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The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

Autism neurodiversity

Rediscovering the language of life

As I have been pointing out for the last few years, the commodification of neurodiversity and the exploitation of autistic people is in full swing.

Corporate “Neurodiversity @ Work” and “Autism @ Work” initiatives are largely scams to procure domesticated corporate workers that can’t afford to ask uncomfortable questions about the purpose of the organisation.

Most autistic people remain undercover, especially the many autists that work in the healthcare sector and in the caring professions – to avoid being bullied and harassed. Even most of those who work in technology companies prefer not to disclose their cognitive identity – to avoid being confined to roles that fit the stereotypical picture of the autistic male engineer.

As long as society confuses homo economicus with homo sapiens we are more than a bit off course. The idea that all humans must commodify their bodies and their labour is a deeply concerning symptom of the social disease that afflicts our societies.

The formation of worker owned cooperatives offers an alternative life path for autistic people that is not yet much talked about beyond the autistic community, because it counteracts commodification and it limits the systematic exploitation of autistic people.

The open source NeurodiVenture operating model for employee owned companies primarily consists of a set of first principles that can be adapted to the unique needs of a specific team of neurodivergent people. There is no need to be prescriptive about how to go about forming and operating a NeurodiVenture, because there is no right way or best way.

Here are a few thoughts on why it makes sense for autistic people and otherwise neurodivergent people to consider the formation of a NeurodiVenture instead of attempting to participate in the social world of “employment”. The latter is simply the modern term for wage slavery, especially for neurodivergent people who don’t conform to the cognitive standards deemed “normal” and “acceptable” in our society.

The NeurodiVenture model is designed not only to offer an alternative to traditional employment but also to offer an alternative to modern forms of entrepreneurship, most of which are steeped in neoliberal economic doctrine and expect the entrepreneur to act as a profit maximising employer. The modern entrepreneur simply is a second level slave that is entirely dependent on the goodwill of financial investors.

Autistic people with complementary talents and skills are ideally positioned to jointly design, develop, and offer highly unique products and services, without any need for external capital, and without any need for an employer or manager.

Whilst a NeurodiVenture might commodify and sell specific products and services, communal ownership and egalitarian principles prevent the individual autistic or otherwise neurodivergent person from being commoditised.

The inside of a NeurodiVenture can offer an island of sanity for neurodivergent people. The burden of interfacing with the outside social world can be shared amongst those who are capable of doing so for limited amounts of time, not unlike the way in which emperor penguins keep warm in winter by rotating positions and limiting their individual exposure to the elements.

Whilst setting up and successfully operating a NeurodiVenture is a challenging undertaking that can take many years until it bears fruit, from an autistic perspective, the advantages far outweigh the immense effort that may need to be invested:

  1. A NeurodiVenture offers the freedom to create products and services that do not necessitate continuous interaction with the neuronormative human social world.
  2. By definition, the main purpose of existence of a NeurodiVenture is the creation of a psychologically safe and egalitarian communal space for neurodivergent people. Whilst perseverance is needed to develop the practical operating experience to minimise disappointments, unlike traditional employees, members of a NeurodiVenture can bring their values and unique talents and interests to work.
  3. My recommendation is to design the purpose of a NeurodiVenture entirely around the unique needs, talents, and expertise of its members rather than around the fixed idea of one entrepreneur or founder.
  4. Communal company ownership, egalitarian revenue sharing, and a long-term time horizon (I recommend at least 100 years, with a preference for longer time horizons) creates a collaborative company culture that can not be achieved in any other way.
  5. The creative potential of a well-oiled team of neurodivergent people is not to be underestimated. Collectively the team has a much better chance of combining their talents and expertise into services that are valued by the outside world than an individual entrepreneur on their own.

More and more autists are discovering that employee owned companies operated by neurodivergent people offer one best avenues for surviving and thriving whilst defying the zero sum bullshit logic of capital and markets.

The world could have benefited more from anthropologist David Graeber’s line of inquiry into industrialised bureaucracy. Sadly David Graeber died a few weeks ago, but his analysis of bullshit jobs, and his insights into the healthcare and construction sectors remain highly relevant, mirroring many of the conclusions that autistic people draw about the state of contemporary society.

On the one hand, fully appreciating the neurodiversity of our species requires a reimagination of human potential beyond what is conceivable for “culturally well-adjusted” neuronormative minds in our current societies, and on the other hand, it entails a deep understanding of the dangers of the human herd instinct.

The NeurodiVenture operating model steps outside the box of the established social and economic paradigm by adopting a life affirming working definition of collective intelligence that is not confined to the distorted characterisation of human potential that dominates in W.E.I.R.D cultures.

