Nurturing healthy Autistic relationships

Relationships between Autistic people are often more intense than relationships between culturally well adjusted neuronormative people. Healthy Autistic relationships include intensive collaboration on shared interests, overlapping areas of deep domain expertise, and joint exploration of unfamiliar terrain. The intensity of Autistic relationships is based on our ability to hyperfocus and our unbounded curiosity and desire to learn.

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

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 neuronormative “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 illustrated example reflects my specific interests. Each Autistic person has a unique profile of core interests.

Building blocks of cultural organisms

Human minds are the tools that connect the physical dimension of our existence to other living creatures, and to a rich internal world, which integrates our own perceptions into a seemingly coherent representation of the external world around us. Human minds can develop amazing capabilities, but at the same time, our cognitive capacities are limited.

Understanding the limits of human cognitive capacity provides us with important guidance for the co-creation of healthy social environments that are aligned with human biological needs. The health of human minds can only be understood in the context of the multi-dimensional state of health of the ecology of care that we are embedded in.

Physical presence and activity

Recharging our creative and social batteries by exhausting our physical batteries

We need to keep our bodies healthy and anchor ourselves within the local physical environment to discover and co-create our niche in the local ecology. Our physical presence includes a balance of playing in our physical environment and activities that sustain our physical existence.

Examples:

  • My love of the ocean and the sensory experience of being immersed in water, playing with the physical power of wind and waves, experiencing the colours of the underwater world, and experiencing the reduced levels of contrast between light and dark.
  • Growing food, maintaining our homes, actively exploring our local environment.

We now understand that access to natural environments that include trees and other nonhuman life forms is essential for human well-being, but for the most part we have yet to fully uncover the extent to which many characteristics of industrialised urban environments are incompatible with human biological needs.

Relational presence and activity

Recharging our creative and physical batteries by exhausting our social batteries

Illustration from Aarambh India

We need to nurture our human and nonhuman relationships to anchor ourselves within the ecology of care of our whanau and to feel safe in the world. Our relational presence includes creative and collaborative niche construction as part of the cycle of life.

Examples:

  • Collaborating on long-term projects and initiatives in small de-powered teams of self-selected Autistic peers with overlapping domains of interests and lived experience, who are consciously pushing back against the internalised ableism that is continuously promoted by industrialised society.
  • Connecting and engaging with nonhuman contemporaries, including pets and also wild animals in their natural habitat.

Unfortunately the modern industrialised world has significantly reduced the opportunities for the latter experience, and this is contributing in a major way to the level of disconnect between industrialised societies and the ecosystems that these societies are part of.

Many people are trapped in the anthropocentric perspective of believing that human societies depend on ecosystems but not integral part of these ecosystems – and this fuels techno-optimistic delusions of incrementally reducing our dependence on biological ecosystems by replacing their “function” in service to homo economicus with human designed “artificially intelligent” technologies that provide “equivalent utility”.

Internal presence and creativity

Recharging our social and physical batteries by exhausting our creative batteries

We need to integrate our lived experiences and anchor them within our bodies to make sense of our feelings. Our internal presence includes self-reflective and meditative practices as part of navigating the complexity of life with the help of our innate moral compass as well as artistic expressions of our internal experience.

Examples:

  • Regularly engaging in meditative practice, integrating conscious breathing exercises into our daily activities, and engaging in deep thought, internalising, combining / integrating, and externalising our lived experiences.
  • Engaging in art practices that help us to process and articulate our lived experiences in rich non-linear modalities that transcend the limitations of linear language.

These activities can only take place suitably safe spaces, in the natural environment, in our homes, and in de-powered social environments.

Dialogue

The physical, relational, and internal dimensions of our existence are not disconnected, they exist within the context of the ecology that we are part of. De-powered dialogue with other living creatures connects our relational and internal presence, it allows for the unfiltered flows of lived experiences, thoughts, and feelings; it constitutes the foundation for lifetime relationships.

In Autistic dialogues we also need each other as co-pilots, to remind each other of the need to attend to essential routines and potential sensory overload.

Routines

Routines connect our physical and internal presence. Autistic people heavily rely on routines for reducing the cognitive load of chores, and for freeing up time for the things we deeply care about.

