a highly respected and valued skill.
However, simply focusing on minimising deception is no fix for all the weaknesses of storytelling. When a society with highly effective norm enforcement insists on rules and behavioural patterns that create environmental or social externalities, some of which may be invisible from within the cultural framework, deception can become a vital tool for those who suffer as a result of the externalities.
Furthermore, even in the absence of intentional deception, the maintenance, transmission, and uncritical adoption of beliefs via storytelling can easily become problematic if beliefs held in relation to the physical and living world are simply wrong. For example some people continue to hold scientifically untenable beliefs about the causes of specific diseases.
Attempts of global narrative development are fraught with difficulties, misunderstandings, and perceived and genuine social power dynamics. Our civilisation needs palliative care for its dying institutions and compassionate exit paths for the inmates, including guidance on locally relevant wisdom and systems of knowing.
All scientists, engineers, and technologists are familiar with a language that is more expressive and less ambiguous than spoken and written language. The language of concept graphs with highly domain and context-specific iconography regularly appears on white boards whenever two or more people from different disciplines engage in collaborative problem solving. Such languages can easily be formalised mathematically and can be used in conjunction with rigorous validation by example / experiments.
Psychiatry is slowly catching up with the concept of neurodiversity amongst animals, including humans, taking clues from animal biology/psychology and from the neurodiversity movement. The language used is still compliant with the language of the pathology paradigm, but if you are unfamiliar with the emerging discipline of evolutionary psychiatry, the presentation by Adam Hunt will provide you with a good foundation. The core observations are piggybacking on what Autistic communities have been discussing for a number of years, and what has more recently also found its way into anthropological narratives.
Cultural practices that are focused on the here and now, performing neuronormative cultural practices and transmission of such practices across generations:
Social: Participating in practices related to warfare, punishment, or generosity
Design: Performing specific crafts that deliver the material basis for sustaining the local community and the local culture
Neuronormative cultural practices assisted in maintaining networks of domain specific competencies and ecologies of care over many hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Social cohesion was reinforced by egalitarian resource sharing, collaboration within groups and between locally connected groups, and constraining the scope of punishment and war to clamp down on violators of egalitarian principles.
In contrast, in industrialised societies, neuronormative practices have been hijacked to support super human scale empire building endeavours: Preoccupation with symbols of social status (wealth), accumulation and uneven distribution of food and material goods (meritocracy), head to head competition (the religion of the invisible hand of the market), and unconstrained use of punishment and war via socially sanctioned forms of bullying (hierarchical management) and large scale war (especially economic wars that condemn millions to poverty, inhuman living conditions, and premature death) that are sanctioned by the invisible hand.
Neurodivergent cultural practices
Understanding environmental conditions, conducting experiments, and selecting adaptive strategies
Cultural practices that reflect on the past through a critical lens, with a view of shaping and influencing the future, engaging in neurodivergent practices and exploration:
Critical: Responding to unusual environmental changes and social challenges
Organic: Acquiring domain specific knowledge about the ecological context / niche of the group through direct observation and pattern recognition
Symbolic: Integrating new experiences and knowledge into the local culture via performance or art (storytelling, singing, composition, dance)
Cultural adaptations over evolutionary time scales
If we want to find our way back to human scale and to the level of collective intelligence and cultural adaptive capability that is needed to navigate existential threats, we need to develop a language that enables us to imagine potential paths into a future that looks very different from the industrialised world that we were born into.
Keeping in mind the interplay between neuronormative and neurodivergent cultural practices, and mapping the social dynamics onto human evolutionary history, we can distinguish four basic categories of human societies:
Egalitarian societies are focused on group survival and collaborative niche construction, and they are underpinned by consciously designed collaborative social norms. The dynamics of local environmental conditions allow everyone to viscerally understand the group as the smallest unit of survival. Mutual aid and an appreciation of unique individual talents, strengths, and limitations is baked into foundational social norms and daily routines. Human collective compassion and intelligence ensures that life is enjoyable for all. Hence it makes sense to think about the adaptation of egalitarian societies to changing environment conditions in terms of collaborative niche construction, and to conceptualise the resulting social structure as an ecology of care.
The following characteristics clearly distinguish egalitarian societies from other societies:
Competition is a secondary effect that operates over multiple generations (hundreds of years) between groups.
