The timeless and universal architecture of safety

Picture by Ulku Mazlum

It is wise to ignore discipline boundaries when engaging in knowledge archaeology. Many of the observations resulting from a transdisciplinary or anti-disciplinary approach don’t neatly fit with the siloed W.E.I.R.D. ways of knowing.

Old rock paintings and diagrammatic representations illustrate how important knowledge can be transmitted reliably in otherwise largely oral human scale cultures over tens of thousands of years. The diverse cultures that evolved in Australia illustrate not only human adaptability but also how the seemingly impossible survival in extreme ecosystems becomes possible at human scale. Through the self-serving distorted lens of European cultures of course, written language is a fairly recent “invention”, and the only “proper” written language is one with a linear syntax.

Human primates

In some ways, from a biological perspective, specifically how we cope with stress, it is helpful to think of humans as primates, but in other ways, related to the extent of the human capacity for culture, this is only one small aspect of what makes us human.

This interview with biologist Robert Sapolsky on the commonalities and differences between other primates and humans contains three valuable insights:

  1. Our internal experience and external behaviour is shaped by a mind-boggling number of factors.
  2. A large number of biological and neurological factors interact in complex ways that are impossible to disentangle.
  3. Free will is likely an illusion created by our brains and minds, i.e. it is a learning tool that motivates us to make good use of all our experiences when making important decisions.

Please note that I find the the biological machine metaphor invoked by Robert Sapolsky to be unhelpful. A complex biological or ecological system metaphor would be much more appropriate. Complex environments are inherently unpredictable, and the illusion of predictability and determinism associated with the machine metaphor is rather dangerous. Neither neuronormative people nor Autistic people are mechanical robots.

Perhaps the notion of a lack of free will in the absence of determinism – because biological and ecological systems are complex, is even less palatable and even more scary for “civilised” people, whose entire identity and self-worth is built around the idea of “being in control” and “wielding power” over others and the environment.


The three observations above invalidate many assumptions that are baked into industrialised “civilisation”, and they point us to important truths about humans:

  • We can acknowledge that most of the time most people are probably trying their very best under the given circumstances.
  • We can acknowledge the huge role that culture plays in shaping neuronormative human collective and individual behaviour.
  • We can acknowledge the unavoidable, insane, and ultimately existential risks that come with all super-human scale cultures, the complexity of which far exceeds our ability to comprehend.
  • We can acknowledge the inevitable struggles that emerge along the path of rediscovering collaborative niche construction at human scale, i.e. we need to (re)learn to focus on human scale, and learn to ignore the many super-human scale distractions created by industrialised “civilisation”.
  • We also can also acknowledge the huge role that differences in sensory experiences and sensory overload play in shaping Autistic human individual behaviour.
  • We can focus on compassion and mutual aid instead of perceiving the people around us as competitors.
  • We can start celebrating diversity within groups and between groups as essential ingredients for maintaining peaceful de-powered relationships between people and between groups.
  • We can refrain from hating other cultures simply because they are unfamiliar or seem scary from the outside.

Given the lack of free will, and recognising the complexity of human life, blaming people for “their” behaviour is pointless. In particular labelling a person and attributing blame to one party in a strained relationship is counter-productive.

Furthermore, issuing pathologising labels to both parties in a strained relationship is also counter-productive. It detracts from all the factors that may make a particular situation unique, which hold the key for leaving behind old patterns; and pathologising labelling risks people getting stuck in a preconceived pattern and in hopelessness, i.e. that things can’t and will never change.

Labels can be helpful only insofar as they are framed in a non pathologising way, to assist with pattern recognition, with learning from and with each other, and with stepping out of unhelpful patterns onto new terrain, which can be explored as needed with the help of appropriate peer support.

Cultural evolution at human scale

Humans have a biological need for the kind of long-term trustworthy and dynamically evolving relationships that are only possible within a stable ecology of collaborating human scale groups, i.e. each group may be collaborating with between two and five other groups, with each group consisting of between 20 and 150 people who live together in several smaller household units.

In atomised and hypernormative industrialised societies, beyond the toxic social power dynamics that plague all “civilisations” with powered-up structures of control, the human scale social safety nets of neurodivergent people have been systematically destroyed.