Development and fine tuning of Autistic routines is essential to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Open Space

Open Space connects our physical presence and relational presence in a safe social environment. Spending time in Open Space nurtures shared understanding and catalyses collaborative niche construction within a cultural organism.

Open Space lays the foundation for nurturing de-powered ecologies of care that are safe for Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.

Autistic relationships

Co-pilots and braking assistants

We regularly need to remind each other not to be to hard on ourselves, because being highly sensitive to the needs of others, combined with our capacity for hyperfocus and perseverance, it is easy for us to neglect essential self-care such as eating, sleeping, exercise, meditation, etc. for too long.

As mutual co-pilots and braking assistants we help each other implement and stick to the routines that we need to not become overwhelmed. Assisting each other with routines especially applies to all the things that we consider to be chores, the things we struggle with, and which we perceive as distractions from the things we care about most.

What is a difficult chore for one Autist is often an easy chore for another Autist, and in some cases even a domain of core expertise. We may never become good at some life skills, but we often become the ultimate experts in other life skills.

The fine art of Autistic co-piloting consists of complementing each other in optimal ways, and this may sometimes look very different from the standardised cookie cutter relationship templates prescribed by our society for being good parents, partners, siblings, friends, children etc.

Developing relationships

Relationships between Autistic people are often more intense than relationships between culturally well adjusted neuronormative people. Healthy Autistic relationships include intensive collaboration on shared interests, overlapping areas of deep domain expertise, and joint exploration of unfamiliar terrain. The intensity of Autistic relationships is based on our ability to hyperfocus and our unbounded curiosity and desire to learn.

As Autists we can spend days and weeks in our favourite safe place without much human contact, focused on completing a project that we deeply care about, often forgetting to eat and sleep regularly and neglecting other aspects of basic self care. In the same way, two Autistic people can collaborate intensively on any topic that they care deeply about. The intensity feels like running an ultra-marathon, in a healthy way, helping each other to slow down to a sustainable pace as needed. Learning to become good mutual co-pilots and braking assistants is an essential part of the process.

Autistic people choose Autistic life partners at rates that are ten times higher than by random chance. This is no accident.

In mainstream society 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.

Similar observations apply in work environments that require deep domain specific expertise. We tend to quickly gravitate to other Autistic people, and if given the opportunity, form small tight knit teams of Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, de-powered competency networks that often are able to achieve the seemingly impossible.

De-powered collaboration and mutual trust is the not-so-secret recipe for collective intelligence and genuinely creative problem solving ability.

Sequence matters. Healthy Autistic relationships do not emerge in a vacuum. It is advisable to first focus on jointly co-creating a safe ecology of care, ideally a group of four to seven Autists, who are committed to de-powered collaboration. This allows all participants to incrementally develop a baseline level of mutual trust, and learn how to operate the advice process as described in this earlier article.

Over time, as more and more mutual trust is extended, unique healthy lifetime relationships emerge, including healthy Autistic and neurodivergent relationships that include tailored forms of mutual co-piloting and braking assistance.

Co-piloting vs co-dependency

Unhealthy codependency in a relationship always involves a mismatch of expectations, including a lack of de-powered dialogue, which allows a gap in shared understanding to persist and grow over time.

In contrast, healthy co-piloting is based on in-depth mutual understanding and de-powered dialogue, to jointly navigate the challenges of life. Furthermore, co-piloting is always embedded in a wider ecology of mutual care that includes further people, either in the same household or in other households.

Codependency easily arises in hypernormative industrialised societies that no longer emphasise healthy extended biological and chosen families, i.e. healthy ecologies of care, as the primary economic building blocks of society. Modern nuclear families are far too small to facilitate healthy co-piloting and mutual support within a family unit.

Nuclear families are based on the myth of a single hypernormative cookie cutter template for family relationships, including the toxic myth of independence that is a major cause of the mental health crisis, which is a logical consequence of dysfunctional and traumatising institutions.

Essential knowledge about nurturing and developing co-piloting practices that are fine tuned for the context of a specific whānau (extended family) is not part of modern education systems, and it is also not part of atomised nuclear families. This urgently required knowledge can be co-created and re-discovered in safe (i.e. de-powered) Autistic, otherwise neurodivergent, and indigenous Open Spaces.