Collective intelligence : finding a niche and thriving in the living world by creating good company

In this context I also recommend drawing on the insights encapsulated in the 10 Design Justice Principles, which can assist both neuronormative and neurodivergent people in learning how to unW.E.I.R.D. our societies.

A language that is conducive to life

“Life creates conditions conducive to life.”Janine Benyus

The journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics:

New languageOld languageMotivation for change
carecommodificationCo-create ecologies of care instead of economies of commodified goods and services – to create environments that are conducive to life
catalystleaderGrow competency networks and catalysts rather than leadership and leaders – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides
competency networkleadershipGrow competency networks and catalysts rather than leadership and leaders – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides
coordinationmanagementCoordinate rather than manage – to address all the cognitive load that can increasingly be automated and to avoid the perpetuation of social power gradients
couragefearReplace fear with courage – to explore new paths when old roads are crumbling
creative collaborationbest practicesProvide a space for creative collaboration and divergent thinking rather than insist on best practices – to be able to adapt to rapid environmental change
currencyliquidityValue the currency of knowledge and transparency of information rather than the liquidity of money and the protection of national interests – to be able to think and act outside the paradigm of industrialised imperialism 
ecologieseconomiesCo-create ecologies of care instead of economies of commodified goods and services – to create environments that are conducive to life
giftsrentOffer your gifts to the world instead of charging rent for economic utility – to make the seemingly impossible possible
good companyprofitable busynessCo-create good company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy
human scalelarge scaleAppreciate human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable
individual agencygrowthAppreciate human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable
learningnormalityLearning about each other instead of assuming and perpetuating a fictional notion of normality – to increase shared understanding
niche constructioncompetitionNiche construction and symbiosis rather than competition and exploitation – to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community
open source communityintellectual property rightsCreate open source communities instead of walled gardens of intellectual property rights – to create a global knowledge commons and to maximise collective intelligence
physical wastewealthPay attention to physical waste rather than wealth – to focus us on the metrics that do matter
repairprofitHelp repair frayed relationships instead of profiting from the misery of others – to counteract the escalation of conflicts 
symbiosisexploitationNiche constructionand symbiosis rather than competition and exploitation – to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community
tacit knowledgemeritocracyShare valuable tacit knowledge in good company instead of hoarding information and perpetuating the myth of meritocracy – to raise collective intelligence.
transparencyprotection of national interestsValue the currency of knowledge and transparency of information rather than the liquidity of money and the protection of national interests – to be able to think and act outside the paradigm of industrialised imperialism 
trustweaponised contractsVisibly extending trust to people instead of drafting weaponised contracts – to release the handbrake to collaboration
trusted relationshipsanonymous transactionsNurture trusted relationships instead of engaging in anonymous transactions – to minimise rather than encourage the creation of externalities 
valuesvalueThink in terms of values rather than value – to avoid continuously discounting what is priceless

Our destination is beyond human comprehension, but ways of life that are in tune with our biological needs and cognitive limits are always within reach, even when we find ourselves in a self-created life destroying environment. All it takes is a shift in perspective, and corresponding shifts in the aspects of our lives that we value.

Putting the language of life to good use

Our little friend, the Corona virus is showing us the way in terms of cultural change. The planetary ecosystem has further agents and tools at its disposal that will assist in progressing human cultural evolution to the point where life and biodiversity again thrives on this planet. Human culture evolves and adapts much faster than human biology, and this is largely due to the level of neurodiversity within our species.

It is somewhat ironic that in this context autistic people are the most sensitive, adaptive, and creative – developing idiosyncratic coping mechanisms and idiosyncratic ways of living that allow us to survive – and thrive, when in a supportive social environment, without asking cultural authorities for permission.

It is even more ironic that in our society the so-called “normal” people are largely incapable of noticing and responding in adaptive ways to the mismatch between human biological needs and the cultures we have co-created.

Neuronormative people primarily learn socially, by imitating others in their social environment. They seek comfort in human herd behaviour are lost without culturally less “well-adjusted” others who act as navigators and way-finders. In times of rapid environmental change social learning becomes a bottleneck in human cultural evolution, specifically in W.E.I.R.D. cultures that have come to marginalise and pathologise 1 out of 6 people based on neurological disposition and sensory profile.

Simply reflecting on the numbers for a minute should tell us that it is absurd to focus on assisting people to adapt to the W.E.I.R.D. cultural paradigm of “normality”. Instead we urgently need to better understand the severity of the social diseases that afflict our cultures.

Autistic people have no desire to turn the table and to pathologise neuronormative people, but we have every right to describe and diagnose the social diseases we encounter in our local contexts from the vantage point of our unusual cognitive profiles and life paths.

We also have the right to opt out of toxic normalisation therapies and perverse diversity and inclusion initiatives that are designed to perpetuate the toxic social power gradients that are causing widespread physical, mental, and moral injury – far beyond the autistic community.

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