Everyone intuitively understands human scale – super human scale is recognised as a dangerous collective learning disability to be avoided. Explicit social norms prompt large (super human scale) social groups to split into two collaborating groups.
Success oriented societies are still focused on group survival and collaborative niche construction, but they no longer have effective social norms against competitive niche construction.
Such shifts in social norms can occur when local environmental conditions are stable and offer an over-abundance of food and material resources. As consciously designed collaborative social norms for punishing individually competitive behaviour become weakened, social norms eventually – over generations – gravitate towards a mix of collaborative and competitive social norms. Human collective compassion and intelligence is weakened.
The following characteristics distinguish success oriented societies from other societies:
A mix of collaborative and competitive niche construction. Collaboration and competition are primary effects that operate between individuals within a single generation.
Social norms don’t systematically clamp down on attempts of wielding power over others, social power gradients are acceptable. Individuals with a psychopathic lack of compassion are given opportunities to benefit from competitive behaviour – paving the path for eventually undermining the intuitive understanding of super human scale as a dangerous collective learning disability.
Growth oriented societies are focused on empire building, prioritising competitive niche construction and aggressive head to head competition over collaborative niche construction. Human collective compassion and intelligence is seriously undermined, and society is now primed for eventual self destruction.
The following characteristics distinguish growth oriented societies from other societies:
Achieving super human scale and further expansion has become an explicit goal.
Collaboration is a secondary effect that operates mainly because of the innate social / helpful disposition of humans – in spite of largely competitive social norms.
Social norms celebrate those who successfully wield power over others, social power gradients are understood as a law of nature. Individuals with a psychopathic lack of compassion have gravitated to most positions of power. All of society has been co-opted into a super human scale empire building scheme, culture is deteriorating into a cult.
“Pay for merit, pay for what you get, reward performance. Sounds great, can’t be done. Unfortunately it can not be done, on short range. After 10 years perhaps, 20 years, yes. The effect is devastating. People must have something to show, something to count. In other words, the merit system nourishes short-term performance. It annihilates long-term planning. It annihilates teamwork. People can not work together. To get promotion you’ve got to get ahead. By working with a team, you help other people. You may help yourself equally, but you don’t get ahead by being equal, you get ahead by being ahead. Produce something more, have more to show, more to count. Teamwork means work together, hear everybody’s ideas, fill in for other people’s weaknesses, acknowledge their strengths. Work together. This is impossible under the merit rating / review of performance system. People are afraid. They are in fear. They work in fear. They can not contribute to the company as they would wish to contribute. This holds at all levels. But there is something worse than all of that. When the annual ratings are given out, people are bitter. They can not understand why they are not rated high. And there is a good reason not to understand. Because I could show you with a bit of time that it is purely a lottery.”
– W Edwards Deming (1984)
Terminally learning disabled
Terminally learning disabled societies are late stage empires, focused entirely on maintaining a façade of growth and success, right through to the final stages of collapse.
The following characteristics distinguishes terminally learning disabled societies from other societies:
Once the cult of empire and growth has become hyper-normative, sizeable parts of the population are dehumanised.
Ultimately the neurodiversity within the human species triggers the process of schismogenesis. Small groups split off to consciously co-create egalitarian societies. Some members of the collapsing empire may find the courage to migrate to one of the emergent egalitarian societies, and others may die as part of the empire, due to forces far beyond human control.
Successful bullshitting enhances the image of bullshitters. This happens when bullshitters are able to more or less convincingly present themselves as more grandiose than they actually are. External audiences are more likely to make positive judgements about them and be more willing to invest resources in them. Organizations often use trendy but misleading names to attract resources (particularly from the uninformed). In recent years, firms have gained a boost in valuation by adopting a name invoking blockchain technology.
As well as enhancing one’s image, bullshitting can also help to enhance self-identity. This is because bullshit can enable bullshitters to conjure a kind of ‘self-confidence trick’. This happens when bullshitters mislead themselves into believing their own bullshit. Self-deception enables individuals to present themselves as much more self-confident than they would otherwise seem if they had to engage in cognitively taxing processes of dual processing (holding in one’s mind both the deceptive statement as well as the truth). The self-confidence which comes from self-deception can aid resource acquisition. For instance, entrepreneurs are encouraged to ignore their objective chances of failure so they can appear self-confident in their search for resources to support their venture.