Repairing relationships

Autistic relationships involve unusual dependencies between two people with Autistic levels of honesty. Often one or both parties in the relationship have a history of being abused, exploited, and mistreated by caregivers, employers, and healthcare professionals in the toxic hypercompetitive culture that surrounds us.

Vulnerable Autistic people have a tendency to become codependent on their abusers, and traumatised Autistic people who lack positive lived experience with healthy Autistic relationships and adequate support within a de-powered ecology of care can end up misreading each other. By failing to nuture mutual trust, openness is compromised, misunderstandings can accumulate, and the advice process breaks down. The relationship can start to be perceived as abusive, sometimes from both sides, depending on whether one or both parties lack experience with healthy Autistic relationships.

Unless the situation is recognised, the relationship can eventually become genuinely abusive, sometimes with two codependent parties simultaneously in the role of abuser and abused. In contrast to an abusive relationship between non-Autistic people, in quite a number of cases neither of the Autists engages in lying or conscious manipulation. Instead the dynamic is powered entirely by increasing levels of mutual distrust, and incorrect assumptions about the motivations and intentions of the other party, fuelled by powered-up trauma responses, which over time can amount to abuse.

The good news is that such deterioration of Autistic relationships is both preventable and repairable if the two parties are committed to developing a healthy relationship. The caveat is that prevention and repair is only possible when both parties are embedded in a shared de-powered ecology of care, and if both parties are committed to learning how to engage in the advice process within the ecology of care that surrounds them.

The concept of safety needs to be experienced to be understood. This takes time. It is only from a position of lived experience that we can learn to distinguish genuinely safe environments from unsafe environments. When we come from a history of abuse, unsafe environments can initially be perceived as safe, and safe environments can initially be perceived as unsafe.

Childhood trauma and lack of experience with the advice process are the two topics that require the full attention of both parties.

The guidance around the advice process is designed to act as a guard rail, allowing the advice process to work as intended, as a catalyst for mutual trust. Gaining experience with the advice process typically requires engaging in the process in terms of learning when and how to ask for advice, learning how and when to give advice, and incremental learning by doing in the context of a small and safe ecology of care rather than within the microcosm of a strained relationship.

Similarly addressing unhealed childhood trauma takes time, as well as adequate level or peer support within a safe environment, as needed including support from an Autistic therapist.

In practice we can distinguish three possible intentions that drive the evolution of relationships based on the situation at hand:

  1. nurturing – learning from each other, deepening of shared understanding of commonalities and differences
  2. repairing – re-establishing joint intentions and expectations
  3. reconfiguring – adjusting the scope of joint intentions and expectations

An analogy

Context: Travelling in a unique sail boat that is co-designed and operated by a specific team of sailors with unique physical capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, for use in a specific environmental context, say for example in the cold and rough conditions in the Southern Ocean that these sailors have grown up with.

The following observations apply:

The specific crew are the ultimate experts with the lived experience needed to design the boat. They may need to source materials from various suppliers who are not part of the crew, but they know themselves, are intimately familiar with each other, and are intimately familiar with the operational environment. The sail boat design and the operational routines for the specific design are the part of the environment that is under the control of the sailors – the climate, the weather patterns, and the currents in the Southern Ocean are the part of the environment that is beyond the control of the sailors.

Now imagine a company specialising in the design and production of standardised competitive rowing boats to come along and offer advice to the sailors. The sales person of the company explains that rowing boats also require a team to operate, are also designed for use in water, and that the company knows everything about boat building and boat operations, and would be an ideal supplier for many parts and overall advice on boat design. You can imagine how well such unsolicited advice would be received by the sailors. This is a good illustration of how much Autistic people need advice from the Autism industry.

Back to the sailors. What may have brought the sailors together to consider the boat building project in the first place? After years of having to sail in boats that were not designed for sailors with unique disabilities, the sailors might have met and learned about each other and their unique capabilities and disabilities. It may have taken a little while for a core group of three or more sailors to know enough about each other to consider a joint boat building project.

