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The Autism Spectrum According to Autistic People

Autism neurodiversity

The social architecture of collective intelligence

Many autists reject all forms of social power. Unless we have autistic people in our environment that nurture our sense of agency and intrinsic motivations, trauma may prevent us from learning how to trust others and build eye level relationships.

Capacity for independent thought

The following observations describe the foundations of autistic culture:

I just can’t be a sycophant to anyone. I can’t be a follower / worshipper / fan / groupie to celebrities, political figures, artists, authors, academics. I think for myself. Always. This isn’t winning me friends, but…I can’t change this. It seems to be a combination of outside-the-box independent thinking, as well as trial by fire in which I’ve been burned too many times. I always tend to double and triple check myself before falling in behind anyone.

To expand on this, add groups to the list. I’ve been a member of many groups in my life. I’ve been in organizational positions, etc. But the shelf-life of these memberships seems to have an expiration date. I end up saying something unpopular that causes a falling out. It’s all well meaning, when I stray from conformity. I don’t want to stray from the pack. I’ll analyse, think of exceptions or say something that contradicts accepted views, and before long, I’m out.

There are people I immensely admire, whose writings, ideas, lives, I love and am profoundly influenced by. But no one has monopoly over my attention. & I evolve, change, I don’t just stay fixed in one place focused on personalities. I easily can disagree even when I admire them. There are ideas I have come to find consistently valid. But even with these, I find myself changing in nuanced ways over time. I question my most cherished perspectives. I just do. As if the ground under my feet is always shifting.

I’m probably the most loyal friend a person can have, once a bond is made. That’s what is paradoxical about this. But not everyone is aware of this. I defend underdogs, I stick up for people who lack power.

obrerxconsciente – the conscious cat

Autists are allergic to social power differentials and all forms of personality cult.

I’m like this too. Following any movement, ideology, person or an organization is totally beyond me. Sooner or later I always find an issue where they are blatantly incoherent and I give up.

Anna Weronika

Non-autists find this so hard to understand.

pippy joan veronica

The unwillingness to “go with the flow” is possibly one of the key reasons why autistic people are pathologised in W.E.I.R.D. societies. From the outside all that is visible is that we don’t “comply”. No one sees the mental energy that it takes to hold back from providing an extensive explanation of our concerns. In those cases where we can’t hold back and openly raise inconvenient questions or concerns, our contributions are dismissed as irrelevant and our behaviour is interpreted as disruptive.

All social power gradients systematically dampen feedback loops, they constitute a collective learning disability. Economists Arjun Jayadev and Samuel Bowles describe the effort needed to maintain social power structures as guard labour.

Guard labour is wage labour and other activities that are said to maintain (hence “guard”) a system. Things that are generally characterised as guard labour include: management, guards, military personnel, and prisoners. Guard labour is noteworthy because it captures expenditures based on mistrust and does not produce future value.

Because autists reject all forms of social power we end up traumatised. Unless we have autistic people in our environment that support and nurture our sense of agency and intrinsic motivations, trauma may prevent us from learning how to trust others and build eye level relationships.

Further background ➜ People management and bullying

Awareness of the limits of understanding

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

Extract from What would a healthy society look like?

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. For autistic people it is a waste of time engaging in conversation with neuronormative people who most of the time are more interested in winning than in learning.

Neuronormative people have a huge capacity for cognitive dissonance, and unfortunately there is no cure for that. A neuronormative colleague once described himself as very “pliable”.

Especially when social status points can be gained, beliefs are adapted as needed, to better fit into the social context at hand. Recently I mentioned to an acquaintance that most employees in larger organisations seem to be working on their individual careers rather than for the company that employs them, and the response was “of course, that’s what everyone does”.

Ability to nurture, maintain, and repair trusted relationships

Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity. Autistic people relate to specific people, and primarily to other autistic people, and not to group identities. We are well equipped at creating and maintaining long-term trusted relationships at eye level:

Trust is gained reciprocally, not through institutions or conventions. Takes one to know one, they say.

pippy joan veronica

I had to learn how to build and invest into relationships. I didn’t grow up with those tools. And then I had to learn the difference between boundaries and abuse.

