Image design by Quinn Dexter (Autistamatic)
Searching for the remains of human potential in industrialised societies
Before I comment on the characteristics of the institutions that operate and influence industrialised societies, I want to be clear about my background and the experiences that shape my observations.
I always work at the boundary between people and technology, and at the boundary between people in different organisations or teams, with companies of all sizes, from start-ups, to established medium size companies, through to transnational corporations with more than 100,000 employees.
Understanding people’s needs and desires within a professional social setting is a core theme in my work. Surfacing, disambiguating, and validating tacit knowledge in a culturally and psychologically safe team environment, and translating the resulting insights into enduring software platforms or tools that remain valuable for decades is a related core theme.
A focus on collaboration platforms intended for long-term use by thousands of organisations and across complex global supply chains has taught me about the many interdependencies between abstract organisations and the concrete social and ecological contexts in which organisations operate, including the many externalities created by profit motives and external investors.
I spent 12 years in the world of employment and independent contracting, in a range of transdisciplinary roles, before my body and mind told me to quit in no uncertain terms. Once I realised that for many people a large part of their work consists of voluntary and involuntary participation in competitive social games I had to quit. I started to understand why mangers loved my ability to catalyse collaboration, but why at the same time they feared my openness about risks, and my uncanny instinct for identifying and reducing spurious complexity in bureaucratic systems. I realised that our entire economic system optimises for the perception of busyness – the opposite of collaboration towards shared goals and diligent creative (re)use of scarce resources.
For over a decade one of my clients was a technology industry analysis firm, where I learned everything about the social games being played between large technology vendors, executives in client organisations (large government departments and corporations), and technology industry analysis firms. We live in a world where innovation is a carefully engineered perception that serves those in positions of social power, it has little or nothing to do with delivering value to citizens or local communities, and it usually makes our lives busier and more complicated – increasingly with a tangible negative impact on our health.
In response to the growing awareness of the existence of autistic people and the related proliferation of dangerous stereotypes and misconceptions, I’ve introduced many healthcare professionals and several cohorts of MBA students to the concept of neurodiversity and to key elements of autistic culture.
Establishing and nurturing good company over the the last two decades has taught me many lessons about the growing chasm between genuine human needs and typical workplace cultures, and about the many untrue myths that constitute the cornerstones of the institutions that operate industrialised societies.
Reclaiming humanity in our work
Global management consulting firms increasingly talk about the importance of employee wellbeing, social and cultural safety, and mental health, and yet they frame the entire discussion as a matter of leadership and management. As if employee wellbeing and inclusion is only a matter of putting the right people in power, and as if the people in designated positions with formal powers over others are somehow special and deserve more recognition and privileges than those who are not in positions of power.
Of course employees are more satisfied with their jobs in workplace where managers genuinely strive to maintain good relationships with staff, but such analyses ignore the elephant in the room:
What would happen if there were no noteworthy power and pay differentials between managers and those who are managed, and what if it turns out that with an appropriate focus on trusted based relationships at eye level, the perceived need for managers and leaders evaporates?
Decades of research and empirical evidence demonstrates that behaviourism, i.e. all forms of management based on rewards and or punishment don’t work over the medium and long term. We know that rewards and punishment only superficially and temporarily lead to perceived compliance or higher levels of performance. All forms of coercion and control, irrespective of the level of sugar coating, undermine trust and the human capacity for altruism and mutual aid.
The same firms that are advising on the importance of employee wellbeing also advise clients in the oil and gas industries. McKinsey & Co is just one example of many:
In the face of changing perspectives on fossil fuels and increasing electrification, the oil and gas industry needs to take immediate action to prepare for the years to come. One such action is increasing the share of natural gas in portfolios. Our reference case shows that gas, unlike other fossil fuels, will experience growing demand until the mid-2030s. In a 1.5-degree climate pathway scenario, natural gas will be more resilient than other fossil fuels for another five to ten years. This is primarily because natural gas is among the cleanest fossil fuels, so it will be the last to be replaced as part of the energy transition.
Most large management consulting firms propagate the belief in the god of the market – blind faith in the invisible hand, and are firmly committed to the notion of economic growth as a viable and desirable strategy for the coming decades.
Even though there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that financial growth can not be decoupled from growth in energy and resource use, management consultants hesitate to talk about post-growth economics or de-growth as essential strategies to reduce the risk or speed of runaway global heating, and to adapt to a dynamic environment that is changing at a rate that is faster than our current institutions (governments and corporations) can keep up with.
