Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people have been comparing notes on the diversity of human ways of being via the internet for over twenty years. Lessons from the social model of disability and the disability rights movement apply. Neurodivergent people have come to realise that we live in hypernormative societies.
Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and embodied minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species. Members of the neurodiversity movement adopt a position of diversity that encompasses a kaleidoscope of identities that intersects with the LGBTQIA+ kaleidoscope by recognising neurodivergent traits as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species.
Pathologising growing numbers of human ways of being is a social power game that removes agency from neurodivergent people. Social progress is overdue.
In the broadest sense, the social model of disability is about nothing more complicated than a clear focus on the economic, environmental and cultural barriers encountered by people who are viewed by others as having some form of impairment – whether physical, sensory or intellectual.
– Mike Oliver, 2004
The concept of neurodiversity can be traced to the discussions Autistic people were having in online forums in the 1990’s. It was elaborated into an inclusive paradigm in the early 2000’s by Kassiane Asasumasu, a multiply neurodivergent neurodiversity activist, who coined the terms neurodivergence and neurodivergent, to push back against the dehumanising aspects of hypernormative societies. Design justice rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face.
Principle 1 : We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.
Principle 6 : We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.
Principle 9 : We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.
– Design Justice Network, 2018
Discrimination against Autistic people in particular is comparable to the level of discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people 50 years ago. Within such a highly discriminatory cultural environment, many services from the autism industry must be considered unethical, and obtaining a “diagnosis” can be an invitation for potential abuse and exploitation. The pathologisation of Autistic ways of being has led to what some critical researchers refer to as the Autism Industrial Complex.
The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”. Autists depend on assistance from others in ways that differ from the cultural norm – and that is pathologised. However, the many ways in which non-autistic people depend on others is considered “normal”.
The cultural bias and stigmatising language in the DSM has long been identified as problematic far beyond the Autistic community. The inherently exploitative nature of our “civilised” cultures is top of mind for many neurodivergent people. Sadly, and from an Autistic perspective alarming, many culturally well adjusted people seem to deal with the trauma via denial, resulting in profound levels of cognitive dissonance.
Re-humanising theories of ways of being
In mainstream industrialised societies people don’t understand how Autistic people support each other, love each other, and care for each other in ways that go far beyond the culturally impaired neuronormative imagination.
It is time to remind the so-called “civilised” world about non-pathologising and coherent theories of human ways of being that are integrated into ecologies of care and the evolutionary flows of life in-formation that have been jointly developed within communities of Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people:
Monotropism offers an alternative to both medical and social models of disability, as it assumes that autistic differences have an embodied material basis that relates to resource allocation, and that those differences are not usually a medical matter. Like the social model, it sees the environment as often disabling. It locates both strengths and issues within an interest model of mind (and society) that amplifies the narrative about intense interests which threads through every set of diagnostic criteria that has ever been proposed. It proposes that flow, force, direction and distribution of energy are essential features and that this directed force can be thought of as emotional.
– Dr Dinah Murray, 2020
We’ve found monotropic theory to be a very helpful paradigm for a major swath of autistic experience, and the theory is supported by considering its own wellspring. Synthesising monotropic theory with deep ecology and holistic anatomy, we feel we have found a multi-dimensional, spacious, edgeless terrain under the monotropism map. We are calling it holotropism. This perspective may elucidate the high co-occurrences of synaesthesia, mirror-touch, dyspraxia, and hypermobility among us autistic people.
To be holotropic is to have wide open sensory gates. To participate in/as the immense world without becoming overwhelmed, we holotropes have two central methods: in, by hyperfocusing our attention on one sensory or cognitive path, and as, through synthesising our experience into coherence. A sense of wholeness occurs through both of these processes — less consciously in hyperfocus, more consciously in coherence.
– Hendl Mirra, 2023
Related work and thoughts on the integration of holotropic minds into synthropic cultural organisms.
Macro Level Cultural Evolution
All human attempts of control at large scale are futile. We can build on this insight, co-creating small scale environments for nurturing collective human intelligence. We know how to let go of the illusion of control:
If we want to find our way back to human scale and to the level of collective intelligence and cultural adaptive capability that is needed to navigate existential threats, we need to develop a language that enables us to imagine potential paths into a future that looks very different from the industrialised world that we were born into.
