The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

Autism neurodiversity

What would a healthy society look like?

community of care

It is easy to point out the flawed assumptions and circular reasoning that underpin the justification for the institutions and social norms in W.E.I.R.D. societies, especially from an autistic perspective. It is much harder for neuronormative people to fully take in the implications of overly simplistic assumptions about human nature and life on this planet, and to accept individual autistic experiences and observations at face value.

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.

Neuronormative industrialised functioning

At the macro level of global, national, and regional politics, our society is shaped by the language of economics and by orthodox economic theories that make a number of assumptions about human nature and human social motivations that are simply incorrect, but which to a significant extent, can become self-fulfilling prophecies that are highly toxic for individuals, and socially corrosive for society. Those who have bought into the assumptions of orthodox economics are considered to be fully “functional” and “culturally well adjusted”. In this article I will refer to such people as neuronormative, as they have internalised the social norms that have arisen from the metaphor of society as a factory and from the metaphor of people as machines.

Our education system teaches us very little about the role of metaphors in human societies. Instead the education systems that produce neuronormative human resources emphasise the importance of narratives – linear stories. W.E.I.R.D. “Civilised” humans have developed a preference for communication in linear language, especially since the invention of “modern” (linear) written languages, roughly 6,000 years ago. Humans have used symbol systems for much longer, but without access to living humans from earlier times, we are simply very ill equipped to make sense of older symbolic representations.

From birth civilised humans are indoctrinated in the use of linear language as the primary tool for mastering life, which translates to ladder climbing and “leadership” in the ultra-large human primate dominance hierarchies that in today’s language we refer to as organisations, corporations, and government institutions.

The tools of the trade for “success” at the “social game” are persuasive story telling, the strategic use of plausibly deniable lies – which by some is celebrated as the “valuable” capacity for flexible deception, and the art of bullying to the limits of what is deemed socially acceptable in specific contexts.

Extract from a review of Simon Baron-Cohen’s new book “The Pattern Seekers” in The Spectator:

It takes the specific kind of perverse neuronormative logic of an “autism researcher” to celebrate the ability to “dig a pit for others and cover it with leaves”, and to connect this ability with the presence of a so-called “empathy circuit” that is lacking in autistic people.

In this BBC discussion with Simon Baron-Cohen archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes and palaeoanthropologist Susana Carvalho point out examples of complex creative behaviour found in other species, which Simon Baron-Cohen promptly dismisses as “simple”, and as not really comparable to what humans are doing, without offering any solid reasoning or evidence of what makes human special. In the discussion Simon Baron-Cohen comes across as the one with the most speculative theories, and with the least amount of insight into other species or even primate / human evolution. He is an amateur in these fields, yet makes bold claims about human uniqueness and offers no evidence for the questionable claim that both creativity and empathy evolved exclusively in humans and round about at the same time. The other two panelists articulate their scepticism in very polite ways, probably to stay clear of publicly discrediting Simon Baron-Cohen.

An earlier similarly sensationalist book by Simon Baron-Cohen is titled “Zero Degrees of Empathy”, in which he refers to psychopaths and autistic people as having zero empathy, based on a convenient classification of different “types” of empathy and differences in the ways in which neuronormative and autistic people outwardly express emotions (or not). In that book he elaborates an “extremely male brain” theory of autism, for which there also was no solid evidence, and which has since been debunked.

The W.E.I.R.D. axioms

All people who are unable to or who hesitate to play the competitive social game are systematically disadvantaged in all civilised societies. But W.E.I.R.D. societies go one step further, they systematically pathologise all those who are not fully “functional” and “culturally well adjusted” machines within the factory model of society. The pathology paradigm ensures that all defective machines 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 implicit assumptions of the pathology paradigm:

  1. The W.E.I.R.D. social game is the pinnacle of “civilisation” achieved so far.
  2. The arrow of “progress” is advanced by playing the social game.
  3. The “purpose” of society is to perpetuate the social game.
  4. Every human who knows how and is willing to play the W.E.I.R.D. social game is equipped for a happy and “successful” life.
  5. Addressing individual “functional deficits” in relation to W.E.I.R.D. norms are the key to a healthy society.
  6. Non-W.E.I.R.D.-compliant notions of a fulfilled life are irrelevant and represent a threat to the “normal functioning” of society.
  7. Individuals with “functional deficits” must be grateful for all services and assistance that is made available to improve their level of “functioning”.
  8. Individuals with “spiky skills profiles” must be grateful for all “opportunities” to contribute to the social game.
  9. Individuals with “functional deficits”, and especially those who question the value of the social game, clearly “don’t understand the bigger picture”, can’t possibly have anything of value to contribute to society.
  10. The W.E.I.R.D. social game reflects the axioms of human nature, and researchers can safely assume the W.E.I.R.D. axioms to be true when designing research experiments, when conducting experiments, when designing and running computer simulations of collective human social behaviour, and when interpreting research results.

There are many further implicit assumptions of the pathology paradigm, but most can be traced back to one or more of the above W.E.I.R.D. axioms about human societies. For autistic people it is a waste of time engaging in conversation with neuronormative people who are unfamiliar with the pseudo-scientific foundations and the ideological bias of the W.E.I.R.D. social game.

There is a very important distinction between arguing to “win” and bi-directional sharing of knowledge and experiences to learn from each other.