When bullshit has become part of the formal organization for some time, it can slowly start to seem valuable in and of itself. When this happens, bullshit can be treated as sacred. Sanctification happens when an element of secular life (such as bullshitting) is elevated, a sense of higher meaning is projected into it, and deep existential significance is invested in it.
The current social operating system amplifies the influence of the opinions and whims of a few people (including algorithms that are designed to act as extensions of these people) by several orders of magnitude. At the same time these people are subject to the same cognitive limits as all humans – if anything they may lack sensitivity and self reflective capacities, not understanding that their influence, amplified to the scale of millions and billions of people invariably causes great harm to large numbers of human and non-human living creatures.
There is only one conclusion: it is a form of collective insanity to allow such concentrations of social power, and within this system, the only people who are in a position to do something about this state of affairs are those few who currently hold positions of highly concentrated social power – but these people are in these positions because they are hopelessly addicted to the most dangerous drug for humans, namely social power.
“Let’s not look to the people in power to change things, because the people in power, I’m afraid to say, are very often some of the emptiest people in the world, and they are not going to change things for us.”
– Dr. Gabor Maté
We have to recognise that these people are addicts, and we need to start treating them as such. Humans have severe cognitive limitations, but once we start acknowledging our limitations, we can at least organise for optimal collective intelligence – a small positive number, not quite zero.
It is delusional to think that any of the addicts in positions of social power will ever voluntarily give up their drug, just as it is delusional to think that any other system of large scale social organisation based on some different form of coercive control or influence would be any better or less corruptible. I have spent over 30 years of my working life getting paid for surfacing tacit knowledge, ensuring psychological safety, and establishing shared understanding across disciplines and cultures. I am also acutely aware how often misunderstandings accumulate, even between people with the best intentions, and how people quickly become judgemental, and thereby invoke social power dynamics that can get in the way of establishing a basis for de-powered dialogue and shared understanding.
All human attempts of control at large scale are futile. We can build on this insight, co-creating optimal environments for nurturing collective human intelligence. We know how to do this. It is not rocket science. It involves what I refer to as “de-powering” everything we do, ultimately including nuclear disarmament.
This involves reducing energy consumption, as well as reducing social power gradients by orders of magnitude, and nurturing the evolution of small, human scale ecologies of mutual care. The latter can occur in parallel with offering palliative care to established powered-up super human scale organisations, including compassionate exit paths for the inmates.
De-powering is occurring in two basic ways:
Voluntarily and consciously, by realising that emergent human scale ecologies of mutual care provide an avenue for incrementally phasing out super human scale institutions of power, without needing to come up with an overall grandiose master plan that pretends to offer “the” solution. Human scale is small, it is local, it is beautiful, and by definition is compatible with human cognitive limits – it protects us from the grandiose delusions of control that have culminated in the predicament of powered-up industrialised civilisation.
Involuntarily,by forces beyond human control, such as increasingly severe extreme weather events, ecological collapse, and breakdown of brittle energy intensive and under-resourced systems that implode under their own bureaucratic weight.
Given the addictive nature of social power, the second path will play a prominent role. This is the sad reality that has unfolded. We have to face it.
All that we can do is to offer support to the few who are consciously working on the first path, in many different localities, surfacing and distilling locally relevant knowledge, including indigenous ways of knowing that are still accessible.
The marginalised people who are working on this path constitute the cultural immune system of human societies. Some of us have been on this path for many decades, and increasingly we are collaborating, both globally and locally. In contrast to culturally well adjusted neuronormative people, Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people are “not culturally well adjusted” from their first day of life onwards. We are anthropologists by birth, and for many of us, attempting to become “culturally well adjusted” to our sick society was never really a survivable option.
Humans all over the world need to address multiple existential threats, without any delay, within a time frame of a few years and decades, which is only possible by transitioning to egalitarian cultural practices at human scale, and by recognising the role of neurodivergent niche construction within this context.
Autistic people have a life time of experience of surviving by learning to trust their own senses and environmental observations. For Autistic people learning by imitation is neither desirable nor intuitively accessible. In the current context of civilisational collapse, paying attention to the non-human environment and paying attention to the cognitive limitations and unique cognitive abilities and talents of each individual is the only viable survival strategy.
