Healing from Autistic trauma

The ocean is my natural habitat. I feel more at home in salt water than on land. My mind does not rest until all new experiences have been consolidated into my current understanding of the world, which is facilitated by spending time in and on the water.

Extract from ‘Uncovering the Words of the Wordless Aut Sutra’ (Mirra 2020):

We consider the Aut Sutra as pre-dating 500 BCE (when the historical Buddha appeared) by at least a hundred million years. We consider active-receptive autist (or atmost) silence as an appearance of suññatā (emptiness). Further, the familiar uncorrupted qualities that we find in the Aut Sutra include:

– honesty
(lack of tact)
– a sense of self that is not boundaried, not limited

(lack of self-consciousness)
– reality as interdependence

– senses experienced as not separate from each other

(synesthesia /lack of sensory discrimination)
– movement in stillness and stillness in movement

(lack of binary discrimination)
– embodied and with everything / spaciousness-in-placeness

(lack of mind-body split, lack of ego)
– pronoun fluidity

(lack of fixed positions for self and other)
– friendliness

(lack of distrust)
– equanimity

(lack of hierarchical reasoning)

Helen Mirra, A[u|r]tist

Human group dynamics

In 2021 I completely burned out emotionally. I learned a lot this year. Spending the last 12 years co-creating an ecology of care in our small company was a coping mechanism for deep wounds that go back all the way to my childhood. My childhood trauma ultimately led to valuable insights about de-powered collaboration. In that sense trauma can serve a purpose, sensitising us to the many injustices that are viewed as normal, acceptable, and often even desirable by the toxic culture around us.

To have any chance of healing from Autistic trauma, which to a very significant extent is a form or relational trauma, we need to start with an understanding of basic human group dynamics.

It is worthwhile to critically reflect on what a social group is, keeping in mind that the many abstract group identities that surround us today are not about people we are familiar with and interact with on a regular basis. We can reframe the notion of social group, to highlight the relational aspect of social groups as the main characteristic of culture.

A cultural organism : the set of all the relationships of a core set of people, including all the relationships that these people have with people beyond the core set, i.e. a cultural organism always includes a boundary layer that connects the organism to the outside world.

This reflects the complexity of reality, and it also reflects on the fact that within a group everyone is surrounded by a unique ecology of care – the relationships that each individual maintains.

Everyone lives in a unique relational microcosm, and ultimately each relationship becomes a microcosm of shared culture.

Human scale culture exists at different levels of scale:

  1. a relationship
  2. a household – the intimate circle of people who live under one roof
  3. a whānau / extended family – the primary cultural organism and the primary economic unit in Māori society
  4. an ecology of whãnau, also known as a hapū – the primary political unit in Māori societies

Beyond these scales, making decisions that may affect others in significant ways amounts to anthropocentric hubris. Instead of attempting to build powered-up empires, there is an opportunity for establishing de-powered contributions to a global knowledge commons that is accessible to all cultural organisms that are committed to de-powered collaboration. Evolutionary forces far beyond human control are preferable over attempts of human control, which always result in great harm to large numbers of people.

The root causes of Autistic trauma

Industrialised societies and and other forms of powered-up cultures are incompatible with Autistic ways of being. Consequently many Autistic people are heavily traumatised. If given the opportunity and the means, we are driven towards extensive environmental re-engineering, to co-create environments that provide a safe habitat for Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.

Because of the inherent incompatibility of powered-up societies with Autistic ways of being, healing from Autistic trauma is not possible via the means offered by narrow disciplines such as Western psychology and psychiatry, both of which are steeped in cultural bias, and go to great lengths to refrain from re-imagining the fundamentals of human social operating systems. A few scholars and therapists are acknowledging the interplay between sociocultural, psychophysiological, and physical-biological factors in human wellbeing, but discipline boundaries prevent a deeper exploration of problems in the sociocultural dimension.

And more generally, the highly disciplined approach in academia, in the sense of creating increasingly narrow silos of knowledge, is preventing educated humans from asking important questions that transcend disciplinary boundaries. For example, hyper-specialisation and cultural paradigmatic inertia are preventing us from integrating new insights between disciplines in the medical sciences and other disciplines, and is getting in the way of improving the overall health outcomes of entire populations. And this is just one example of several wicked problems that plague industrialised societies, to the extent that we’re now observing a regression of the global human development index.

