The following is part two of a two part series on the “autism paradox” of evolutionary psychology. Part one can be found here.
Note: This is a paper I wrote in college, that I felt appropriate to post here. The formatting and tone are a little different than my usual posts because of this.
In the early 1940s a man named Kanner published the first official documentation of “autism” as a standalone condition, recording his observations of children who were withdrawn, obsessive, and displayed similarly impaired social behaviors. We have come a long way since then, and today autism—now referred to with the umbrella term “ASD” or “Autism Spectrum Disorder”—is described in the newly revised DSM-5 with a much longer laundry list of symptoms, including deficits in communication and social interaction (in reciprocity, nonverbal communication, and developing and maintaining social relationships); restricted, repetitive behaviors or activities (in speech, movement, routines, and obsessive interests); and a variety of sensory processing differences. Although the specific causes of autism are still unknown, and there is yet no empirical test for autism, it is agreed that autism has a strong genetic basis, possibly involving epigenetic and/or environmental influences. The current occurrence of autism diagnosis in children is said to be 1 in
88 68, and diagnostic rates are always increasing due to new evaluation methods and changes in public awareness. Yet if ASD is so highly heritable, then an obvious question presents itself: why is autism so common? The extreme prevalence of autism despite its obvious negative impact on overall fitness presents an apparent paradox. Yet the autism paradox may not be so paradoxical after all; a great body of evidence points to a new hypothesis: many of the currently pathologized instances of human neurodiversity (such as autism and schizophrenia) are built of traits that were, and continue to be, beneficial to the human species, and it is not too difficult to imagine how autism could have evolved to be one of a number of natural human conditions or “types.”
Neurodiversity within the human population is not a new phenomenon. In the world of evolutionary biology, we humans have a reputation for strange neurological lineages. A researcher named Pickard once published a study arguing that conditions such as autism and schizophrenia “arose as a consequence of the rapid evolution of the human brain” and thus could possibly be a normal side effect of our path towards becoming who we are as a species today. And there does appear to be a positive link between human evolution and the selection of genetic mental illness. Yet if autism is entirely detrimental, and just a coincidental side effect, this explanation does not account for the frequency of occurrence. Pickard et al also account for the amazing contributions of neurologically diverse individuals to society by claiming that such traits (“genius”) are simply over-pathologized. They imply that such past contributors were not “really” autistic because they were not disabled (though many famous geniuses were clearly disabled socially and emotionally). It can be said that autism in general is over-pathologized in the sense that it is seen in a purely negative light. Autistic differences can be pathological and disabling, yet many autistic differences are enabling. Autism is commonly associated with higher-than-average IQ scores, and superior rote memories. Combined with a tendency towards all-consuming obsessive (often technical) interests, an autistic is often not only “smarter” than average, but exceptionally dedicated to his or her field of study. These advantages in IQ, memory, and focus are not usually considered disabling, and thus not highlighted in the DSM (which serves to provide diagnosis of disabling traits). In fact, well-known autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen has found that the families of top academic physicists, engineers, and mathematicians have significantly higher rates of autism, and that most of these academics have a great number of autistic traits themselves. If autism truly arose as a consequence of the rapid evolution of human cognition then maybe autism could be seen not only as a pathological consequence of evolution, but as a runaway evolution of many of the positive traits inherent to human cognition.
But not all autistics are stereotypical savants. Autism is far more than a “geek syndrome,” as it has often been called. To call autism a neurodevelopmental difference, or an occurrence of neurodiversity, is not even wholly accurate: research has shown that autism is a full-body difference involving not only the central nervous system but also the digestive and immune systems, and possibly more. Autism includes differences in neural processing, metabolism, and even conscious perception. The broad scale of the autism spectrum, and the inaccurate nature of the term “spectrum” itself, combined with a lack of communal awareness, leads to the fact that many autistics often go through their entire lives never realizing they occupy a place on “the spectrum.”
Though autism is far more than a “geek syndrome,” and involves full-body and sensory processing differences, the social construct of the “geek” identity does appear to revolve around autistic traits. Many autistics self-identify as geeks, and claim that to be a geek is literally to be autistic (which is, in my opinion, simply a narrow definition of “geek”). It is true that intense focus on obsessive narrow interests, childlike behavioral patterns and apparent naïveté, and lack of social awareness are all the hallmarks of a classic geek, as well as hallmarks of the autism spectrum. In fact, this stereotype isn’t entirely unfounded. In 2001, Wired magazine featured an exposé on what is often called the “epidemic” of autism present in technological and academic hubs, like Silicon Valley. It appears that autistics with special interests in the information technology field flock to Silicon Valley—an example of an environment in which autism is beneficial—to settle down and, eventually, reproduce, resulting in an accumulation of autistic traits in the local gene pool. This is also likely influenced by the fact that technological hubs attract those of relatively high social economic status, the same population that generally receives more diagnoses and interventions.