What has been obvious to many Autists for decades, is far from obvious to the culturally well adjusted and increasingly confused neuronormative majority. We don’t need yet another complex template for organisational structure and not yet another complex or rigid process to follow within the established social order.
The path to escape the box of a sick society involves rediscovering timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating creative collaboration in the absence of capital and hierarchical structures:
Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
Unlock valuable tacit knowledge within a group.
Provide a space for creative freedom.
Help repair frayed relationships.
Replace fear with courage.
People have known about these principles for millennia. Some of the principles have been rediscovered many times, by different groups of people in various geographies and in different cultural contexts. In particular, neurodivergent people are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.
“Study after study confirms that most people have about five intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances. This threshold is imposed by brain size and chemistry, as well as the time it takes to maintain meaningful relationships”
– Robin Dunbar (2018)
Within good company (smaller than 50 people), everyone is acutely aware of the competencies of all the others, and transparency and mutual trust enables wisdom 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. This allows the group to rapidly respond intelligently, creatively, and with courage to all kinds of external events.
Relationships between Autistic people are often more intense than relationships between culturally well adjusted neuronormative people. Healthy Autistic relationships include intensive collaboration on shared interests, overlapping areas of deep domain expertise, and joint exploration of unfamiliar terrain. The intensity of Autistic relationships is based on our ability to hyperfocus and our unbounded curiosity and desire to learn.
In the above illustration the relative surface areas of the different rectangles represent the usage profile of a neuronormative brain, and the sum of the surface areas represent the total brain volume.
An Autistic brain has the same volume but a distinctly different usage profile. The range of domains that are of interest is much narrower and deeper, with the exception of intuitive (subconscious) social skills, which are much less deep than in a neuronormative “reference” brain. Also note that a significant part of the Autistic brain is devoted to the development of exceptionally deep knowledge and skills in specific domains of interest. The illustrated example reflects my specific interests. Each Autistic person has a unique profile of core interests.
Building blocks of cultural organisms
Human minds are the tools that connect the physical dimension of our existence to other living creatures, and to a rich internal world, which integrates our own perceptions into a seemingly coherent representation of the external world around us. Human minds can develop amazing capabilities, but at the same time, our cognitive capacities are limited.
Recharging our creative and social batteries by exhausting our physical batteries
We need to keep our bodies healthy and anchor ourselves within the local physical environment to discover and co-create our niche in the local ecology. Our physical presence includes a balance of playing in our physical environment and activities that sustain our physical existence.
My love of the ocean and the sensory experience of being immersed in water, playing with the physical power of wind and waves, experiencing the colours of the underwater world, and experiencing the reduced levels of contrast between light and dark.
Growing food, maintaining our homes, actively exploring our local environment.
We now understand that access to natural environments that include trees and other nonhuman life forms is essential for human well-being, but for the most part we have yet to fully uncover the extent to which many characteristics of industrialised urban environments are incompatible with human biological needs.
Relational presence and activity
Recharging our creative and physical batteries by exhausting our social batteries
We need to nurture our human and nonhuman relationships to anchor ourselves within the ecology of care of our whanau and to feel safe in the world. Our relational presence includes creative and collaborative niche construction as part of the cycle of life.
Collaborating on long-term projects and initiatives in small de-powered teams of self-selected Autistic peers with overlapping domains of interests and lived experience, who are consciously pushing back against the internalised ableism that is continuously promoted by industrialised society.
Connecting and engaging with nonhuman contemporaries, including pets and also wild animals in their natural habitat.
Unfortunately the industrialised world has significantly reduced the opportunities for the latter experience, and this is contributing in a major way to the level of disconnect between industrialised human societies and the ecosystems that these societies are part of.
Many people are trapped in the anthropocentric perspective of believing that human societies depend on ecosystems but not integral part of these ecosystems – and this fuels techno-optimistic delusions of incrementally reducing our dependence on biological ecosystems by replacing their “function” in service to homo economicus with human designed “artificially intelligent” technologies that provide “equivalent utility”.
Internal presence and creativity
Recharging our social and physical batteries by exhausting our creative batteries
We need to integrate our lived experiences and anchor them within our bodies to make sense of our feelings. Our internal presence includes self-reflective and meditative practices as part of navigating the complexity of life with the help of our innate moral compass as well as artistic expressions of our internal experience.