Leaders and managers within hierarchical systems of power have a strong bias towards buying advice from those who tell them what they would like to hear instead of what they would need to hear. Especially neuronormative people have a strong compulsion to feel good about themselves, and to achieve these feelings by complying with the predominant social norms within their society, rather than by critical analysis and by following their own internal moral compass. They want to be seen to be doing the right thing and being in control just slightly more than actually doing the right thing, which often involves admitting not being in control or explicitly letting go of control.
The recipe for success for management consultants lies in what I refer to as 360 degree consulting – offering cookie cutter best practice approaches to support whatever target direction the client has in mind, as needed deflecting from inconvenient externalities, to meet the immediate emotional needs and short-term career ambitions of leaders and managers.
“Normal” busyness as usual is slowly killing all of us. The sooner we unplug from the collective delusion, the fewer people will die or suffer needlessly. De-growth (a genuine reduction in unsustainable energy and resource consumption) can play out over generations, and it can be the most civilised project of mutual aid humans have ever undertaken.
“To a population that is receiving little return on the cost of supporting complexity, the loss of that complexity brings economic, and perhaps administrative, gains… Among those less specialized, severing the ties that link local groups to a regional entity is often attractive. Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe. It is a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.”
– Joseph Tainter. 1990. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press.
A shift to human scale groups reduces the spurious complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains/grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity that emerges when the human footprint is aligned with bioregional ecosystem functions.
Within established organisations the dominant paradigm of control prevents essential knowledge from flowing to the places where it can be put to good use for the entire organisation and the ecosystem within which the organisation is embedded. People are afraid of the unknown. Often busyness as usual is perpetuated not because it is recognised as helpful, but simply because it is a familiar routine.
Hierarchical systems of management and control play a prominent role in the seemingly safe routine of busyness as usual. As needed, when the flaws of the approach have become too obvious to ignore, flat hierarchies come to the rescue. Formal power structures and significant pay differentials persist, but open communication and collaboration across layers and between silos is no longer actively discouraged or penalised.
Beyond fear of change, open or hidden xenophobia (racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, ageism, …) is another common manifestation of the fear of the unknown. It is hard to underestimate the prevalence of xenophobia, especially when it it hidden, or perceived as common sense by a particular culture, often even enshrined in local laws. Xenophobia is best illustrated in terms of concrete examples:
Recently seven professors from the University of Auckland published a letter in The Listener that dismissed mātauranga Māori as “falling far short of what can be defined as science”. Encouragingly the letter generated significant backlash, and one of the academics, Professor of Psychology Douglas Elliffe, has stepped down from his role as acting dean of the faculty at the University of Auckland.
One could think that at last systemic racism is no longer tolerated by the majority of the public, but the underlying xenophobia has multiple dimensions, and is neither limited to racism nor to just seven bad apples.
Douglas Elliffe has built his career on the pseudoscience of behaviourism. The connection to behaviourism and Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) in relation to autistic children becomes obvious in Doug Elliffe’s research profile and publication record. An abstract from one of his papers:
The differential outcomes procedure uses reinforcement unique to each alternative in a conditional discrimination, leading to faster and more accurate learning relative to non-differential outcomes procedures. In this study, the differential outcomes procedure was used to teach novel tacts of musical instrument sounds to children with autism. For one set of instruments, response-specific reinforcers were used in combination with social reinforcement. For the other set, reinforcers were provided non-differentially. Two out of three participants showed enhanced learning in the differential outcomes condition, providing some support of the differential outcomes procedures as a useful tool for teaching individuals with autism. Future research into the differential outcomes effect is warranted to identify the procedural and individual factors that predict its effectiveness.
The problem of xenophobia is not limited to specific individuals, it is systemic. The University of Auckland actively promotes the pseudoscience of Applied Behaviour Analysis as follows:
Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a scientific approach to understanding and changing human behaviour. It has applications with a wide variety of client groups including those with intellectual and other disabilities, autism spectrum, childhood onset behavioural disorders, and people in brain injury rehabilitation and dementia care. Behaviour principles provide a strong basis for the analysis of complex human repertoires including language and social behaviour.
Successful completion of the programme will also make a graduate eligible to apply to the New Zealand Psychologists Board to be a registered psychologist and work as a practising psychologist in New Zealand.
The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB http://www.bacb.com) administers the international professional certification process for behaviour analysts. Our programme is a BACB-approved course sequence that will equip you with the coursework and supervised hours needed to become board-certified. Graduates of our three-year programme are eligible to take the BACB examination for Board Certified Behavior Analysts. Our graduates have achieved a 100% pass rate at this examination over the programme’s history.
To some extent the government is now stepping in and committed to banning the behaviourist practice of conversion therapy, but so far without acknowledging the use cases highlighted above.