  1. Sharing lived experience is the first step in developing mutual trust. Committing to a joint boat building project is a solid indicator for a substantial level of mutual trust, especially when the project goes beyond the ideation phase, and requires substantial time and resource commitments from all participants.
  2. During the design phase of the project this particular group of sailors will have to learn much more about each other, to come up with an optimal boat design, which not only needs to consider individual disabilities but also the optimal collaboration patterns for the crew given all the individual capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. The design phase and the resulting design will deepen the relationships between the sailors, will test the conflict resolution capabilities of the team, and will lead to unique friendships.
  3. When the design needs to be translated into a seaworthy boat, this may involve many iterations of improvements, and potentially complete redesigns of some aspects of the boat. Honest communication and feedback between all participants, and a shared understanding that learning from mistakes is an inevitable part of the process, will be essential for arriving at an optimal design that not only truly accommodates the needs of all the sailors, but also nurtures a culturally and psychologically safe environment for everyone. In fact, it is obvious that focusing on a culturally and psychologically safe environment for everyone is enormously beneficial throughout the entire project, and should be a top priority from the ideation phase onwards.
  4. If safety is recognised as a top priority from the start by all participants, then the chance of major disappointments and interpersonal conflicts throughout the project rapidly decreases over time. In contrast, if safety is neglected at the start, then the chance of major disappointments and interpersonal conflicts throughout the project – including the risk of overall project failure – increases over time.
  5. The ultimate quality of the design will only be revealed over time, as part of operating the boat over an extended period, in various weather conditions throughout the year. As long as cultural and psychological safety remains in focus, any further changes to the design and operational routines can easily be integrated into a team that by then has evolved into a de-powered ecology of mutual care.

De-powered self-assurance vs the powered-up cult of the self

Our current globalised industrialised society is best understood as a cult.

The exploitative nature of our “civilised” cultures is top of mind for many Autistic people. In contrast, many neuronormative people seem to deal with the trauma via denial, prone to the influence of narcissistic “leaders”, resulting in profound levels of cognitive dissonance.

It is easy to see that honest people, and especially Autistic people, are systematically disabled in modern society, economically as well as socially, as many social norms are adaptations to the dominant economic paradigm, which cult–ivates distrust at all levels of scale.

The toxic myth of individual meritocracy is so deeply embedded in industrialised societies that even some Autistic people can become entitled bullies, internalising the ableism inherent in the belief in meritocracy. Pushing back against the internalised ableism peddled by the Autism Industrial Complex is one of the biggest challenges in Autistic communities.

Selfishness vs altruism

Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.

– David Sloan Wilson and Edward O Wilson (2007)

This insight from evolutionary biology, which applies even beyond the human species, can even be illustrated with the help of agent based simulations. Furthermore, a range of simple experiments show that in contrast to chimpanzees, human babies and young human children are highly collaborative, which may come as a surprise to many economists.

The evolution of symbolic spoken language and cultural transmission based on language can be understood as an energy and resource saving tool. Humans out-collaborated rather than out-competed other primates. The primary purpose of human culture is related to collaboration within groups and between groups.

Extract from ‘Why We Cooperate’ (Tomasello 2009):

…helping [unrelated] others with simple physical problems is a naturally emerging human behaviour …at fourteen to eighteen months of age, before most parents have seriously started to expect their children, much less train them, to behave pro-socially.

…parental rewards and encouragement do not seem to increase infants’ helping behaviour. Parents take heed: the parental encouragement did not affect the infant’s behaviour at all; they helped the same amount with or without it.

…the infants were so inclined to help in general that to keep the overall level of helping down – so that we could potentially see differences between conditions – we had to provide a distracter activity in which they were engaged when the opportunity to help arose. Nevertheless, in the vast majority of cases, they pulled themselves away from this fun activity – they paid a cost – in order to help the struggling adult.

From a recent interview (Tomasello 2021) on the foundations of human cultural capability:

When children produce sweets collaboratively they feel they should share them equally… So if you look at all the things you think are most amazing about humans – we’re building skyscrapers, we have social institutions like governments, we have linguistic symbols, we have math symbols, we have all these things – not one of them is the product of a single mind. These are things that were invented collaboratively…

To understand human creativity and collective intelligence beyond the most basic forms of collaboration, we must look beyond the experiments conducted by Michael Tomasello and his colleagues:

  • To appreciate the full range of human collaborative ability we need to integrate the influence of individual neurological variability on sensory processing and social motivations – think of the default Autistic state of mind that is captured so well in the Aut Sutra (Mirra 2020).
  • To appreciate potential constraints on human collaborative ability, we need to integrate the influence of cultural inertia and the specific cultural context at hand – which can override the innate human bias towards collaboration far beyond the naïve egalitarian social imagination of most Autists.

