The objectives of the Autistic and neurodiversity civil rights movements overlap significantly with the struggles of indigenous peoples. All people are fully human. Especially those who are systematically marginalised have developed distinct cultures and ecologies of care beyond the human. Much of the deep collective ecological wisdom and the sacred relationships that we can develop at human scale transcend the explanatory powers of the narrow silos of modern scientific disciplines.
Diagnosis of cultural disease
“When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
The diagnosis, from three different perspectives:
- From a scientific perspective by Prof Kevin Anderson
- From an indigenous perspective by Dr Yuria Celidwen
- From an Autistic perspective
Before continue reading, take the time to listen to these three perspectives, and then take the time to reflect on the origin of your cultural identity, the depth of your cultural programming, the level of cognitive dissonance in your life, and the way in which your trauma responses shape your daily routines and your world view.
The monocultural problems that plaque most if not all modern institutions:
- Performance oriented culture: systematic devaluation of genuine creativity, plus punishment by rewards for social compliance and mediocrity.
- Design as a discipline: in-group competition and ego, fuelled by the coercive pressure to “perform” by the toxic wider culture. The world needs fewer professional designers and more indigenous and intersectional facilitators.
- Large – super human – scale groups: the shift from education and deep reflection to nurture domain-specific and bioregional wisdom, including acknowledgement of the limits of understanding, towards convenience, replication, and obedience training, and the devaluation of ecological thinking and understanding.
I fully agree with Yuria Celidwen’s observation that scientific understanding needs to serve as the floor, and not as the ceiling of our ecological understanding of the world. Much of the deep collective ecological wisdom and the sacred relationships that we can develop at human scale transcend the explanatory powers of the narrow silos of modern scientific disciplines.
Neurodiversity is part of the biodiversity of all animals with nervous systems. It is not limited to humans, and it is part of the biological diversity that enables species to survive, adapt, evolve, and thrive, even in changing environmental conditions.
500 years of European colonialism have “normalised” the use of arbitrary and culturally biased metrics to distinguish between socially acceptable / superior and unacceptable / inferior ways of being.
The European myth of cultural superiority and the WEIRDT myth of technological progress are both products of capitalism, connected by the underlying delusional myth of the invisible hand, which cult-ivates individualism, the quantification of all lived experiences, and the substitutability (fungibility) of everything that makes life worthwhile. Sacred relationships are liquidated. Mutual trust is obliterated.
Today the social unacceptability of Autistic ways of being is enshrined in discriminatory laws, dehumanising pathologising language, continued use of traumatising “normalisation” therapies, ruthless economic exploitation of those who are considered “useful”, and further profit extraction from the traumatised who are no longer considered “useful”.
The Western medical model is the product of the fiction of the one “normal” way of being human that is a necessary precondition for capitalism and industrialisation. It ignores the existence of Autistic culture. Mutual aid and respect for individual communication preferences are essential aspects of Autistic culture and multi-generational Autistic whānau.
Through the pathologising lens of the medical model, Autistic people are perceived as defective individuals, as lacking in essential human qualities. They are not fully human. The “usefulness” of Autistic people is ranked in terms of “functioning levels”. Those who openly identify as Autistic experience the Autistic discount factor. Whatever an Autist says is being discounted – it needs to be be independently verified, ideally by a scientific experiment, before it can be believed. Scientists have to “prove” that Autistic people are capable of empathy. Many immigration laws discriminate against Autistic people, in several countries Autistic people are disallowed from being sperm donors, in at least one country Autistic people now require a certificate from a GP to attest that they are capable of safely driving a car etc. These are just a few examples of how modern “civilised” societies treat Autistic people.
We need systemic change. We are all in this together.
The many similarities between the ways in which Autistic people are dehumanised and the ways in which indigenous people are dehumanised are not accidental, they are part of the current manifestation of neo-colonialism.
The “problem” with Autistic ways of being is the reduced capacity for maintaining cognitive dissonance on an ongoing basis, in combination with heightened baseline sensitivities to various sensory inputs – plus additional sensitivities due to the trauma inflicted by culturally “well adjusted” parents, educators, clinicians, employers, and colleagues. We react to the cruelty, the sensory overload, and the trauma of neo-colonialism in similar ways as indigenous people.