We can take comfort in what we can glean from pre-civilised small scale societies in terms of anthropological and archaeological evidence. At human scale, in de-powered social environments, individuals can rely on long-term trustworthy relationships at three levels: within a household, within a group, and via kinship and friend relationships with people from other small groups. Thus, in case a particular relationship turns ugly and becomes traumatic beyond repair-ability, as a result of any number of potential reasons, there is always the ability to create safe boundaries by retreating to a place of safety in another household or group.

Elinor Ostrom’s pioneering field research frames universally observable patterns for coordinating life at human scale in terms of 8 prosocial design principles.

If we combine lessons about cultural evolution and lessons about human stress responses, we can harness the ability for culture to override latent primate behaviours.

Humans excel at collaborative niche construction as long as we stay within the safe limits of human scale, and as long as we prioritise cultural norms that de-power our relationships, and norms that prevent us from attempting to influence social environments beyond the limits of human scale.

In healthy de-powered human scale societies humans feel safe, they know each other, they trust each other, and they are equipped with social norms that clamp down on in-group competition.

Fears of inherently unpredictable environments can only escalate in unsafe social environments, i.e. environments that are devoid of mutual trust.

Risks of (a) suicidal collective delusions – magical thinking amplified by unwarranted trust in people or human technologies and (b) deadly wars – triggered by myths of cultural superiority and by “normalised” social power gradients, can only escalate in the presence of super-human scale institutions of coercive power and control. Powered-up institutions of control prevent the free flow of knowledge and the dynamic reconfiguration of the social safety net between people.

Feeling safe

The timeless universal architecture of cultural and psychological safety boils down to awareness of the limits of human scale, and to de-powering all our relationships. In a de-powered human scale environment:

  • We can be optimistic about our ability to learn and heal from trauma.
  • The essential role that safety and mutual trust plays in collaborative niche construction becomes obvious.
  • The level of collective intelligence and adaptive behaviour is optimised, there is no impedance mismatch between group size and our cognitive limits.
  • The local complexity that emerges and that we can comfortably deal with keeps our minds stimulated and makes us feel fully alive.
  • Our social environment consists of multiple autonomous household units with strict boundaries.
  • As needed, reconfiguration of relationships within and between households allows us to maintain an environment that offers safety and protection from harm for all members of a group.
  • We regularly collaborate with a small number of people from other human scale groups, some of which may have significantly different cultures.
  • We cultivate non-violent conflict resolution protocols for group members, and everyone is familiar with these protocols.
  • We cultivate non-violent conflict resolution protocols for engagements with people from other groups / cultures.
  • We cultivate protocols for incrementally developing trust and appropriate boundaries when encountering unfamiliar groups / cultures.

Furthermore, in such comprehensible (human scale) social environments, de-powered communication and collaboration is the norm, and it becomes very easy to identify significant deviations from these norms, i.e. persistent attempts of one person or a small group of attempting to wield power over others. In such environments the essential cultural role of hypersensitive Autistic people becomes obvious for everyone, and the industrialised separation between “work” and “life” can be seen for what it is: a divide and conquer strategy that is designed to perpetuate our dependence on toxic institutions of oppression.

Autistic people and other traumatised people should be free to imagine and realise a world where we don’t have to leave behind everything we value in life to go to “work”, only to perpetuate the sanctified institutional bullshit that is killing the entire living planet.


How safe do you feel?

The voice of Autistic data is loud and clear. The neuronormative society that surrounds us does not allow us to feel safe. Our research aggregates data from Autistic people from all over the world.

Frequency of negative feelings

The biggest sources of Autistic fears

You can contribute to ➜ this entirely anonymous survey to help us better understand the experienced level of cultural and psychological safety of people all around the world, including the experiential differences between neurodivergent and neuronormative people. Your contribution is much appreciated.

As always, this survey is a collaborative Autistic community initiative, and all suggestions for improving the survey are welcome.

Some of the answers we are getting from Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people regarding the level of safety experienced in healthcare settings:

What are the most important things you wish healthcare professionals to know, respect, and do, when engaging with you?

