What CAN be misunderstood WILL be misunderstood5 min read

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Coping strategies

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

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

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

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

Roughly 19 years ago I dis­cov­ered Open Space Technology. Since then I have been relying heavily on this format for set­ting up and run­ning work­shops for sharing, val­i­dating, and expanding bodies of knowl­edge. It seems as if the Open Space prin­ci­ples and the Law of Two Feet have been designed specif­i­cally for autistic com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion needs. Even the way of ini­ti­ating con­ver­sa­tions in Open Space feels highly intu­itive from an autistic per­spec­tive:

  1. write down and briefly explain a problem state­ment,
  2. listen to other problem state­ments, and then
  3. allow par­tic­i­pants to self-organise around spe­cific topics of interest.

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

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

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

I have become very con­cious of the energy budget needed for com­mu­ni­cating with typ­ical people, and I con­sciously limit the number of non-autistic people I interact with. I invest my energy into building deep rela­tion­ships with spe­cific people, and I avoid wasting energy on cre­ating large number of shallow “rela­tion­ships.”

This strategy is essen­tial for sur­vival and for keeping sane. Investing in rela­tion­ships allows the incre­mental con­struc­tion of shared con­text, and it allows the con­struc­tion of an opti­mised com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­tocol for each rela­tion­ship based on mutual trust and shared under­standing.

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

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Languages that are better than all linear languages

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

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

Such lan­guage tooling not only ben­e­fits autists, it can also assist us in putting machine learning to good use and assist us in designing better sys­tems of col­lab­o­ra­tion

A shift towards more visual and gen­uinely human scale lan­guages goes a long way towards improving the ability of any group of humans to develop a greater level of shared under­standing of each oth­er’s needs, and of the envi­ron­ment that the group lives and oper­ates in.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you Nelson and Bettin,

    “What can be mis­un­der­stood will be mis­un­der­stood” feels to me like an Autistic Culture/Autistic Community ver­sion of Murphy’s Law.

    And then I think of Covey and the whole “seek first to under­stand”.

    This is a thing that Autistic people do all the time — seeking and under­standing.

    Transmission of knowl­edge — works through senses; feel­ings and other more direct means than lan­guage.

    And trans­mis­sion is only one stage in the making and breaking of knowl­edge, isn’t it?

    When you talked about “cul­tural agnos­ti­cism” — well, the gnostic is wrapped up in cul­ture, isn’t it? With the assump­tions and under­stand­ings involved?

    Good points about system design — I think I can find a way in through design — sys­tems are often opaque and unfriendly to me and my way of thinking.

    There is a lex­icon maker I am excited about which maps con­cepts — it is called Schema — and they went to the backend of my blog­ging home.

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