Bootstrapping trust

There is the saying that “It takes a village to raise a child.” The Autistic translation of this saying is “For an Autistic person it takes an extended Autistic family to feel loved and alive.” Most Autists are not born into healthy Autistic families. We have to co-create our families in our own space and time.

In many indigenous cultures children with unique qualities are recognised, are given adult mentors with similarly unique qualities, and grow up to fulfil unique roles in their local community, connected to others with unique knowledge and insights, perhaps even in other communities. If we are embedded in a safe ecology of care, we can thrive and share the pain and the joy of life.

The best environment for developing mutual trust without running the risk of psychologically damaging disappointments, and the fastest process for developing mutual trust is a commitment to de-powered collaboration in a small team context (7 +/-2 people) that is continuously monitored for cultural and psychological safety with the help of a transparent peer support process.

This approach also applies to larger groups consisting of multiple teams or households, up to human scale scale (50 to 150 people), by applying the rules for development of mutual trust to inter-team collaborations, provided that all teams internally have lived experience with de-powered collaboration.

Especially amongst traumatised people, similar results are impossible to achieve in the context of a attempting to establish mutual trust outside the context of a healthy ecology of care, focused on just one relationship and two people. A two person microcosm of traumatised people is a bit too small for the advice process to work reliably as a catalyst for the development of mutual trust.

A small team environment and a shared goal provides a context in which the advice process can act as a reliable catalyst for the emergence of mutual trust and de-powered forms of collaboration. Such an environment can be conceptualised as the atomic building block for the establishment of both peer support initiatives and self-sustaining Autistic / ND communities.

Once an adequate baseline level of mutual trust has been established across all relationships in a team, deeper levels of mutual trust tend to develop in the context of the cultural microcosm of individual relationships (two people). The self-organising process of converging towards optimal collaboration patterns towards a shared goal can be understood as a process of collaborative niche construction – over time it results in unique relationships of deep trust between people, and in unique cultural microcosms between pairs of people.

These basic insights about nurturing trustworthy de-powered relationships have increasingly been suppressed in competitive industrialised societies, and this has directly contributed to the mental health crisis that plagues industrialised societies.

A de-powered team or human scale whānau environment is the only environment in which traumatised Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people can incrementally (re)learn to extend trust to others and over time unlearn unhelpful and harmful trauma responses.

The proliferation of trauma in industrialised societies is a reflection of the scarcity of safe de-powered teams and households. The path back towards safe social environments is a bottom up approach, focused on small teams, households, and whānau – the exact opposite of the corporate controlled, competitive, and super human scale social media environments that have infiltrated human lives over the last 20 years. Small is beautiful.

Interfacing with the neuronormative world

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. There is an urgent need to catalyse Autistic collaboration and co-create healthy Neurodivergent and Autistic whānau all over the world.

“Normal” busyness as usual is slowly killing all of us. The effects of deceptive forms of communication, including intentionally misleading use of facts, are increasingly being recognised as a problem.

The sooner we unplug from the collective delusion, the fewer people will die or suffer needlessly. The outlook is not entirely bleak. As I outlined in an earlier article, some societies in South East Asia, such as Taiwan, are using digital technology to re-imagine the foundations of participatory democracy and maintain trust and collaboration between the state and the people.

If Autistic people can’t always see the depth of the “bigger picture” of the office politics around us, it does not in any way mean that we don’t see the big picture. In fact we are aware of the big picture and often we zoom in from the biggest picture right down to our immediate context and then back out again, stopping at various levels in between that are potentially relevant to our context at hand. Office politics only distract from the genuinely bigger context. Accusing Autistic people of not seeing the bigger picture perhaps illustrates the social disease that afflicts our society better than anything else.

Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration hold the potential to transform pathologically competitive and toxic teams and cultures into highly collaborative teams and larger cultural units that work together more like an organism rather than like a group of fighters in an arena.

Evolution has mastered a number of similar phase shifts in the past. Consider the evolution of multi-celled life forms. Single-celled micro-organisms have not been replaced, but they have been complemented with a mind-boggling variety of more complex multi-celled life forms. We now know that our bodies harbour of more bacteria than human cells, and the vast majority of these bacteria are in a symbiotic relationship with our human cells. Consider this masterpiece of evolution for a moment. Many billions of collaborating cells and micro-organisms form what you experience as “you”. Statistically speaking our bodies are highly collaborative ecosystems of microscopic entities.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes that small groups are the primary organisms of human societies. This should provide all of us with food for thought, and it has major implications for the gene-culture co-evolution that characterises our species.