Rie Sinclair

This difference in constructing social relationships has profound implications. Autists understand a group of people to consist of the set of pairwise relationships between individuals.

Mutual trust and respect can also mean a mutual recognition and acceptance of significant differences in needs and preferences – simply allowing the other person to be themselves, without undertaking any attempts to coerce the other person to do certain things in certain ways, or to respond to a question or situation immediately, without any time allowed for reflection and unique ways of information processing.

Psychological safety means being surrounded by (familiar) trusted peers, not by “being part of” an amorphous abstract group like being “human”, being “male” or “female”, being “part of organisation xyz”, or being an “Antarctican” – national identities are amongst the silliest inventions, and one learns to be careful not to offend the millions of (insane?) non-autistic believers in the various cults of nationality.

A group only needs one unsafe relationship for the entire group to become an unsafe environment. This is a practical working definition of psychological safety.

Many autists also have the capability to develop strong bonds with animals and even with inanimate objects. Because autistic people don’t spend time in the abstract world of social status symbols, many of us care deeply about the quality of our relationships with other people and with the natural world.

Abstract group identities are very broad umbrella terms, and in my experience autists are very aware of the limitations of such abstract descriptors. Group identities often involve sets of people far beyond the Dunbar limit of relationships that humans can maintain, and entail ideas, beliefs, and values that an autist may endorse or reject to varying degrees.

Autistic people don’t “belong” to any groups, but the idiosyncratic relationship between two autistic people, including their idiosyncratic ways of interacting, may belong to one or more groups. If all relationships in a small group are based on mutual trust and respect, then the group can be considered to be good company. If some of the relationships lack mutual trust or respect, then the group is in an unhealthy state.

Further background ➜ Autism – The cultural immune system of human societies

The courage to specialise

Extract from Beyond peak human standardisation

Unless society starts to appreciate and celebrate neurodiversity and neurodivergent collaboration the future of humans looks bleak. The following illustrations can assist in establishing trusted collaborations with autists and with neurodiverse teams.

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.001

In the above illustration the relative surface areas of the red, green, and blue rectangles represent the usage profile of a neuronormative brain, and the sum of the surface areas represent the total brain volume.

Neurodiversity - the core of creativity.002

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 neurotypical “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 example reflects my specific interests, each autistic person has a unique profile of core interests).

Successful and mutually enjoyable collaboration and focuses on shared or overlapping areas of deep knowledge and hinges on neurotypical adaptation to autistic levels of social skills.

Public competency networks

Extract from Organising for neurodivergent collaboration

Within a good company (smaller than 50 people) and especially within a team, everyone is acutely aware of the competencies of all the other members. The NeurodiVenture operating model is a minimalistic implementation of a non-hierarchical organisation.

Within traditional teams knowledge about the distribution of available competencies tends to be tacit – locked up in peoples’ heads, it is not available in explicit form. In a NeurodiVenture  all members expose (write down and share) these so-called individual competency networks for mutual benefit.

Beyond eliminating formal hierarchical structures the NeurodiVenture model removes all incentives for the emergence of informal “power-over” structures via transparency of all individual competency networks for the benefit of everyone within the company. This is perhaps the most radical idea within the NeurodiVenture model.

The result is an immensely valuable index of competencies consisting of up to 50 unique perspectives on the company. These perspectives are not merged into some absurd attempt to create a unique source of truth. All perspectives are considered equally valid. Collectively their presence allows the company to rapidly respond intelligently and with courage to all kinds of external events, by drawing on collective intelligence in a very literal sense.