Over the last thirty years the dangerous trend of neglecting transdisciplinary dialogue, analysis, and synthesis has been amplified by increasing levels of reliance on complex networks of digital systems that have been cobbled together by the invisible hand of the market, by grandiose ambitions of technocratic world domination, and by political forces that are focused exclusively on deploying technologically powered-up tools of persuasion to “win” in the ritual of election cycles.

As a result the explicit and implicit social norms, including the education systems in industrialised societies, have drifted further and further from the kinds social environments that would provide a safe habit for Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.

Identification of leverage points for healing

Many Autistic people understand the world in terms of evolving systems, and we are continuously and often consciously striving to integrate our lived experiences into a coherent mental model of the world around us. This is one of the characteristics that makes us stand out from culturally well adjusted people, who are more inclined to simply go with the social flow when it comes to forming opinions and following social norms.

To understand the leverage points that are available to us in our local contexts, including the connections of these leverage points to specific goals over different time horizons and social scales, we need to examine the fundamentals of biological systems of perception and communication, the nuts and bolts of human social operating systems over the course of evolutionary history, and everything in between.

Perception and communication systems

Systems of perception and communication have emerged and evolved over a period that stretches back several billion years.

Perception and communication within and between living systems involves, observations / detection of signs / signals, codes / flows of information across space and time, iconic (re)presentations / models, symbolic / abstract (re)presentations / models, and language systems that integrate all these components.

Autistic people perceive and communicate in ways that often differ from local cultural expectations, and often we are acutely aware of these differences. This conscious awareness of perception and communication equips us well for re-imagining systems of communication. The internet is an example of a complex ecosystem of communication systems with ingredients that have been shaped by Autistic people to a significant degree.

Autistic people are easily traumatised when the components of communication systems are integrated to perpetuate established social power gradients.

Philosophies and value systems

Human philosophies and value systems are as old as human symbolic language systems, i.e. their roots can be traced back over many thousands of years.

Human cognitive abilities have allowed us to develop universal thinking and reasoning tools, timeless design principles, mathematics, the scientific method, and have enabled us to preserve, pass on, and refine these abstract tools over many generations.

The uncommon sensitivities and cognitive profiles of Autistic people predispose us and sometimes compel us to develop new thinking tools and design principles to shape environments that meet our needs, and carve out a social niche that allows us to feel safe in our own space and time.

We are easily traumatised when hypernormative societies attempt to coerce us into complying with ready made cookie cutter thinking tools and designs that cause us physical and emotional pain.

Institutions and social operating models

Cultural norms and systems of cultural norms, i.e. institutions, continuously evolve, but for most of human history tend to remain relatively stable over the course of several generations, and sometimes over hundreds of years.

The culture in powered-up civilisations including industrialised societies is shaped by the available scientific knowledge, limits of scientific understanding, technological capabilities and limitations, and the social sciences and their limits, including the proliferation of specific ideologies and religions.

In a supportive learning environment, exploring and learning in our own space and time, Autistic people are socialised in ways that can differ substantially from the expectations of the dominant culture around us. There is no simplistic generalisable template for unique Autistic and artistic life paths.

If we are not embedded in a healthy ecology of care that appreciates the development of unique Autistic ways of being, we may be heavily traumatised by cultures that negate our humanity, to the extent that many of us develop chronic physical and mental health conditions, including rates of suicide that are several times above the rates within the average population. Industrialised societies that deem us to be dysfunctional may even subject us to socially sanctioned “normalisation” therapies, which violate our humanity.

Humanity is facing multiple existential crises. The journey ahead involves co-creating human scale institutions and social operating models that differ radically from “normality” in industrialised societies. This feels like a major undertaking because it is, and it is not something that comes naturally to culturally well adjusted people.

Living, loving, and healing

The time spans that matter in our human lives range from seconds up to 200 years.

“Life creates conditions conducive to life.”Janine Benyus

We make thousands of small decisions every day. Our lives are heavily influenced by the cultural developments over the last 200 years, and we can expect some of the collective choices we make today to have an impact over the next 200 years – not that we can predict the future, but we have a rough idea of what choices may be conducive to life in the future, and which choices may limit the options for life in the future.

Our lives are shaped by our local ecological, social, and technological context, by our beliefs and fears, our trauma responses, trans-generational trauma, by evolutionary forces that operate at human scale, and by our theories of change, healing, and transformation.

Autistic life in the 21st century is life in a globally networked world, in a technological context that has catalysed unique de-powered Autistic forms of collaboration and an Autistic culture that encourages collaborative niche construction at human scale, consciously rejecting social constructs that are incompatible with Autistic ways of being – and often not conducive to life.

