Jorn Bettin


I am always aware of the physical environment. I feel more at home in salt water in the ocean than on land among humans.

My mind translates much of what I perceive through my senses into visual patterns, and it also translates my thoughts and understanding of the world into abstract visual patterns and patterns within patterns. My mind does not rest until all new experiences have been consolidated with all the abstract visual patterns that represent my current understanding of the world.

Because consolidation is not always possible, my mind is continuously occupied, and consciously aware of all the open questions and uncertainties. I have strong autodidactic talents, and in play and learning have always followed my own path rather than any standard curriculum. My interest in formal conceptual systems was triggered when exposed to set theory in primary school.

Difficult questions become like familiar friends. They are comforting rather than threatening. However the opinions of judgemental people who want to score a point can be dangerous. I am motivated by curiosity about the world, and by exchanging insights, observations and questions with others. I care about the truth as it appears through the lens of my lived experience at human scale and my transdisciplinary understanding of the living world. I am aware of my individual level of creative agency within my Autistic whānau.

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

In contrast to cultural expectations I do not get pleasure out of copying the behaviour of others. Instead I experience extreme discomfort when copying others or when expected to exert power over others, and I have no interest in competitive social games.

I am an anthropologist by birth. As far as I can tell, the stereotype that Autists have difficulty with collaboration is the result of a fundamentally different perspective on the purpose of social interaction.

My naive Autistic understanding of social:

“social” refers to interaction to learn from each other and to collaborating with others towards a shared goal. It took me decades to decode the typical meaning of “social”.

The unwritten understanding of social in our W.E.I.R.D. (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) culture seems to be:

“social” refers to negotiating social status and power gradients; it refers to competing against each other using culturally defined rules. It seems to take non-autistic people decades to appreciate non-social interests.

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

From what I have seen, Autists have a collaborative advantage. We don’t have hidden agendas. Inclusive culture is minimalistic. Relying on the social transmission of hundreds of unspoken rules via osmosis is not only distinctly unfriendly to Autistic ways of being – but also stands in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale.

It would be nice to be appreciated as a living human with basic human needs as well as unique needs related to heightened sensitivity to sounds and limited capacity for social interactions. Culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time. This is the essence of fully appreciating diversity. Investing in trusted relationships is the only way of developing shared understanding.

I am acutely aware that I can only pay appropriate attention to a small number of treasured trusted relationships. My Autistic whānau, my colleagues at S23M, and the ocean and all the creatures within it make life worthwhile. They are my life support system.

It is precisely because I have to spend conscious effort on understanding each individual that I am well equipped to act as a catalyst and translator between very different cultures. The catch is that this capability only becomes apparent if the cultures in question are open to potential collaboration with the rest of the world, and are not learning disabled by in-group competition and fear of the unknown. I may ask explicit and sometimes probing questions. This behaviour is not rude. For a knowledge archaeologist it is the only way of establishing bridges across cultural boundaries.

Jorn Bettin

23 September 2018