“History tells us that governments, over the past 184 years, have continued to breach the Treaty. They will do it again going forward. They are preparing to do it again right now. We don’t want to prolong the agony, but we will not stand aside and be the subject of the agony.”
– Waihoroi Shortland, Waitangi, 8 December 2023
We are not stupid, and we are not going away. Neoliberalism has led to the perfection of the art of perception management. This explains why the world is awash in corporate and government Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, and why these initiatives consistently fail to deliver on their promises. In the same way that banks have effectively written the legislation that is supposed to “regulate” them, associations of employers have affectively written the rules for DEI initiatives, allowing for performative gestures to tick all the boxes.
All people are fully human, including indigenous people, Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people. We have developed distinct cultures and ecologies of care beyond the human. We are all part of the big circle of life that includes all living beings.
It is hard to overestimate the level of paradigmatic inertia that perpetuates the neoliberal cult of busyness. There is no linear “path” forward. There are no easy 10 “best practices” to follow. There is no theory of change that guarantees “success”. Everything depends on context. Your context is unique.
Before doing anything, it it worthwhile to slow down and acknowledge our human limitations in the face of the complexity of our predicament through multiple lenses:
The political lens
Transformational change can only emanate from indigenous cultures, from systemically marginalised and sometimes criminalised groups, and from pathologised neurodivergent people. Aiming for real change is scary, it takes courage. There is no straightforward solution.
The anthropological lens
Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society. This would have been obvious in pre-civilised societies, but it has become non-obvious in “civilised” societies. To retain their sanity, Autistic people consistently work against in-group competition, and they often suffer the consequences for doing so. Autistic people within human societies counteract what Steve Silberman has fittingly described as the “truth dysfunction” in non-autistic people. Humour plays an important role for navigating the difficult path ahead.
The communication & linguistic lens
The smallest unit of learning is a feedback loop. Power is the privilege of not needing to learn. The dynamic process of life is best understood in relational terms. At human scale, all healthy relationships, independently of the level of intimacy, are characterised by the maintenance of de-powered dialogue – by a mutual deep desire to understand a precious living being. Understanding the possibilities of other ways of knowing, sensing and being can usher in life-centric models.
Cultural change can only be transformative if it substantially redefines social norms and so-called best practice, and for this we need appropriate conceptual tools, including therapies that help tackle the modern addictions to social power and convenience, to overcome cultural blind spots and expand the sphere of discourse. Many indigenous grandmothers have understood the essence of being human all along, without needing to resort to modern science and modern social theories: “Leave us alone, we know what we’re doing.”
Giving up control
If there is no “solution” to the human predicament. One thing we can do is to appreciate the time we have with each other, and adapt our values accordingly.
- Egalitarian culture: including a deep appreciation for nuance and diversity.
- Perfectionism tempered by co-piloting: including perseverance tempered by mutual aid, resulting in evolutionary approach to design; the design professional is replaced by knowledge archaeology and creative collaboration in Open Space.
- Embracing the limitations of human scale: rejecting all forms of anthropocentrism and anthropocentric hubris, and establishing ecologies of care beyond the human.
Giving up all ambitions of super-human scale control and instead trusting the emergent collective wisdom at human scale is the philosophy of evolutionary design, and the understanding of life in terms of ecologies of care.
If we freely share our gifts within a human scale ecology of care, we can experience of the joy of struggling together within the big cycle of life, and we don’t need to search for an elusive universal “solution” to the human predicament.
AutCollab Education courses are based on Autistic lived experiences and on our intersectional participatory research, very different from education about neurodiversity in the language of the pathology paradigm, which mainly frames neurodivergent people from an external perspective, in terms of deficits relative to the current neuronormative culture, perhaps with a few special splinter skills thrown in for Feel Good Effect.
The objectives of the Autistic and neurodiversity civil rights movements overlap significantly with the struggles of indigenous peoples. We can either fully embrace the inevitable cultural evolution that has been triggered by the sixth mass existing event, i.e. by suicidal anthropocentrism, or it will be imposed on us by the forces far beyond human control that we have unleashed.