Update (8 January 2023): I have updated the article based on the astute observations and additional relevant context surfaced in the dialogues below. This is an illustration of the central role of dialogue in nurturing shared understanding and collective learning.

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9 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for this! I am currently trying to figure out how to transform antiquated “friendship groups” into neurodivergent-affirming safe spaces for youth to find connection and meaningful relationships and self-identity. This is a lot of information for me to consider. Thank you for your efforts.

    1. Yes, in many locations it is very difficult to provide safe places for Autistic people to meet. We are catalysing a growing number of amazing online collaborations, but collaborative networks of Autistic people in the physical realm are still rare, or are not set up for long term intensive collaboration and livelihood co-creation. Too many of us are isolated. For example the wonderful small company I am part of is entirely online, we all live in different cities. There was a time when a few of us were co-located, but then economic difficulties and other constraints have forced some of us to relocate and spread out over 4 countries. In Aotearoa New Zealand we are working towards establishing a centre of Autistic culture as a stepping stone https://autcollab.org/2022/07/18/co-creating-a-centre-of-autistic-culture-in-auckland-aotearoa/, but this project is still in the conceptual stage.

      What’s also important, both online and in the physical world, is to co-create ecologies of care across all age groups, so that lived Autistic experience can be shared across generations.

  2. You make so many valuable points about the toxicity of the society we’re living in, and the distinct advantages and opportunities that autistic friendships and support circles offer us, and the ways we can meet each other’s needs. As someone who’s experienced the kind of neurodivergent mutual support circle you describe, I agree with much of what you’re saying about that.

    However, I am also the survivor of abuse in an autistic/autistic relationship. And you’ve also made some harmful claims about such situations here which I need to address, and which could have been avoided by researching the literature on emotional abuse / coercive control.

    I know abuse is a sensitive topic among autistics. There are myths about us grounded in anti-autistic ableism: that we’re inevitably abusive, and that differences in how we experience or express empathy make us monsters. We need to fight those myths. But if we are to be a healthy community we must acknowledge – without caveats – that real, intentional abuse can and does occur in autistic/autistic relationships. You state:

    “In contrast to an abusive relationship between non-Autistic people, neither of the Autists engages in lying or conscious manipulation, instead the dynamic is powered entirely by increasing levels of mutual distrust, and incorrect assumptions about the motivations and intentions of the other party, fuelled by unhelpful trauma responses.”

    To deny the existence of intentional abuse, lying and manipulation in autistic/autistic relationships reinforces the silencing and gasligting of victims already pervasive in our community, as in the mainstream of society. It is a typical aspect of emotional abuse for the abuser to have self-justifying beliefs denying their abuse. An abuser’s perception of their own behaviour is a huge part of the problem!

    To put an autistic culture-sanctioning gloss on some very common myths about abuse is unhelpful. Such myths keep victims in abuse situations, keep onlookers from offering support, and even keep some professionals – including counsellors and therapists, even the neuroaffirming ones – from recognising that abuse at all.

    It’s the height of victim blaming to attribute victims’ experiences to “unhelpful trauma responses”, and to claim, as you do here, that, “Vulnerable Autistic people have a tendency to become codependent on their abusers,” shifting responsibility and agency from abusers to their victims.

    And it’s not simply about “one or both parties lack[ing] experience with healthy Autistic relationships.” Both-sidesing generalisations don’t help, and fails to acknowledge a key point domestic abuse experts make: that there is a distinction between reactive abuse (a coping mechanism victims resort to in coercive control situations) and mutual abuse. Mutual abuse is very rare – indeed, many domestic abuse experts don’t believe it actually exists.

    Autistic people are not immune to either being influenced by or enacting the harmful power dynamics of wider society. The cisheteropatriarchy, racism and ableism contribute to abuse among us just as they do among neurotypical people, and the belief – widely held in the community – that we are somehow better than that, doesn’t help us heal or grow.