Regularly engaging in meditative practice, integrating conscious breathing exercises into our daily activities, and engaging in deep thought, internalising, combining / integrating, and externalising our lived experiences.
Engaging in art practices that help us to process and articulate our lived experiences in rich non-linear modalities that transcend the limitations of linear language.
These activities can only take place suitably safe spaces, in the natural environment, in our homes, and in de-powered social environments.
The physical, relational, and internal dimensions of our existence are not disconnected, they exist within the context of the ecology that we are part of. De-powered dialogue with other living creatures connects our relational and internal presence, it allows for the unfiltered flows of lived experiences, thoughts, and feelings; it constitutes the foundation for lifetime relationships.
In Autistic dialogues we also need each other as co-pilots, to remind each other of the need to attend to essential routines and potential sensory overload.
Routines connect our physical and internal presence. Autistic people heavily rely on routines for reducing the cognitive load of chores, and for freeing up time for the things we deeply care about.
Development and fine tuning of Autistic routines is essential to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Open Space connects our physical presence and relational presence in a safe social environment. Spending time in Open Space nurtures shared understanding and catalyses collaborative niche construction within a cultural organism.
Open Space lays the foundation for nurturing de-powered ecologies of care that are safe for Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.
Co-pilots and braking assistants
We regularly need to remind each other not to be to hard on ourselves, because being highly sensitive to the needs of others, combined with our capacity for hyperfocus and perseverance, it is easy for us to neglect essential self-care such as eating, sleeping, exercise, meditation, etc. for too long.
As mutual co-pilots and braking assistants we help each other implement and stick to the routines that we need to not become overwhelmed. Assisting each other with routines especially applies to all the things that we consider to be chores, the things we struggle with, and which we perceive as distractions from the things we care about most.
What is a difficult chore for one Autist is often an easy chore for another Autist, and in some cases even a domain of core expertise. We may never become good at some life skills, but we often become the ultimate experts in other life skills.
The fine art of Autistic co-piloting consists of complementing each other in optimal ways, and this may sometimes look very different from the standardised cookie cutter relationship templates prescribed by our society for being good parents, partners, siblings, friends, children etc.
Relationships between Autistic people are often more intense than relationships between culturally well adjusted neuronormative people. Healthy Autistic relationships include intensive collaboration on shared interests, overlapping areas of deep domain expertise, and joint exploration of unfamiliar terrain. The intensity of Autistic relationships is based on our ability to hyperfocus and our unbounded curiosity and desire to learn.
As Autists we can spend days and weeks in our favourite safe place without much human contact, focused on completing a project that we deeply care about, often forgetting to eat and sleep regularly and neglecting other aspects of basic self care. In the same way, two Autistic people can collaborate intensively on any topic that they care deeply about. The intensity feels like running an ultra-marathon, in a healthy way, helping each other to slow down to a sustainable pace as needed. Learning to become good mutual co-pilots and braking assistants is an essential part of the process.
Similar observations apply in work environments that require deep domain specific expertise. We tend to quickly gravitate to other Autistic people, and if given the opportunity, form small tight knit teams of Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, de-powered competency networks that often are able to achieve the seemingly impossible.
De-powered collaboration and mutual trust is the not-so-secret recipe for collective intelligence and genuinely creative problem solving ability.
Sequence matters. Healthy Autistic relationships do not emerge in a vacuum. It is advisable to first focus on jointly co-creating a safe ecology of care, ideally a group of four to seven Autists, who are committed to de-powered collaboration. This allows all participants to incrementally develop a baseline level of mutual trust, and learn how to operate the advice process as described in this earlier article.
Over time, as more and more mutual trust is extended, unique healthy lifetime relationships emerge, including healthy Autistic and neurodivergent relationships that include tailored forms of mutual co-piloting and braking assistance.
Co-piloting vs co-dependency
Unhealthy codependency in a relationship always involves a mismatch of expectations, including a lack of de-powered dialogue, which allows a gap in shared understanding to persist and grow over time.
In contrast, healthy co-piloting is based on in-depth mutual understanding and de-powered dialogue, to jointly navigate the challenges of life. Furthermore, co-piloting is always embedded in a wider ecology of mutual care that includes further people, either in the same household or in other households.
Codependency easily arises in hypernormative industrialised societies that no longer emphasise healthy extended biological and chosen families, i.e. healthy ecologies of care, as the primary economic building blocks of society. Modern nuclear families are far too small to facilitate healthy co-piloting and mutual support within a family unit.