Collaborative niche construction, 2023
Cultural Immune Systems
The following quote nicely sums up the our globalised civilisation:
We do not deal properly with the issue of climate change. We do not deal properly with the issues of peace, war, immigration, food resources, water resources, public health, and all these important issues. We became incompetent because society as a whole began to focus on how to deceive and trick people.
– Jaron Lanier, 2019
Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society:
The benefits of Autistic traits such as Autistic levels of hypersensitivity, hyperfocus, perseverance, lack of interest in social status, and inability to maintain hidden agendas mostly do not materialise at an individual level but at the level of the local social environment that an Autistic person is embedded in.
Within “civilisation” Autistic people tend to be highly concerned about social justice and tend to be the ones who point out toxic in-group competitive behaviours.
Autistic people – the cultural immune system of human societies, 2020
Micro Level Cultural Evolution
Collaborative niche construction at human scale:
We all thrive when being given the opportunity to live and work with our most trusted peers. In good company everyone is acutely aware of all the collective intelligence and capability that is available in the form of trusted colleagues, friends, and family.
Evolutionary design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems. In evolutionary design the moniker of design is replaced by the concept of evolution. Cultural evolution entails not only the evolution of collaborative relationships and supporting tools within a group, but also the evolution of collaborative relationships between groups with many cultural commonalities and also between groups with few cultural commonalities.
Evolutionary Design, 2021
- The current collective human predicament
- Muddling through, from a synthropic perspective
- The entanglement between broken trust, trauma, and healing
- Co-creating centres of Autistic culture
None of this is new
- Daoist philosophy
- The life and ideas of David Bohm
- Towards replacing the DSM with a life affirming paradigm
Weaving it all together
Hendl Mirra writes:
“The holotropic mind, when acting syntropically, tends to expect one thing to follow from another like fractals, or a jacob’s ladder toy: each thing is experienced like a step, whether forwards or backwards from, or sideways to, the last thing. Close, and shifting. This expectation rests on a somatic understanding that consciousness is cellular. When we are fully at ease, we can feel the synapses of our thoughts. When we experience cognitive-sensory dissonance it can feel like the whole infinite pattern, that we are a part of, gets erased.”
This gets to the core of lived Autistic experience.
We live in an era of prescribed cognitive dissonance. This explains the link between holotropic ways of being and being traumatised, especially by what we observe and experience in the human social world. Our sensory experience of consciousness at all levels of scale and awareness of the interconnectedness of all life significantly reduce our capacity for maintaining cognitive dissonance.
Cultures in which it is a taboo to draw attention to culturally prescribed cognitive dissonance, or to withdraw from situations that contribute to cognitive dissonance, are life denying cultures. Literally sick cultures. In healthy cultures our capacity to detect cognitive dissonance catalyses collaborative niche construction, and contributes to the co-creation of ecologies of care.
When we attempt to express all the interconnections that we feel, see, and experience, we quickly notice that linear language is a poor medium. Metaphors are one way of expanding the sphere of discourse, but like all technology, in a powered-up society, i.e. a society that is learning disabled by institutionalised social and physical power gradients, metaphors can be weaponised.
Collaborative niche construction is the evolutionary process of reducing cognitive dissonance, a process of omni-directional sensing and learning, which can only emerge in an adequately de-powered, non-overwhelming, and life affirming, i.e. holotropic and syntropic environment.
Cultural norms can either actively encourage collaborative niche construction – these would be syntropic cultural norms, or they can actively discourage collaborative niche construction by weaponising monotropism – the parasitic anthropocentric cultural norms that underpin the life denying monocultures known as “civilisations”.
Institutionalised social power gradients between people are best understood as a form of parasitism. They emerge and thrive in environments where the cultural immune system is compromised. Norms can either actively power-up relationships or they can actively de-power relationships. A healthy culture is omni-directionally sensitive, not anthropocentric, it is adaptive, not hyper-normative, it is aware of human scale and limits, not scale blind.
To make ‘The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale’ widely available to members of the Autistic community, you can download a copy of the book free of charge. All our allies who visibly and openly support banning all forms of conversion therapies are also welcome to download a copy of the book free of charge.