To appreciate the significance, let’s assume that on average for each person in a company of 50 there are 10 to 20 externally or internally triggered categories of events (these events can be thought of as use cases) associated with a demand that relate to the person’s core competencies, and perhaps there are another 10 to 20 events that the person is also well equipped to deal with (beyond the core competencies). This leads to a collective set of 50 x 20 to 50 x 40 = 1,000 to 2,000 competency self assessments, and to a multitude of perspectives from others on a subset of these declared competencies. Having all this information available in explicit form within a company is an extremely valuable tool.

But of course hardly anyone in a traditional organisation with hierarchical power structures would openly share their individual competency network including their perspectives on the core competencies of other members of the organisation. Anyone who thinks about this obvious observation for a couple of minutes has to conclude that traditional organisations represent a form of collective stupidity – the result of inherent lack of mutual trust due to in-group competition.

Transparency of individual competency networks enables meta knowledge (who has which knowledge and who entrusts whom with questions or needs in relation to specific domains of knowledge) to flow freely within an organisation.

The conceptualisation of meta knowledge flows via individual competency networks assists the coordination of activities via regular Open Space workshops, and it acts as an effective dampener on the informal hierarchies that can easily come to plague hierarchical and “non-hierarchical” organisations.

Note that the concept of a “flat hierarchy” is a neuronormative oxymoron. Either you tolerate social power gradients or you don’t.

Beyond regular Open Space workshops, adopting a simple peer-to-peer advice process goes a long way towards nurturing collective intelligence, and as an added bonus, it minimises the risk of misunderstandings and potential for conflict. In case conflict does emerge between two individuals, transparent competency networks make it easy to agree on a suitable mediator who is trusted by both parties – without the need for any hierarchical power structures.

Further background ➜ Collaboration for dummies

Awareness of the limits of human scale

Extract from Nurturing ecologies of care

Available archaeological and anthropological evidence points towards highly egalitarian social norms within human scale (i.e. small) pre-civilised societies. In such societies social norms against wielding power over others would have allowed the unique talents and domain specific knowledge of autistic people be recognised as valuable contributions.

In a psychologically safe environment at human scale (up to Dunbar’s number of around 150 people) the inability to maintain hidden agendas becomes a genuine strength that creates a collaborative advantage for the entire group. In fact autistic honesty will also have made autistic people prime candidates for maintaining trusted collaborative relationships with other groups.

In a transactional industrialised world, collective intelligence literally goes down the drain. In my experience, organisations with several thousand staff tend to act less intelligent than a single individual, and as group size grows further, intelligence tends towards zero.

The graph above assumes that as group size increases, people attempt to maintain more and more relationships – which end up deteriorating into transactional contacts with very limited shared understanding. The decline in collective intelligence can be avoided by consciously limiting the number of relationships of individuals, and by investing in trusted relationships between groups.

The dampening of feedback loops within hierarchical social structures further reduces collective intelligence. Hierarchical forms of organisation are inherently incompatible with the construction of trusted relationships within and between groups. Anyone who attempts to establish trusted relationships outside the hierarchical tree structure implicitly questions the effectiveness of the hierarchy, and thereby undermines one or more authorities within the structure.

The NeurodiVenture operating model based on trusted relationships at eye level not only raises neurodiversity as a top level concern, but by imposing a hard limit on group size (50 in the case of S23M, enforced by our company constitution) it also ensures that every member of the team has spare cognitive capacity for building and maintaining trusted relationships with the outside world, whilst at the same time encouraging creative collaboration for life.

Further background ➜ Celebration of interdependence

A partnership model for collaboration between groups

In case you think non-hierarchical forms of organisations can’t possibly scale, take a look at Buurtzorg, an international nursing organisation that operates as a collaborative network of 950 autonomous nursing teams with a total of 15,000 employees.

When human-scale networks / NeurodiVentures grow beyond human scale, they split into collaborating sub-networks.

Organisations are best thought of as cultural organisms. Groups of organisations with compatible operating models can be thought of as a cultural species. The human genus (homo) is the genus that includes all cultural species.

The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species (NeurodiVentures etc.) and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.