Nuclear families are based on the myth of a single hypernormative cookie cutter template for family relationships, including the toxic myth of independence that is a major cause of the mental health crisis, which is a logical consequence of dysfunctional and traumatising institutions.
Essential knowledge about nurturing and developing co-piloting practices that are fine tuned for the context of a specific whānau (extended family) is not part of modern education systems, and it is also not part of atomised nuclear families. This urgently required knowledge can be co-created and re-discovered in safe (i.e. de-powered) Autistic, otherwise neurodivergent, and indigenous Open Spaces.
Autistic relationships involve unusual dependencies between two people with Autistic levels of honesty. Often one or both parties in the relationship have a history of being abused, exploited, and mistreated by caregivers, employers, and healthcare professionals in the toxic hypercompetitive culture that surrounds us.
Vulnerable Autistic people have a tendency to become codependent on their abusers, and traumatised Autistic people who lack positive lived experience with healthy Autistic relationships and adequate support within a de-powered ecology of care can end up misreading each other. By failing to nuture mutual trust, openness is compromised, misunderstandings can accumulate, and the advice process breaks down. The relationship can start to be perceived as abusive, sometimes from both sides, depending on whether one or both parties lack experience with healthy Autistic relationships.
Unless the situation is recognised, the relationship can eventually become genuinely abusive, sometimes with two codependent parties simultaneously in the role of abuser and abused. In contrast to an abusive relationship between non-Autistic people, in quite a number of cases neither of the Autists engages in lying or conscious manipulation. Instead the dynamic is powered entirely by increasing levels of mutual distrust, and incorrect assumptions about the motivations and intentions of the other party, fuelled by powered-up trauma responses, which over time can amount to abuse.
The good news is that such deterioration of Autistic relationships is both preventable and repairable if the two parties are committed to developing a healthy relationship. The caveat is that prevention and repair is only possible when both parties are embedded in a shared de-powered ecology of care, and if both parties are committed to learning how to engage in the advice process within the ecology of care that surrounds them.
The concept of safety needs to be experienced to be understood. This takes time. It is only from a position of lived experience that we can learn to distinguish genuinely safe environments from unsafe environments. When we come from a history of abuse, unsafe environments can initially be perceived as safe, and safe environments can initially be perceived as unsafe.
Childhood trauma and lack of experience with the advice process are the two topics that require the full attention of both parties.
The guidance around the advice process is designed to act as a guard rail, allowing the advice process to work as intended, as a catalyst for mutual trust. Gaining experience with the advice process typically requires engaging in the process in terms of learning when and how to ask for advice, learning how and when to give advice, and incremental learning by doing in the context of a small and safe ecology of care rather than within the microcosm of a strained relationship.
Similarly addressing unhealed childhood trauma takes time, as well as adequate level or peer support within a safe environment, as needed including support from an Autistic therapist.
In practice we can distinguish three possible intentions that drive the evolution of relationships based on the situation at hand:
nurturing – learning from each other, deepening of shared understanding of commonalities and differences
repairing – re-establishing joint intentions and expectations
reconfiguring – adjusting the scope of joint intentions and expectations
Context: Travelling in a unique sail boat that is co-designed and operated by a specific team of sailors with unique physical capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, for use in a specific environmental context, say for example in the cold and rough conditions in the Southern Ocean that these sailors have grown up with.
The following observations apply:
The specific crew are the ultimate experts with the lived experience needed to design the boat. They may need to source materials from various suppliers who are not part of the crew, but they know themselves, are intimately familiar with each other, and are intimately familiar with the operational environment. The sail boat design and the operational routines for the specific design are the part of the environment that is under the control of the sailors – the climate, the weather patterns, and the currents in the Southern Ocean are the part of the environment that is beyond the control of the sailors.
Now imagine a company specialising in the design and production of standardised competitive rowing boats to come along and offer advice to the sailors. The sales person of the company explains that rowing boats also require a team to operate, are also designed for use in water, and that the company knows everything about boat building and boat operations, and would be an ideal supplier for many parts and overall advice on boat design. You can imagine how well such unsolicited advice would be received by the sailors. This is a good illustration of how much Autistic people need advice from the Autism industry.
