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  • Quinn Dexter

One Small Step for Autism...

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

Autism & Evolution - a Perspective

"One small step for (a) man - One giant leap for Mankind" - the famous words of Neil Armstrong as he first stepped off the ladder of Apollo 11 to set foot on the Moon 50 years ago.

That was shortly before I was born into this world as an autistic person and in the intervening years autism has gone from a rarity, only understood by a select number of professionals, to a reality experienced and discussed by millions. Autism is no more common now than it was when Neil, Buzz Aldrin & Michael Collins travelled to the Moon using technology that would make a bog standard cellphone look like a super-computer in comparison. Just as Moore's law has been demonstrated in the exponential growth of technology since 1969, expanding understanding of neurology & psychology,  the presence of the internet, improvements in education and the communities that have grown have also significantly increased our understanding of autism. We now know that somewhere between 1 in 50 to 1 in 30 people are on the autistic spectrum.

The spectrum was only formally adopted as part of a medical diagnosis in the mid 1990s, meaning that almost all those people diagnosed with Asperger's, HFA & ASD/ASC received those diagnoses in the last 25 years. There are still people in their 60s & 70s receiving diagnoses now. The oldest I have come across was in their mid 80s. With such a huge backlog of late diagnoses, not to mention those never-diagnosed, the numbers may well appear to increase further in years to come.

Whilst autistic people have grown used to being marginalised, both before and after their diagnosis, there are some who argue that not only is that unfair, but that we have distinct advantages over the neurotypical majority.

"Autism is the next step in human evolution" they are oft heard to say. "We have skills that better suit the technological, metropolitan age - our time is upon us" they proudly declare. Whilst I appreciate their enthusiasm and their desire to reclaim their autistic identity from the highly pathologised establishment view, they miss the point about how evolution works at it's most visceral core. Survival of the fittest. Eat or be eaten. Hunt or be hunted. Hide & survive or become sabre-tooth chow.

Since human evolution takes tens of thousands of years for significant changes to take hold, it's clear that "Homo Autisticus" has been around for a long time, which means there must have been distinct survival advantages to being autistic in primitive societies. We held value which led us to be protected by our tribal fellows, or maybe even  it was us who provided some of the protection? What might those advantages have been, and how did they become less valued in modern societies?

For a moment, let's speculate on how life as an autistic person might have looked in a primitive human environment.

Our autistic Homo Sapiens, let's call him Homer, is living in a small tribe of a few families - about 20-30 people, in a settlement in mid Europe around 45,000 years ago. Homo Neanderthalenisis is still around though their numbers are declining. Homer is much like any other autistic of today. He doesn't fit in terribly well and doesn't understand all the communication signals from his fellow tribesmen. It makes him feel left out at times, especially when it comes to the spoils of the hunt. He doesn't understand how to be at the front of the queue for the best meat and is undernourished compared to the other tribesmen.

Tonight is one of those nights. In the dying light, Homer is sat on a hillock at the edge of their settlement eating his meagre scraps whilst the others snooze away on full bellies. He finds it difficult to be around the noises and the strong smells of people so he frequently hovers at the periphery of the camp when it's warm enough. Tonight is a little different though. As he gazes up at the moon wondering how and why it changes shape and brightness every night, he hears a sound. It's not a sound he's used to. He knows the sounds of many of the predators his people fear so he pricks up his ears and looks around him. The sound is oddly familiar as he peers into the shadows. Then a shadow moves slightly, followed by another... 

Homer hops back to the sleeping bodies and rouses his brother from his deep slumber then drags him over to the hillock, gesturing and pointing to where he saw the moving shadows. His brother looks at him quizzically - he can't see anything. Homer cups his hands to his ears and indicates for his brother to do the same. They both listen for a moment and Homer gestures to ask - do you hear it? His brother shakes his head and turns to walk away only to be grabbed by Homer who turns him around and gestures frantically in the direction of the moving shadows again.

Homer holds out his hand with four fingers down making walking movements whilst shaking his head. He points to the distance then starts making two fingered walking movements and gesturing back towards the tribe. This isn't animals - there are people coming!

Homer's hypersensitive hearing enabled him to distinguish distant human voices from animal sounds. His pattern and detail recognition enabled him to spot the tiny changes in distant shadows. He realised the shadows were the wrong shape to be four-legged animals and that it had to be people heading their way. He and his tribe were warned of potential danger and it saved them from being ambushed by a rival tribe. His autistic traits ensured his and his family's survival.

It's winter now and the tribe is getting hungry. The snows have covered much of the plant life - their stocks of sun dried fruit and meat have all but been exhausted and most prey animals are in hibernation or have migrated to warmer climes.

Homer - never the best fed of them is perhaps hungriest of all. In desperation he suggests that they hunt, but he is dismissed. There is nothing to hunt - better to stay warm and hope to survive until the Spring thaw. But what about the tuskers? Homer suggests - the mammoth - just one of them might last the whole tribe until Spring. NO he is told - they are too big, too fierce. It has never been done - it CANNOT be done.