The main commonality between prehistoric societies and modern human scale cultural species is the critical importance of knowledge for survival, and a cultural appreciation for the value of knowledge and the value of trust based collaboration at eye level both within cultural organisms and between cultural organisms.

The main difference between all human scale cultural species and super-human scale “civilised” societies lies in the devaluation of knowledge and reliance on anonymous transactions and abstract monetary metrics, and in a corresponding devaluation of trust based collaboration at eye level.

Time horizons shorter than 150 years encourage tribalism and counter-productive competition between groups. Recently I was delighted to read about a company here in Aotearoa that operates on a 500 year time horizon. S23M, our employee owned NeurodiVenture is 19 years old. Our measure of success is tied to a 200+ year time horizon, and it depends on maintaining long term eye level relationships with joint-venture partners, with customers, and with suppliers.

In an ecology of care the focus shifts from speculative investments for profit (where the people actively involved in a venture are viewed as tools towards a profitable “exit”) to investments in the health of ecosystems and people (where the people actively involved in a human scale venture are co-investing in each other, resulting in a network of trusted relationships that connects the venture into an ecosystem of multi-dimensional resource flows between suppliers, customers, and partners).

Symmetric contractual agreements between organisations, clear definition of deliverables, and an extension of a simple peer-to-peer advice process across the organisational boundary go a long way towards minimising the risk of misunderstandings and potential for conflict. Furthermore, transparent competency networks can be extended to include partner organisations.

Conflicts are minimised via intentionally de-weaponised contractual agreements, so that both parties to a partnership agreement have strong incentives for resolving any potential conflict by learning more about each other, and as needed, via mediation through a shared trusted party in wider network of partners, customers, and suppliers (over a period of 19 years I have never run into this scenario) – without the need for any hierarchical power structures.

Our society faces the unprecedented challenge of making a transition towards significantly different values within a single generation. This is the real challenge, rather than finding our way back to a state of “normal” that only ever worked for a very small minority.

Further background ➜ Life beyond economics

A language for reasoning about living systems

Our future depends on the adoption of new forms of creative collaboration. The kind of mathematics that can assist us in reasoning about dynamically evolving value systems and the coordination of non-trivial circular resource flows involve groups and graphs rather than numerical calculations.

The ecological lens is a modelling language for evolving ecosystems. It connects the human lens and the evolutionary lens via the activity of play and a critical perspective/motivation. The ecological lens catalyses diversity within the living world from an ecological perspective.

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.

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.

Further background ➜ Rediscovering the language of life

Conclusion

New understanding and the most valuable insights are generated by the tacit knowledge that flows freely between people (no/low social friction) and the critical questions that are being asked (high intellectual friction).

Beyond a network of trusted relationships at eye level (no social power gradients) there is no universal organisational structure that can compensate for lack of psychological safety and transparency.

This is bad news for those who sell management fads, silver bullet technologies, and simplistic diversity & inclusion recipes that pretend to offer “solutions”, and it should be good news for autistic people, who are natural catalysts for collective intelligence within their social environments. Autists contribute to trusted relationships and intellectual friction in ways that expand the sphere of discourse of what is possible.

The unique human ability to adapt to new contexts, powered by creative collaboration at eye level, enabled humans to minimise conflicts and establish a presence in virtually all ecosystems on the planet. This level of adaptability is the signature trait of the human species.

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2 Responses

  1. Wow the conscious-cat quote is so spot-on. I hope we can achieve what you are proposing worldwide, Jorn!!

    1. Yes, indeed, but I expect the journey to take two or three decades. At the margins of society there is already a lot of movement, and we can use the techniques I outline to collaborate with other minorities https://neuroclastic.com/2020/12/23/active-disablement-of-minorities/. Our society faces the unprecedented challenge of making a transition towards significantly different values within a single generation https://jornbettin.com/2021/01/08/life-beyond-economics/. This is the real challenge, rather than finding our way back to a state of “normal” that only ever worked for a very small minority.

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