Right off the bat, let’s get a few personal truths out of the way.
First, I’m biased. I’m autistic. So, of course, I seek to view myself in a way that makes me more than the product of some toxic element of our environment, or a disease or what-have-you. It would be unnatural for me to want otherwise. But just because I may be biased, that does not mean I am wrong.
Second, I’m not an expert, unless you count personal experience and years of trying to understand my own autistic mind. But I’m not a doctor, a scientist, a psychiatrist, and I have no specialized degrees. Everything that follows is just my mental ramblings on a subject that affects me. But again, that doesn’t make what follows wrong.
If what I’ve revealed has already informed your opinion of what you are about to read, then I advise you not to waste your time reading it. If, on the other hand, you are still able to read my words with an open mind, then let’s get to it.
What if autism is not a dysfunction in the sense that it is something that “should not” be happening? What if autism spectrum disorders are in fact a micro-evolutionary response to our rapidly changing cultural and social structures? This is not a new view, but I’d like to present it my way.
Human history has been defined, contrary to the common view, by a growing isolationism of the individual. While yes, we have come together in larger and larger communities such as cities, we have grown ever more emotionally distant from each other. This internal distance is a survival trait, I believe, to protect us from the intense physical closeness we have been forced to endure as humanity has grouped itself ever more tightly together.
There was a time when meeting another person was an occasion. When contact with strangers was a novelty, we extended ourselves to get to know the newcomer. We exchanged stories and goods and emotion, and we were happy to do so because doing so was a rarity. After the newcomer left us, we were able to retreat back to the mental safety of the handful of people we knew our entire lives, who presented no randomness, no surprises and required no great emotional effort. We had a lengthy period of time before the next stranger in which to “refill” our emotional wells.
But, as time passed, human groupings became bigger and bigger and we were called upon to extend ourselves emotionally more and more often. We had no time to refill before the next encounter with the unknown. As a response, people became less interested in each other. It became less common for an individual to get to know a newcomer, and more common to simply try to ignore other people. How many of your neighbor’s names do you know? First and last? How far afield does your interest in such information spread? One house? Three? Ten? Probably not.
So, as society groups closer together physically, we’ve become less willing to extend ourselves emotionally, less interested in reaching beyond our comfortable inner worlds. We, as a species, have learned to raise emotional walls, not because we can’t experience emotion, or even that we don’t want to, but rather because if we were to extend ourselves emotionally to every person we encounter in a single day, the mental fatigue would be ruinous.
This mental isolationism has, contrarily, only increased with the growth over the past century of methods of instant communication. Telegraph, telephone and now the Internet make it almost impossible to withdraw from the outer world long enough to refill our emotional wells. Yet, at the same time, these methods of communication, most especially the Internet, create a society in which physical proximity becomes ever less necessary.
As we are inundated with communications, it becomes a natural tendency to eschew actual meaning. By this I mean that communication becomes more and more impersonal. And, as humanity has become dependent upon social networks, email, etc., as our primary means of communication, when we are forced to interact outside the impersonalized framework of technology, we have difficulty.
Now comes autism. While certainly autism is not nearly as a new a thing as some would have us believe, this only contributes to the notion that ASDs are a function of cognitive evolution rather than a historical aberration.
There are, really, two kind of autism – dysfunctional and functional. Dysfunctional autism is when an autistic simply cannot manage everyday tasks without help. This is a dysfunction only in relation to the requirements of modern life such as social interaction, earning money, etc. Functional autism can be seen in people who exhibit autistic traits, but who are able to manage the expectations of neurotypical society.
The first objection to autism as evolution is usually from anthropologists who say that evolution takes tens of thousands, even millions of years. It doesn’t happen in a few centuries. To these learned people I would suggest reaching beyond your field into the realm of genetics where it has been known for many years now that our very DNA can be affected in significant ways even within a single generation. This is called epigenetics. It is not only possible but proven that our genetic linage can and does change all the time in response to immediate environmental factors.
The second objection, and one that carries somewhat more weight, is that evolution provides increases in survivability, whereas autism appears to not. Fair enough. But to this I would remind that we are looking at autism from the inside, which is to say, while it is actually happening. All other evolutionary changes, such as the change from homo erectus to homo sapiens, can be observed with the benefit of hindsight. We can intellectually encapsulate the entire process from beginning to end and say, “Aha! That’s why that happened!” But, because we are inside the time of autism, we don’t have that kind of view.
Consider what it might have been like to observe other evolutions from the inside. Certainly the earlier version might have established a clear “way” of things. Those who did not fit nice and neatly into that established way would have been looked upon as aberrations, which of course in context they would have been. Also, those aberrations would likely have had some difficulty “fitting in.” In a culture requiring instinctive reactions to avoid threats and establish dominance, a “thinker” would have been less valuable than a “doer.” It makes one wonder how many of what we now think of as “advanced” human beings died because they failed to act on pure animal instinct at the right moment. Contemplation of one’s existence is all fine and good in the safety of the cave, but when you’re seconds away from being bear-food, overthinking things isn’t a survival trait. My point is, there was undoubtedly a period of time in which what we now think of as an evolutionary advance was anything but a survival trait. It was an example of incomplete evolution, which requires both change and context to be complete.
“But eventually Sapians won out!”
Yes, but consider what is happening right now? Many of those we have come to see as the elite of our society, which is to say, those who can invent the next “need to have” thing or those who come up with the crazy ideas that turn out to be worth billions, are exhibiting traits of autism. Bill Gates comes to mind.
Evolution is not really about strength, you see. That’s a common misconception about Darwin’s actual theory. Evolution is about breeding potential. Breeding potential almost always comes down to having the greatest resources. In our modern world, the ability wield a spear is not nearly as important as the ability to accumulate money and influence. Can anyone argue that Gates does not have this ability? Of course not. Which makes him prime breeding material.
So, why autism? What is the eventual result of such an evolution? As society continues to increase its recognition and accommodation of neurodiversity, it will become less important to “fit in” and more important to be able to think outside the box, to see things in new and unique ways, a specialty of autistics. Conversely, the value of highly repetitive tasks such a computer coding and manufacturing quality control is only growing. These are perfect tasks for many autistics. There are companies even now who seek to hire autistics specifically because of our attention to detail, our ability to hyper-focus.
As these social trends continue, and society becomes ever more accommodating of ASDs, functional autistics will overtake neurotypicals as the optimal breeding partners. Autism will eventually equalize into a new and dominant form of human.
Homo Autisticus? Maybe. Why is the current scientific community so reluctant to even consider this idea, so eager to view autism as something to be cured? Well, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, no species is comfortable acknowledging that its time may be coming to an end.