Back to the sailors. What may have brought the sailors together to consider the boat building project in the first place? After years of having to sail in boats that were not designed for sailors with unique disabilities, the sailors might have met and learned about each other and their unique capabilities and disabilities. It may have taken a little while for a core group of three or more sailors to know enough about each other to consider a joint boat building project.
Sharing lived experience is the first step in developing mutual trust. Committing to a joint boat building project is a solid indicator for a substantial level of mutual trust, especially when the project goes beyond the ideation phase, and requires substantial time and resource commitments from all participants.
During the design phase of the project this particular group of sailors will have to learn much more about each other, to come up with an optimal boat design, which not only needs to consider individual disabilities but also the optimal collaboration patterns for the crew given all the individual capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. The design phase and the resulting design will deepen the relationships between the sailors, will test the conflict resolution capabilities of the team, and will lead to unique friendships.
When the design needs to be translated into a seaworthy boat, this may involve many iterations of improvements, and potentially complete redesigns of some aspects of the boat. Honest communication and feedback between all participants, and a shared understanding that learning from mistakes is an inevitable part of the process, will be essential for arriving at an optimal design that not only truly accommodates the needs of all the sailors, but also nurtures a culturally and psychologically safe environment for everyone. In fact, it is obvious that focusing on a culturally and psychologically safe environment for everyone is enormously beneficial throughout the entire project, and should be a top priority from the ideation phase onwards.
If safety is recognised as a top priority from the start by all participants, then the chance of major disappointments and interpersonal conflicts throughout the project rapidly decreases over time. In contrast, if safety is neglected at the start, then the chance of major disappointments and interpersonal conflicts throughout the project – including the risk of overall project failure – increases over time.
The ultimate quality of the design will only be revealed over time, as part of operating the boat over an extended period, in various weather conditions throughout the year. As long as cultural and psychological safety remains in focus, any further changes to the design and operational routines can easily be integrated into a team that by then has evolved into a de-powered ecology of mutual care.
De-powered self-assurance vs the powered-up cult of the self
Our current globalised industrialised society is best understood as a cult.
The exploitative nature of our “civilised” cultures is top of mind for many Autistic people. In contrast, many neuronormative people seem to deal with the trauma via denial, prone to the influence of narcissistic “leaders”, resulting in profound levels of cognitive dissonance.
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, which cult–ivates distrust at all levels of scale.
Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.
– David Sloan Wilson and Edward O Wilson (2007)
This insight from evolutionary biology, which applies even beyond the human species, can even be illustrated with the help of agent based simulations. Furthermore, a range of simple experiments show that in contrast to chimpanzees, human babies and young human children are highly collaborative, which may come as a surprise to many economists.
The evolution of symbolic spoken language and cultural transmission based on language can be understood as an energy and resource saving tool. Humans out-collaborated rather than out-competed other primates. The primary purpose of human culture is related to collaboration within groups and between groups.
Extract from ‘Why We Cooperate’ (Tomasello 2009):
…helping [unrelated] others with simple physical problems is a naturally emerging human behaviour …at fourteen to eighteen months of age, before most parents have seriously started to expect their children, much less train them, to behave pro-socially.
…parental rewards and encouragement do not seem to increase infants’ helping behaviour. Parents take heed: the parental encouragement did not affect the infant’s behaviour at all; they helped the same amount with or without it.
…the infants were so inclined to help in general that to keep the overall level of helping down – so that we could potentially see differences between conditions – we had to provide a distracter activity in which they were engaged when the opportunity to help arose. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases, they pulled themselves away from this fun activity – they paid a cost – in order to help the struggling adult.
From a recent interview (Tomasello 2021) on the foundations of human cultural capability:
When children produce sweets collaboratively they feel they should share them equally… So if you look at all the things you think are most amazing about humans – we’re building skyscrapers, we have social institutions like governments, we have linguistic symbols, we have math symbols, we have all these things – not one of them is the product of a single mind. These are things that were invented collaboratively…
To understand human creativity and collective intelligence beyond the most basic forms of collaboration, we must look beyond the experiments conducted by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues:
To appreciate the full range of human collaborative ability we need to integrate the influence of individual neurological variability on sensory processing and social motivations – think of the default Autistic state of mind that is captured so well in the Aut Sutra (Mirra 2020).