    And yes, misunderstandings and communication breakdowns can be present in our relationships, but their presence does not preclude abuse, and to write off abuse as an accumulation of misunderstandings and communication problems frequently keeps victims in dangerous situations – something I have direct experience of, because I went through it.

    And it happened while working with an excellent, neuroaffirmative therapist who simply did not recognise what abuse looked like between two autistic people. His stance of presuming good intent in autistic people, and his trust in my interpretation of my life, are vital qualities for therapists working with us to have. But a lens of understanding what emotional abuse looks like is also needed.

    I don’t want to paint an entirely negative picture of my therapy, or therapy in general: it was also the place where I learned to begin to trust my own judgment and value myself – things new to me and without which I couldn’t have left my abuser.

    And yes, trauma can be part of the picture for abusers, as well as for their victims (it was for both of us). It’s a truism in our community that trauma is endemic among us. But for that very reason, we must not permit the weaponising of trauma histories to avoid accountability for abuse.

    Emotional abuse/coercive control is already poorly understood, and autistic people who disclose that we are being abused face a double risk. First, as victims of emotional abuse, we are already likely to be misunderstood or dismissed.

    Second, research shows that while both disabled people in general and autistic people specifically experience disproportionate domestic abuse, many people – professionals included – do not recognise that abuse is taking place when the victim, perpetrator or both are autistic/disabled.

    We don’t have to identify as disabled to experience ableism as individuals. And despite our disproportionate abuse risk, in most places there are few or no tailored support services for autistic people leaving abuse and ableism puts us at risk of not being listened to.

    We encounter professionals who may or may not have had autism-specific training, and refuges that gatekeep us from their limited resources because we lack the level of independence they expect of service users. Accessible domestic abuse shelters and accessible government housing are generally in short supply.

    As we advocate to these problems, we also need to refuse to give cover to abusers in our community, and to encourage them to address their behaviour and go through a process of learning and accountability in order to avoid repeating it in the future. But to do that, we have to move beyond myths, denials and apologism.
     

    1. Many thanks for your detailed commentary and many valid observations. This is a good opportunity for improvements. Before I update the article, please review my thoughts below:

      > To deny the existence of intentional abuse, lying and manipulation in autistic/autistic relationships reinforces the silencing and gasligting of victims already pervasive in our community, as in the mainstream of society. It is a typical aspect of emotional abuse for the abuser to have self-justifying beliefs denying their abuse. An abuser’s perception of their own behaviour is a huge part of the problem!

      Good point, so let’s refine the statement you are concerned about to:

      “In contrast to an abusive relationship between non-Autistic people, in quite a number of cases neither of the Autists engages in lying or conscious manipulation. Instead the dynamic is powered entirely by increasing levels of mutual distrust, and incorrect assumptions about the motivations and intentions of the other party, fuelled by unhelpful trauma responses.”

      Many Autistic people would agree that we’re really bad at maintaining hidden agendas. The scenario that neither of two people is lying or attempting to consciously manipulate should not be discarded when you are dealing with two traumatised people. The problem is we have all been burned so often. We are hyper-vigilant, and in the absence of de-powered open dialogue, this fuels the risk of misunderstandings.

      > To put an autistic culture-sanctioning gloss on some very common myths about abuse is unhelpful. Such myths keep victims in abuse situations, keep onlookers from offering support, and even keep some professionals – including counsellors and therapists, even the neuroaffirming ones – from recognising that abuse at all.

      I agree. See below.

      > It’s the height of victim blaming to attribute victims’ experiences to “unhelpful trauma responses”, and to claim, as you do here, that, “Vulnerable Autistic people have a tendency to become codependent on their abusers,” shifting responsibility and agency from abusers to their victims.

      Let’s replace “unhelpful trauma responses” with “powered-up trauma responses, which over time can amount to abuse”. And I agree, the abuser may not recognise that their behaviour amounts to abuse.

      > And it’s not simply about “one or both parties lack[ing] experience with healthy Autistic relationships.” Both-sidesing generalisations don’t help, and fails to acknowledge a key point domestic abuse experts make: that there is a distinction between reactive abuse (a coping mechanism victims resort to in coercive control situations) and mutual abuse. Mutual abuse is very rare – indeed, many domestic abuse experts don’t believe it actually exists.

      In many cases, yes, the main abuser is clear. What I do want to point out here is the potential for reactive abuse and mutual abuse.