In industrialised societies we have reached a point where Autistic survival depends on sharing the burden of the chores of interfacing with mainstream society, so that at least some of our time can be spent in genuinely safe and neurodivergence friendly physical and social environments.

The path towards healing

There are no shortage of leverage points for healing from Autistic trauma. Our main challenge consists in progressing the neurodiversity movement in the face of headwind from powered-up established cultural institutions and the paradigmatic inertia that these institutions impose on the culturally well-adapted neuronormative population. Overcoming this challenge is not impossible as long as we recognise that the path forward is not linear, and that there is no direct simplistic route to healing and Autistic liberation.

Collectively, at human scale, we can rely on Autistic creativity, perseverance, and de-powered collaboration to co-create safe ecologies of care for our whānau. Maybe I am attracted to activities such as windsurfing and gliding because these activities showcase the human (Autistic?) ability to co-create technologies that transform the force of headwind and the thermonuclear energy of the sun into non-linear forward movement in creative ways.

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.

– Pip Carroll (2020)

In good company we can attempt to celebrate life every day. This is only possible in the context of supportive Autistic ecologies of mutual care. Every Autistic person deserves a healthy ecology of care. We have a long way to go. A big thank you to everyone who has already embarked on this journey. Jointly we are capable of exploring new terrain.

A word of caution

De-powered dialogue and not narrative is the atomic unit of co-creating shared understanding and valuable knowledge of ourselves and our environment. Established institutions in industrialised societies neglect the entanglement between stories and mental models, and the role of thinking tools in this context.

It is good to see when writers acknowledge the dangers and limits of narratives, but few point out alternative ways of co-creating shared understanding that are available to us. This reflects that narratives are the first – and possibly the only – language for many writers.

Our society is all geared up for global capital fuelled competitions of narratives – in which the narrative backed by the most dollars “wins”. It is no coincidence that Yuval Harari’s philosophy is popular amongst those who play the capitalist game of winning. Narratives offer carefully curated plausible sequences of events, a thin slice through the quasi-infinite multi-dimensional space of complex and often frightening future possibilities. Co-creating cultures of thinking is no longer even available on the monocultural menu.

It is also worthwhile reflecting on the extent to which psychologists and their “therapies” rely on narratives. Amongst a heavily traumatised population there is a big audience – a market – for plausible narratives that offer hope and relief from suffering. Many therapies work for the same reason that the placebo effect works in medicine. The more you believe that a therapy works, the more likely it will actually work.

There is just one catch. The possible destinations are limited to places within the established cultural terrain, and as long as that terrain is poisonous, any relief from psychological and physical harm will be temporary – hypersensitive people will continue to sustain damage.

In the absence of dialogue and supporting forms of de-powered collaboration, narrative can be understood as a tool for social manipulation that should be viewed with great suspicion.

The entanglement between broken trust, trauma, and healing

Many Autistic people have suffered some form of abuse throughout their childhood from their caregivers. Broken trust is at the core of Autistic trauma. We are not equipped for life in industrialised societies that are all about perception management, where even “education” of small children in primary school is focused on topics such as persuasive writing. What is completely lacking in the neuronormative world around us is a culture that appreciates the open dialogues necessary to nurture and deepen shared understanding, and to discover and openly acknowledge the boundaries of shared understanding at each stage of the journey.

Most of what Autistic people struggle with can be traced to trauma. The way this is obscured and muddled up in the Devil’s Sadistic Manual and then packaged in pathologising labels that make people look for faults in themselves and others is only making things worse. In case you think otherwise, these Venn diagrams may be instructive. The use of labels and descriptions of symptoms that fail to mention the role of underlying trauma detract from the extent to which toxic institutions and toxic social practices routinely inflict harm on neurodivergent people. Pathologisation of neurodivergent ways of being is deeply entangled with the traumatising and trust destroying religion of the invisible hand, which in turn is the logical consequence of misguided anthropocentric perspectives that can be traced back to some of the beliefs found in the Abrahamic religions that have shaped industrialised civilisation.

Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, intrusive thoughts, self-harm, extreme distress over interpersonal challenges, etc. and pretty much any “mental illness” as well as most chronic illnesses can be traced back to trauma.

One of the most common trauma networks that I see amongst Autists is a long-standing psychological wound that has developed from chronic invalidation, bullying, misunderstanding, shunning, gaslighting, rejection, abandonment, etc. When we grow up being told we’re wrong or weird or broken repeatedly, we start to internalise those narratives, and then anytime we have an interpersonal conflict or difficulty, that underlying invalidation/negative self-worth neural network gets activated or triggered.