To appreciate potential constraints on human collaborative ability, we need to integrate the influence of cultural inertia and the specific cultural context at hand – which can override the innate human bias towards collaboration far beyond the naïve egalitarian social imagination of most Autists.
There is the saying that “It takes a village to raise a child.” The Autistic translation of this saying is “For an Autistic person it takes an extended Autistic family to feel loved and alive.” Most Autists are not born into healthy Autistic families. We have to co-create our families in our own space and time.
In many indigenous cultures children with unique qualities are recognised, are given adult mentors with similarly unique qualities, and grow up to fulfil unique roles in their local community, connected to others with unique knowledge and insights, perhaps even in other communities. If we are embedded in a safe ecology of care, we can thrive and share the pain and the joy of life.
The best environment for developing mutual trust without running the risk of psychologically damaging disappointments, and the fastest process for developing mutual trust is a commitment to de-powered collaboration in a small team context (7 +/-2 people) that is continuously monitored for cultural and psychological safety with the help of a transparent peer support process.
This approach also applies to larger groups consisting of multiple teams or households, up to human scale scale (50 to 150 people), by applying the rules for development of mutual trust to inter-team collaborations, provided that all teams internally have lived experience with de-powered collaboration.
Especially amongst traumatised people, similar results are impossible to achieve in the context of a attempting to establish mutual trust outside the context of a healthy ecology of care, focused on just one relationship and two people. A two person microcosm of traumatised people is a bit too small for the advice process to work reliably as a catalyst for the development of mutual trust.
A small team environment and a shared goal provides a context in which the advice process can act as a reliable catalyst for the emergence of mutual trust and de-powered forms of collaboration. Such an environment can be conceptualised as the atomic building block for the establishment of both peer support initiatives and self-sustaining Autistic / ND communities.
Once an adequate baseline level of mutual trust has been established across all relationships in a team, deeper levels of mutual trust tend to develop in the context of the cultural microcosm of individual relationships (two people). The self-organising process of converging towards optimal collaboration patterns towards a shared goal can be understood as a process of collaborative niche construction – over time it results in unique relationships of deep trust between people, and in unique cultural microcosms between pairs of people.
These basic insights about nurturing trustworthy de-powered relationships have increasingly been suppressed in competitive industrialised societies, and this has directly contributed to the mental health crisis that plagues industrialised societies.
A de-powered team or human scale whānau environment is the only environment in which traumatised Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people can incrementally (re)learn to extend trust to others and over time unlearn unhelpful and harmful trauma responses.
The proliferation of trauma in industrialised societies is a reflection of the scarcity of safe de-powered teams and households. The path back towards safe social environments is a bottom up approach, focused on small teams, households, and whānau – the exact opposite of the corporate controlled, competitive, and super human scale social media environments that have infiltrated human lives over the last 20 years. Small is beautiful.
Interfacing with the neuronormative world
In industrialised societies we have reached a point where Autistic survival depends on sharing the burden of the chores of interfacing with mainstream society, so that at least some of our time can be spent in genuinely safe and neurodivergence friendly physical and social environments. There is an urgent need to catalyse Autistic collaboration and co-create healthy Neurodivergent and Autistic whānau all over the world.
If Autistic people can’t always see the depth of the “bigger picture” of the office politics around us, it does not in any way mean that we don’t see the big picture. In fact we are aware of the big picture and often we zoom in from the biggest picture right down to our immediate context and then back out again, stopping at various levels in between that are potentially relevant to our context at hand. Office politics only distract from the genuinely bigger context. Accusing Autistic people of not seeing the bigger picture perhaps illustrates the social disease that afflicts our society better than anything else.
Evolution has mastered a number of similar phase shifts in the past. Consider the evolution of multi-celled life forms. Single-celled micro-organisms have not been replaced, but they have been complemented with a mind-boggling variety of more complex multi-celled life forms. We now know that our bodies harbour of more bacteria than human cells, and the vast majority of these bacteria are in a symbiotic relationship with our human cells. Consider this masterpiece of evolution for a moment. Many billions of collaborating cells and micro-organisms form what you experience as “you”. Statistically speaking our bodies are highly collaborative ecosystems of microscopic entities.
Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes that small groups are the primary organisms of human societies. This should provide all of us with food for thought, and it has major implications for the gene-culture co-evolution that characterises our species.