  1. I’m at least as smart as they are. I know myself extremely well. I also understand their jargon.
  2. That I am telling the truth about the gravity of my difficulties and that these difficulties do not make me lesser. That I am their equal as a human being.
  3. I wish they would listen without judgement. I wish they would take on what we say we believe about our bodies and ourselves. I wish that they would have more education and information on how Autism and ADHD present in women.
  4. I like to ask lots of questions but it’s just so I can understand the rules they are setting for me and my care. Once I understand, I am a good rule follower; I’m not being difficult or oppositional.
  5. Understand that when I offer a large amount of information on what I’ve come to discuss, it isn’t an obsession, it’s that I like to be informed and prepared. When I ask about a specific diagnosis, it’s because I have spent a good amount of time researching the possibilities before I even dared bring it up.
  6. Support includes flexibility, inclusivity, accommodations, and knowledge. It’s not enough to go “ok, cool” or “I support you” and go on as if nothing’s changed after a client or patient has told the provider that they’re queer, neurodivergent, or belong to another marginalized group that may require cultural understanding or accommodations in order for them to receive compassionate, effective treatment. Being an ally isn’t just about not being a jerk, it’s also about being active in creating inclusive and safe spaces for marginalized people.
  7. My experiences are different than neurotypicals. Take me seriously. Learn about Autistics from Autistics Throw away your DSM understandings as they are steeped in outdated understandings of Autistic Ways of Being.
  8. Recognising my own diagnosis, confirmed in part by their peers.
  9. Being aware of the support that doesn’t usually work with autistic people, such as psychotherapy, behavioural therapy – including ABA, conversion therapy, electric shock therapy.
  10. Not dismissing my ongoing need for antidepressants to live. Not having lost ten years in the system because of a wrong diagnosis. Supporting me as a child, it was obvious I was different. Supporting me as a child, even if my parents don’t have a A-level. Having supported me as a child, and tried to understand what was going on, when I had to pass again three years of school. Not judging me unfit like eugenicists. Because this is mainstream in the healthcare system.

Have you had any traumatising experiences in healthcare settings that no one should ever experience? Please outline.

  1. Yes, locked up in a psych ward and isolation room when I was 19. I’m 38 now. I avoid thinking about it most of the time.
  2. I was in a car crash and got 5 staples in my scalp for a wound. The scar has healed badly, I suffer pain with it and it’s swollen. I can feel my heart beat through it and its sensitive. It is visible when you look for it. One doctor reported that there is no evidence of any scar. I lost my father in the crash I mentioned. I was in public health system in Ireland for psychiatric and psychology out patient care and they told me that 9 months is the grieving period and that he lost his father and was over it in a matter of weeks.
  3. I told a Dr I was diagnosed Autistic and suspected ADHD and she told me I couldn’t be Autistic because I had good empathy and made good eye contact.
  4. Discrimination due to being transgender. After weeks of looking for a specialist, finding one, and booking in an appointment, that appointment was cancelled the moment the specialist learnt that I was transgender.
  5. I had a pediatrician growing up who did a pelvic exam on me every time she saw me and was never willing to explain why. One of my PCPs (as an adult) waited until I was in the middle of a endometrial biopsy (already very triggering from previous trauma, and painful, too) to apologize for misgendering me throughout the entire procedure. Other PCPs have tried to force speculums in me that were too large and one MA warned them that they might not have another option because “we don’t normally stock the smaller ones”. A nurse practitioner intentionally misdiagnosed me with bipolar disorder to coerce me into taking meds she knew I would refuse without a diagnosis. A therapist I saw temporarily started ranting about how modern feminism is tricking girls into believing they’re men after I (a trans man) asked her to use my proper pronouns.
  6. – Concerns being dismissed
    – Rushed through appointments
    – Not receiving accommodation letter to work from home despite being in burnout
  7. I was having a cardiac cauterisation, i.e. without anaesthetic or painkillers, and the radiologist came to yell at me because it had been reported that I didn’t agree with the way he presented the imaging method.
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12 Responses

  1. Trustworthy relationships ?? Safety ??
    The entire ethical genuineness of writing anything on these, is conditional on your Autistic Collaboration site’s peer support list, by automatic right, listing the Edinburgh group ELAS that has a model very strong ethic against personal rejection, and not only listing a later-formed rival Edinburgh group that does not share this model at all.