      > Autistic people are not immune to either being influenced by or enacting the harmful power dynamics of wider society. The cisheteropatriarchy, racism and ableism contribute to abuse among us just as they do among neurotypical people, and the belief – widely held in the community – that we are somehow better than that, doesn’t help us heal or grow.

      I concur, which is why I point out that internalised ableism (including all the implications) is the biggest problem in Autistic communities.

      > And yes, misunderstandings and communication breakdowns can be present in our relationships, but their presence does not preclude abuse, and to write off abuse as an accumulation of misunderstandings and communication problems frequently keeps victims in dangerous situations – something I have direct experience of, because I went through it.

      > And it happened while working with an excellent, neuroaffirmative therapist who simply did not recognise what abuse looked like between two autistic people. His stance of presuming good intent in autistic people, and his trust in my interpretation of my life, are vital qualities for therapists working with us to have. But a lens of understanding what emotional abuse looks like is also needed.

      Most of us have been at the receiving end of abuse far too often. I grew up with regular abuse from an Autist, and have observed abuse in domestic and work contexts – more often than not Autistic people were at the receiving end.

      After spending over 25 years of my working life getting paid for surfacing tacit knowledge, ensuring psychological safety, and establishing shared understanding across disciplines and cultures, I am also acutely aware how often misunderstandings accumulate, and how people, including Autistic people, quickly become judgemental, and thereby invoke social power dynamics that can get in the way of establishing a basis for de-powered dialogue and shared understanding.

      > I don’t want to paint an entirely negative picture of my therapy, or therapy in general: it was also the place where I learned to begin to trust my own judgment and value myself – things new to me and without which I couldn’t have left my abuser.

      Yes, learning to trust our own judgement is so important. I know many of us give others the benefit of the doubt for far too long. At the same time there are those who very quickly become judgemental. This is where different people have different trauma response profiles. I am in the former category and have learned the hard way.

      > And yes, trauma can be part of the picture for abusers, as well as for their victims (it was for both of us). It’s a truism in our community that trauma is endemic among us. But for that very reason, we must not permit the weaponising of trauma histories to avoid accountability for abuse.

      > Emotional abuse/coercive control is already poorly understood, and autistic people who disclose that we are being abused face a double risk. First, as victims of emotional abuse, we are already likely to be misunderstood or dismissed.

      > Second, research shows that while both disabled people in general and autistic people specifically experience disproportionate domestic abuse, many people – professionals included – do not recognise that abuse is taking place when the victim, perpetrator or both are autistic/disabled.

      All valid points. That’s why I consider it so important to establish a de-powered environment that is continuously monitored for psychological and cultural safety by all participants. Learning how to engage in de-powered dialogue and learning to use the advice process to nurture shared understanding is foundational, and it takes time.

      Many people have never experienced a safe environment. The concept of safety needs to be experienced to be understood. And again, this takes time. It is only from a position of lived experience that we can learn to distinguish genuinely safe environments from unsafe environments. When we come from a history of abuse, safe environments can be perceived as unsafe, and unsafe environments can be perceived as safe.

      > We don’t have to identify as disabled to experience ableism as individuals. And despite our disproportionate abuse risk, in most places there are few or no tailored support services for autistic people leaving abuse and ableism puts us at risk of not being listened to…

      > As we advocate to these problems, we also need to refuse to give cover to abusers in our community, and to encourage them to address their behaviour and go through a process of learning and accountability in order to avoid repeating it in the future. But to do that, we have to move beyond myths, denials and apologism.

      In my experience, a good way to achieve this is by allowing small groups to incrementally develop mutual trust in the way that I outline, and to make use of the tools that I reference to prevent toxic social power dynamics from emerging and spreading. In a de-powered environment it is much easier to spot problematic dynamics than in a powered-up environment that gives some people the “authority” to wield certain powers, effectively “normalising” certain forms of coercion.

  3. An example of a positive experience: https://twitter.com/greenroc/status/1611222266146328576. Another example of a group of Autists who have been collaborating intensively for many years https://autcollab.org/projects/dandenong-mechanics-institute/. And at the same time, I am aware of a current example of an alarmingly negative experience. There is no silver bullet, but there are a number of principles and tools for co-creating safe environments that have stood the test of time.

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