Few people outside the autistic community know that conversion therapies were invented to “normalise” autistic children before being extended to children with “abnormal” gender identity or gender expression. Culturally accepted xenophobia can make researchers blind to fundamentally flawed research design and inadequate evidence.
The tone of the advertisement from the University of Auckland above can only be properly understood via the mind set that propels the growing multi-billion-dollar global autism industrial complex. Here is a taste of how ABA practitioners think about their “market” in the US:
For more evidence on how ABA practitioners think about autistic people and autistic culture:
I listened to the first part earlier this year, and that was more than enough for me.
Appreciating autistic culture
Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.
Society must start to move beyond awareness and acceptance towards appreciation of cognitive diversity. On the one hand a shared culture can streamline collaboration, but on the other hand, the more open and diverse a culture, the more friendly it is towards minorities and outsiders.
It is very easy for groups of people and institutions to become preoccupied with specific cultural rituals and so-called cultural fit, whereas what matters most for collaboration and deep innovation is the appreciation of diversity and the development of mutual trust. This is obvious to many autistic people, but only very recently has cognitive diversity started to become recognised as genuinely valuable beyond the autistic community.
Inclusive culture is minimalistic. In contrast, relying on the social transmission of hundreds of unspoken rules via osmosis is not only distinctly unfriendly from an autistic perspective – it also stands in the way of collaboration across cultural and organisational boundaries at all levels of scale.
There is huge variety in the ways autistic people communicate using words, both spoken and written. This is the verbal spectrum.
Often those who can not speak remain the most misunderstood and the most misrepresented.
CommunicationFIRST, ASAN, and AASR have created a toolkit for people who want to learn more about nonspeaking autistic people, methods of communication other than speech, disability representation in media, autistic meltdowns, trauma-informed care for autistic people, restraint and seclusion and their alternatives, and how to best support nonspeaking autistic people and survivors of restraint and seclusion.
It is precisely because autists have to spend conscious effort on understanding each individual that we are well equipped to act as a catalyst and translator between very different cultures.
The catch is that this unique capability only becomes apparent if the cultures in question are open to potential collaboration with the rest of the world, and are not learning disabled by in-group competition and fear of the unknown.
One of the persistent negative stereotypes is that we are poor at collaboration. Often the exact opposite is the case. Collaboration can take many forms, and different people have different needs and preferences. Autistic people learn and play differently. We communicate and enjoy ourselves by sharing information and knowledge, and not by negotiating social status.
Non-autistic people seem ill equipped to recognise how all the little exaggerations they use on a regular basis, such as “you look great” (when you look and feel sick), and small deceptions such as “sorry, I have an important meeting to attend to” (when someone prefers not to help you and hoards information for personal advantage) or “I helped develop a great product” (when the person was not involved and only got to know the finished product and never contributed any feedback to the development team) over time add up to a non-collaborative and potentially toxic culture.
Autistic forms of communication within a neurodiverse team and within a psychologically safe environment actually impart a collaborative advantage to the entire team, to organisations, and to society as a whole.
It is not a coincidence that Greta Thunberg and many well known climate activists are autistic, it is not a coincidence that the unConference on Interdisciplinary Innovation and Collaboration regularly attracted autistic people, and it is not a coincidence that the services around cultural and psychological safety co-designed by the Autistic Collaboration Trust, and operated and sponsored by S23M in collaboration with the Design Justice Network, have their origins in the autistic community – and that these services are beneficial for members of any marginalised group, culture, or community.
The antidote to xenophobia is genuine appreciation of diversity, and genuine appreciation of the value of interdependence.
Engaging with autistic culture
Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and embodied minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.
Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga o Aotearoa offers education about autistic culture from a first hand perspective and it provides a safe environment where parents, educators, and employers can connect with autistic parents and the wider autistic community. The autists who are curating and jointly developing the educational material and services featured on Te Hapori Whai Takiwātanga are involved in the neurodiversity movement. Most of us are parents – we make autism education and support accessible for all in Aotearoa New Zealand through lived experiences and practical advice.
➜ For parents. Rather than therapies to “reduce autistic behaviours”, autistic children need to be supported in the full development of their unique autistic potential, and need to be encouraged to follow their intrinsic motivations to explore the world.
➜ For educators. All children thrive when education and parenting nurtures and supports the children’s intrinsic motivations and sensory needs rather than focuses on obedience.
➜ For employers. We all thrive when being given the opportunity to work with our most trusted peers. In a 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.
➜ For autists. Elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide apply across the entire autism kaleidoscope. These co-morbid conditions are a reflection of experiences made in the social environment rather than a reflection of autism specific neurology.