What I’ve found to be the most effective de-escalation strategy after reflecting, validating, and simply holding non-judgmental space is gently asking questions so that the person in distress become aware that they’ve had a trauma network that’s gotten tripped, that they’re now having a trauma response, which means their higher cognitive functions are offline, and they’re in sympathetic activation of the nervous system.

– Jax Bayne

Attempts of global narrative development are fraught with difficulties, misunderstandings, and perceived and genuine social power dynamics. Our civilisation needs palliative care for its dying institutions and compassionate exit paths for the inmates, including guidance on locally relevant wisdom and systems of knowing.

There is an important distinction between arguing to “win” and dialogue to learn from each other. For nurturing the mutual trust needed for de-powered collaboration at human scale, it is helpful to distinguish five basic categories of beliefs:

  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 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 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, they are not open and honest dialogues.

The trust of hypersensitive Autistic people routinely gets broken in “normal” social interactions on neuronormative terms. In societies where one or more of the following scenarios play out on a regular basis as part of daily life, Autistic people end up severely traumatised:

  1. When people argue to win in the face of empirical evidence that we are intimately familiar with.
  2. When people dismiss our personal experiences and observations, which have been shaped by our unique sensory profiles and sensitivities, assuming that we are exaggerating, and that this is somehow part of our way of playing the toxic social game of arguing to win.
  3. When people ignore and possibly consciously violate explicit social agreements with us as part of playing the W.E.I.R.D. and socially sanctioned competitive social game.
  4. When people regurgitate popular opinions in an effort to persuade and coerce us to behave and act in a more socially “acceptable” way.

Such social experiences are familiar to all Autistic people, and they actively shape the evolution of Autistic culture in a direction of explicit social agreements that consciously push back against all forms of competitive social games, and towards the formation of chosen Autistic whānau and self sustaining Autistic / ND communities, allowing us to minimise and share the burden of interfacing with the mainstream culture that surrounds us.

One thing that the Devil’s Sadistic Manual (DSM) does achieve is the delivery of a reminder of all the many ways in which trauma can play out, including the cruel ways in which humans sometimes treat each other. Things won’t get better by isolating ourselves, yet that seems to be a common pattern in our toxic society.

Languages, social agreements, and shared understanding of lived experiences evolve at all the levels of human scale mentioned above, resulting in shared mental models that are far richer than simplistic misleading narratives, and in local jargons that disambiguate domain specific communications and that nurture mutual trust.

We can move much faster in the small, at human scale, based on mutual trust, with self selected groups of people who are committed to de-powered collaboration, and able to comprehend that all super human scale group identities are legacy technologies that we need to phase out.

We all desperately need a trustworthy ecology of care, allowing us to extend trust and assistance, including the support of our entire network of care, to those closest to us, who may have been led to believe – often by themselves and by others, fuelled by the preconceptions and biases encoded in the DSM – that they are incapable of maintaining trustworthy, loving, caring long term relationships and lifetime partnerships.

Mutual trust and Autistic levels of honesty, perseverance, and commitment to de-powered collaboration go a long way to healing Autistic trauma. This simple truth about human potential has benefits far beyond Autistic communities.

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3 Responses

  1. That bit, “What I’ve found to be the most effective de-escalation strategy after reflecting, validating, and simply holding non-judgmental space is gently asking questions so that the person in distress become aware that they’ve had a trauma network that’s gotten tripped, that they’re now having a trauma response, which means their higher cognitive functions are offline, and they’re in sympathetic activation of the nervous system. – Jax Bayne” turns out to be a concise statement of what I wish had been offered to me during a time of meltdown at the physician’s office back in July, but no, what was thrown at me were threats and condemnation. A month or so later I realized the condition in that statement. You would think the paid health care professionals would have gone, “There’s probably more under that than what it seems to be about, what’s been going on?” But no. What was thrown at me could be described as, “Yeah, yeah, we know you are autistic and have cPTSD, but How Dare You DO Anything Autistic or PTSD You Bad Person!” Oh well, even though they are health care providers they are still a pack of natural born NT shits for brains. Yes, actually, I do now have a hurt and resentful and disparaging attitude toward them. Did not start with anything anywhere near that attitude when I started doing business with them about a decade ago, but that’s where I am today. And it is a sad thing to be there.

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