    1. This website and also the Autistic Collaboration community at strives to catalyse international and regional solidarity across the neurodiversity movement. The index of Autistic peer support services that we maintain at includes organisations that are aligned with the neurodiversity movement. We will be happy to include ELAS ( as soon as the ELAS website avoids making misleading generic statements about Autistic organisations and the neurodiversity movement such as:

      “ELAS Equality Policy constitutes us with a very strong ethic of inclusion and against arbitrary exclusion, the abuse and trauma that can be expected in the militant autistic groups run by arbitrary leaders and jumping on folks for using an ever more ridiculously growing list of forbidden words. ELAS’s inclusion safety aligns us against that militant trend in the autistic scene, and for defence of a fair emotionally safer community.”

      We collaborate with many Autistic organisations and Autistic rights activists worldwide, regardless of their specific preferences in language, as long as (a) there is an overall alignment with the objective of depathologising neurodivergence and Autistic ways of being, (b) other Autistic organisations are not framed as “militant autistic groups run by arbitrary leaders” and (c) as long as the language of the neurodiversity movement is not dismissed as a “militant trend in the autistic scene”.

      1. So you had an objection to us, but have never told us it until now, though the question has been there for 4 months. Stuck on how that was going to fix it?

        By our ethical duty to emotional safety and reliable support, and against suicidality, it would be illegal and dishonest if we ignored and pretended is not happening, the trauma of rejecting and purging, the frightening away from our scene by groupthink quick anger, that many folks have described in Neuroclastic’s fb space and found support there against. That Neuroclastic continues to support them and never lets itself get bullied into turning against them, is key to its ethical basis for its law projects against ABA. Same duty for us.

        So: what words do you suggest we use? instead of the words that offend you? It’s always more logical to ask what the acceptable wordings are, than to try to guess them.

        What should we call, instead of a “militant trend”, instant purgings cancellings or bannings of folks for using wrong words, when they faced inconsistency over what words are deemed wrong or they were not up to date with the latest out words ?. What should we call, instead of “arbitrary leaders”, folks who can run groups by personal fiat not votes, who will personally dictate the group’s views and will reject and ban folks by fiat ? I have seen several cases. What instead of “militant groups”, should we call the abuse crime of groups who, against support honesty and suicidality, choose to retain a power of arbitrary exclusion, or of throwing out just by group feel ?

        The only definition of a “neurodiversity movement” online is to be opposed to pushing cures for autism. ELAS is that. The definition derives from the 1990s, long predating present language politics, so is not tied to any “language of the neurodiversity movement” – by what inclusive process was such a set of language ever agreed to exist, who by, and on what democratic authority ?

        1. I don’t know exactly which groups you refer to. It is counter-productive to overstate the level of conflict between Autistic communities. Would you be open to adapt the words on your website to something like the following?

          “ELAS Equality Policy constitutes us with a very strong ethic of inclusion and against arbitrary exclusion, the abuse and trauma that can be expected in some autistic groups run by arbitrary leaders and jumping on folks for using an ever more ridiculously growing list of forbidden words. ELAS’s inclusion safety aligns us against harmful conflicts in the autistic scene, and for defence of a fair emotionally safer community.”

          The change would be minimal, the intent remains clear, but the modified paragraph no longer contains a claim about a trend towards growing levels of conflict. Then I would see no problem in listing ELAS along other collaborative Autistic organisations that offer peer support.

  2. The level of ignorance, stigma, and open hostility that Autistic people and Autistic healthcare professionals regularly have to deal with is traumatising. In terms of safety, many Autistic people have a strong preference to engage with Autistic or at least otherwise neurodivergent clinicians. Encouragingly, committed allies of the neurodiversity movement, such as Dr. Zoe Raos (Te Āti Awa), a gastroenterologist in Waitematā, Tāmaki Makaurau, are starting to speak up about the lack of cultural and psychological safety for Autistic patients and colleagues. For more data points and qualitative feedback on the experienced level of safety by Autistic people, you can take a look at

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