Homer skulks off to the back of the cave despondent and hungry. How are they going to eat? They cannot survive unless Spring comes quickly, but the ice is thicker this year than last year, the snow is deeper. He sleeps, not knowing if he will wake up.

The next morning he feels agitated. There must be something they can do to feed themselves but short of the impossible - killing a mammoth - they will starve. He walks to the edge of their cave home and looks out at the snowy hills, the frozen river, the nearby ravine...

He bites his lip and frowns... The ravine... he turns and looks at the fire, then back out at the landscape, then suddenly leaps up excitedly. Jumping and skipping he runs back to the others and loudly calls them together. He grabs a stone axe-head and grinds it into the floor in two lines digging a shallow, tapering trench, piling the earth to either side. He indicates to the others - this represents the ravine. Next he takes a palm sized rock and places it at the wider end of his mud sketch, and places two sun bleached twigs side by side at the end pointing towards the "ravine" - tusks. This is a tusker - a mammoth. Picking up some small stones he holds one between thumb and forefinger and gestures at his brother. This stone is you he suggests. He places it behind the tusker. He does the same in turn for everyone in the tribe. He places three stones behind the tusker and most of the rest of them at the narrow end of his ravine sketch.

The tribe are beginning to look at him oddly. What's the strange one thinking - it's the middle of winter and he's playing stupid games? Does he want to freeze to death? Perhaps he thinks they should sacrifice themselves to a tusker rather than starving?

No-No-No! Homer gestures for them all to stay where they are. He goes to the fire and plunges the end of a piece of kindling into the flames until it is alight. He rushes back excitedly and points to the three people he nominated to stand behind the tusker and then drops the burning kindling between the stones representing them and the tusker. Suddenly he shrieks loudly attempting to mimic the trumpet of an enraged mammoth and moves the larger rock towards the narrow end of his sketch. Then he points at the smaller stones and the people they represent and starts miming throwing rocks and spears at the giant.

After a few repetitions the tribe begin to grasp his meaning. The tusker is too big to kill on the plains, but scare it into the narrow ravine with fire and it will be cornered. They will have a chance to kill it and thereby eat for a while longer. It will be risky, but it's probably better than waiting to starve or freeze to death.

Homer saved the tribe again, this time by not accepting what he was told and thinking for himself. Rather than believing the common wisdom that killing a mammoth and therefore surviving the winter was impossible, he thought of another way. By not following and by thinking "outside the box" he came up with a strategy that would be used over and again to feed the tribe and their descendants for millennia.

If we use our imaginations we could think of dozens, maybe hundreds of ways in which our autistic traits, both common and not-so-common might have been an advantage to small tribes and settlements. Ways in which we could have provided protection or aided prosperity because of, not in spite of our differences from our peers. Such service would have assured their value, maybe even ascended some of them to the respect of sages and shaman due to their unconventional "sight" that eluded their peers.

Now society has expanded to the extent we know today, the majority have lost sight of the value of differences such as ours. With no predators or spear carrying tribesmen to warn of, what use the heightened senses and pattern recognition. With agriculture and warm homes, what need of novel plans to feed the tribe? Our skills have been sidelined by a focus on our weaknesses in a complex society.

Thinking outside the box? That's lack of conformity, waywardness, disruptive behaviour and worse. Naturally conveying our meaning by gesture, sketch and mimicry? That's not non-verbal communication, that's dismissed as being mute, obstinate or developmentally delayed.

Hypersensitivities have become liabilities in a world dominated by 24 hour light and noise, chemical smells, pollution and mass production. Pattern recognition and intuition is increasingly being left to technology thereby removing the human element.

Many of us have skill sets which could provide an advantage in the technological world, but our societies have gone in a direction which prevents them from being noticed, let alone utilised. We value conformity, obedience and toeing of the party line. An innovative employee is a challenge to the status quo. A non-verbal person is treated as unable to communicate. Someone who is hypersensitive to a stimulus is told to put up with it. Our differences are treated as hindrances rather than potential assets.

Are Autistics the next step in human evolution? I think not. Not in this society we have built for ourselves which values conformity over individuality. Our potential will be forever stifled unless we see a paradigm shift in the way we, as a civilisation, view and embrace neural differences. If not, then it will not be until our species collapses back to the Stone Age that Autistics will contribute to the evolution of humanity again.

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Ryan Z. Dawson
Ryan Z. Dawson
Mar 14, 2021

I'm autistic. My therapist, thinking aloud, wondered why autism hadn't evolved away. He figured it must have had some benefit. Maybe autistic people were good at something that gave them an advantage. It's a romantic and uplifting idea. I suspect, though, that the real reason is much less gratisfying. I some reading about. The gene that's associated with autism appears also to be associated with better absorption of some important compound into the cell walls in utero. The neurodevelopmental effects may be incidental. If they are, they're at least not negative enough to offset the benefit of slightly more efficient prenatal cell development.

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