It is helpful to distinguish five basic categories of beliefs and related knowledge:

  1. Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are intimately familiar with. Only a small minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
  2. Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are not intimately familiar with. If we are “educated”, a sizeable minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
  3. Beliefs based on personal experiences and observations. For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category.
  4. Beliefs that represent explicit social agreements between specific people regarding communication and collaboration. For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category, especially agreements with family, friends, and colleagues.
  5. Beliefs based on what others have told us and what we have been encouraged to believe by parents, teachers, and friends, … and politicians and advertisers, etc. For those who do not identify as autistic, the majority of beliefs held fall into this category.

All categories of human beliefs are associated with some level of uncertainty regarding the validity and applicability to a specific context at hand.

When people argue to “win”, they mostly rely on beliefs in category 5 (opinions). Such arguments are about dominance, not facts.

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.

What level of W.E.I.R.D.-ness have we reached?

Our societies are developing increasingly lethal autonomous weapons that have the potential to systematically take out “undesirable” segments of the population.

Observing the growth of the US national security state – what he deems the “predator empire” – the author Ian GR Shaw asks: “Do we not see the ascent of control over compassion, security over support, capital over care, and war over welfare?” Stopping that ascent should be the primary goal of contemporary AI and robotics policy.

from Machines set loose to slaughter’: the dangerous rise of military AI, The Guardian, 15 Oct 2020

At the same time the social pressure towards neuronormative conformance has reached bizarre levels.

The autism industry in particular has become a multi billion dollar global busyness opportunity. Torture and exploitation of autistic people is not only legal, it is sold as the ultimate money making machine.

There are strong parallels between the co-opting of neurodiversity for corporate profit and what has happened to other civil rights movements. This podcast offers a very good introduction to the way in which capitalism systematically co-opts social movements to protect and strengthen the status quo.

In an age of global disparity and inequity, billionaire philanthropists (dead and alive) are stepping up to the plate with powerful foundations and acts of charitable giving to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. But how much faith should we place in the hands of individuals with concentrated wealth and power? And if we take a step back to examine the broader system in which these individual philanthrocapitalists function, do we find any contradictions between wealth doled out and the process of accumulating it? Further, despite some of the good that we perceive directly stemming from philanthropic efforts, what are some of the hidden motivations behind these efforts that ultimately seek to deepen the same structures that produced the problems in the first place which philanthropy purports to solve?

The examples provided map alarmingly well onto what we are seeing in the two main arms of the autism medical industrial complex:

  1. Pathologise / indoctrinate / traumatise the children
  2. Exploit those who have been broken / traumatised / domesticated for profit

Along the way, philanthropy is used to fund the “research” that perpetuates the trauma and exploitation as outlined in this article.

The anthropocentric era of “human civilisation” only lasted around 10,000 years, and has led the living planet into the sixth mass extinction – an ecological and geological transformation that is currently on track to result in a planet without humans. People talk about a global ecological crisis, a climate crisis, an economic crisis, an institutional crisis, and a mental health crisis, and as of 2020, we can add a pandemic to the growing list. These crises are not isolated but highly interconnected.

Collective intelligence in biological ecosystems

To understand the genuine positive potential of human collective intelligence we have to look for examples that predate human “civilisations” and especially W.E.I.R.D. societies.

As I outline in this article, prior to the information age, for several hundred thousand years humans lived in much smaller groups without written language, money, and cities. The archaeological evidence available and also the evidence from “uncivilised” indigenous cultures that have survived until recently in a few remote places point towards an interesting commonality in the social norms of such societies:

The strongest social norms in pre-civilised societies were norms that prevented individuals from gaining power over others.

We can look even further into the past, to discover that collective intelligence in biological ecosystems neither relies on human brains nor on social dominance hierarchies.

Towards less-WEIRD and healthier societies

The picture is not entirely bleak. This podcast is a good introduction to the work of Michel Bauwens (➜ related book) on the role of the commons in the emerging knowledge age, and in this podcast in the “Team Human” series architect Julia Watson points to concrete examples that illustrate how we can respond to climate change by utilising millennia-old knowledge about how to live in symbiosis with nature through lo-tek radical design.

The way I see it, autistic people have their place in the emerging world, and in many cases that place will not be in large government organisations or in corporations, but in non-hierarchical organisations and networks of mutual aid formed by autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, which can offer a level of psychological safety that can’t otherwise be achieved within W.E.I.R.D. societies.

Companies can demonstrate a genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion by subscribing to independent oversight by marginalised segments of the population via the Employer Rating Service coordinated by the Autistic Collaboration Trust.

Individuals and companies can contribute to and engage with the Employer Rating Service via two anonymous surveys in conjunction with the related Bullying Alert Service:

  1. The psychological safety baseline database. ➜ Additional context, ➜ The survey. This survey does not collect data on specific employers but does collect information on the location (country) and the economic function/sector of the employer.
  2. The employer rating service. ➜ The survey. This survey collects data on specific employers. Employers are encouraged to subscribe and to use the service for regular psychological safety audits. Please note that in order to maximise the protection of employees, the Autistic Collaboration Trust will never share information about who participated in the survey nor any of the anonymous individual responses with employers nor with any other party.

I will conclude with a wonderful quote from an article written earlier this year by Pip Carroll in the lead up to the prolonged but ultimately very successful lock-down in Melbourne.

A caring society does not value the individual for their ability to return economic value, but simply for existing as their own imperfect self. We can’t choose to be cared for any more than we can choose to win the lottery. We can only hope to develop the quality in others by offering care ourselves. Trusting that care, once given is ordained to return to another in need.

Where to from here?

In this longer article on nurturing ecologies of care I explore the various shifts in values that are currently in progress. Greta Thunberg’s work is just one example.

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