Technological and academic environments do appear to be obvious scenarios in which autistic traits could provide a fitness benefit. In similar fashion to homosexuality and the “gay uncle hypothesis,” autistic traits that seem to hinder reproduction provide aide to the community on the whole, and can thus provide indirect evolutionary fitness benefits. Even traits like schizophrenia can be said to provide overall benefits through novel abilities in creativity and language. Many researchers argue that the amazing cognitive abilities seen in Homo sapiens are not the result of the evolution of a singular “modern human mind,” but are instead due to social mechanisms and physiology resulting in the integration of “different minds” that confer various selective benefits. This flies in the face of the classical concept of “neurotypical,” and supports the growing movement of “neurodiversity”: the idea that there is not one truly normal human cognitive model, but instead a variety of brain types, each contributing beneficial aspects to the human species.
I have said before, and I will say again that autism in-and-of itself cannot necessarily be labeled a disorder as an end-all. Though it is advantageous for many autistics that the ASD diagnosis remain in the DSM as long as existing legal framework provides financial, academic, and other support only for individuals with a diagnosed “disability,” and autism can obviously be disabling in many ways. However, autism itself should not be thought of in a purely negative light.
Below, I have included a more neutral list of autistic traits based on a similar list published by Simon Baron-Cohen:
- The individual may spend more time involved with objects and physical systems than with people
- The individual may communicate less (or more) than others, to a notable degree
- The individual tends to follow their own desires and beliefs rather than paying attention to or being easily influenced by others’ desires and beliefs
- The individual may show less interest (than neurotypical peers) in what the social group is doing or being a part of it
- The individual has strong, persistent interests
- The individual is very accurate at perceiving the details of information
- The individual may notice and recall things other people may not
- The individual’s view of what is relevant and important in a situation may not coincide with others’
- The individual may be fascinated by patterns either visual (shapes), numeric (dates, timetables), alphanumeric (license plates), or lists (of cars, songs, etc.)
- The individual may be fascinated by systems, whether simple (light switches, spigots), a little more complex (weather fronts), or abstract (mathematics)
- The individual may have a strong drive to collect categories of objects (e.g., bottletops, train maps) or categories of information (types of lizards, types of rock, types of fabric, etc.)
- The individual has a strong preference for experiences that are controllable rather than unpredictable
- The individual is either extremely sensitive or notably desensitized to certain types of sensory information
Notice that though many of these traits could be considered disabling in certain contexts, and providing a reduction in overall fitness, in other contexts they can all prove advantageous. Though an individual who spends a less-than-average amount of time with others, communicates abnormally, and is relatively self-centered in activity choice may not be the best participant in a Paleolithic mammoth hunt requiring strong group cohesion, such an individual would excel in mapping a star chart to help his fellow cavemen track the seasons. Autistic traits are often beneficial in a technological or academic setting, or in the creation of products and projects requiring massive amounts of long-term dedication. Inventors, innovators and knowledge seekers would have been essential to our success in the human environment of evolutionary adaptation. And as technology becomes increasingly more integral to human life, and increasingly more singular and complex, requiring more study and specialization, autistic traits could conceivably be even more valuable in the 21st century relative to, say, the Paleolithic.
The idea to attach a knife blade to a handle was an unprecedented breakthrough requiring a tremendous innovation that further enabled humans to advance and dominate their environment, but once invented, this is an activity that most anyone can learn. But today our technology is even more complicated. It is not unfair to say that most people could not design and build a circuit board, or program a neural network without intense (“obsessive”) interest, focus, and study. Our society calls for social specialists (“neurotypicals”), creative specialists (bipolar and schizophrenic individuals), and logical or technical specialists (autistics). To paraphrase autistic author and advocate John Elder Robison’s statement to parents at the Kinney Center of Saint Joseph’s University: if we assume the “10,000 hour rule” to be true, and that it takes at least 10,000 hours of work to become an expert at something, an autistic social failure who devotes him- or herself to an “obsessive interest” instead of making social connections might just turn out to be more successful in life than a socially successful neurotypical. Of course, every autistic is different, and many are quite social. Rosie O’Donnell and Jack Black, both successful celebrity actors and self-identified autistics, claim to have built their careers on the fact that their social desires lead them to perfect the art of “faking” normal behavior, better known as acting.
To quote researcher Simon Baron-Cohen: “In a world where individuals are all expected to be social, people with [autism] are seen as disabled.” Yet not every environment calls for social behavior, and not every environment places extreme emphasis on social behavior. In an environment of minute technical details requiring intense study and specialization (and little social communication) neurotypicals may find themselves at a disadvantage where autistics may excel. Though autism may reduce fitness in many ways (not only is mate acquisition thus impaired, but as autistic children require more parenting, autistic families often have fewer children), it can directly increase individual fitness in a number of instances (employment and specialization) and indirectly increase the fitness of the community (through invention and innovation). Perhaps the autism paradox is not as paradoxical as it seems. Autism can be disabling, and it is also highly genetic, yet it is incredibly prevalent because in many environments and in various degrees it provides numerous benefits.