The following is part one of a two part series on the “autism paradox” of evolutionary psychology. Part two 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.
Autism, despite being a relatively new diagnosis, boasts a complicated and controversial ontogeny. In the early 20th century, “autism” (meaning withdrawn into one’s self, or literally, “selfish”) became a documented condition involving a then limited number traits such as lack of social and emotional reciprocity. Though autism was still seen as a symptom instead of an entirely separate diagnosis, this was quite a step up from the previous label: childhood schizophrenia. In fact, to this day autism is often confused with schizophrenia and anti-social personality disorder, better known as sociopathy. Today autism is a recognized psychological difference, usually classified as a developmental disorder, with a diagnostic rate of 1 in
88 68 children, a number that is rapidly growing due to new diagnostic techniques and an increase in overall cultural awareness. I would argue that autism is not simply a disability, and is itself a psychological adaptation, and a benefit to the human species on the whole.
Because autism is so pathologized it is most often discussed simply from the standpoint of its disabling factors. The DSM criteria, even the revised DSM-5 criteria, still use various deficits as diagnostic traits. This is to be expected, as conditions in the DSM are categorized by impairing life quality in some way. If the quality of life is not negatively affected, the argument goes, why need a diagnosis? Yet because of this the mainstream approach to autism is still that of the negative, and public opinion of autism is incredibly skewed. For example, though vaccines do not “cause” autism* there are many parents who believe their children will become autistic if they are vaccinated. These parents would rather risk their child’s (more statistically likely) death by disease than risk their child developing “autism.” Autism is literally seen by many as a fate worse than death. The anti-vaccination movement must be combatted with education on vaccines and their risks, and with autism awareness.
“But autism is in the DSM because it’s a disorder,” many people have told me. It is important to remember that homosexuality was once in the DSM, and gender dysphoric disorder is still included. Autism is in the DSM because it can be disabling, but this does not mean it is so black-and-white as to be labeled purely negative, a dysfunction of the human condition. Advocating for a cure for autism implies only ignorance. Autism is not like depression or pathological lying, it is a difference that affects every aspect of one’s person. Treatment of disability and disabling symptoms is very different from trying to “cure” an individual of their core identity. A person does not have autism; they are autistic, just like introverts are not typically thought of to “have” introversion. And, in fact, there are many advantages to being on the spectrum.
Autism is not a new condition. Though there is a documented rise in “low-functioning” diagnoses, this is likely due to consolidation of diagnoses, and possibly even environmental factors either worsening existing autistics or mimicking the traits of a severely disabled autistic (see footnote 1); until there is an empirical test for autism, diagnoses are opinion-based only. But that is a topic for another day, deserving of its own separate article. Whether or not autism is really on the rise, or becoming an “epidemic,” autistic people have always existed. The eccentrics, the savants, and the awkward nerds have been around so long that many books, television shows, and movies unintentionally include autistic characters simply because this personality type is universally recognized. Everyone knows “that guy.” Nikola Tesla, for example, was undoubtedly autistic: rejecting normal socialization, struggling with friendship and love, and completely obsessed with pigeons in a way that would be referred to today as a “special-“ or “obsessive interest.”
There is little doubt that people like Tesla, Einstein, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, or George Orwell were likely on the spectrum, and though they were all disabled in various ways they are considered by our society to have been great intellectual pioneers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a doctor who often carried over his practice into his writing, is credited with the first written description of the physical signs of long-term alcoholism (red nose, spider veins, etc.), and is considered by many to have also been the first to describe autism in his character Sherlock Holmes, defined as similarly disabled yet advantaged due to his differences.
The DSM covers many autistic differences such as lack of natural eye contact, deficiencies in vocal intonation, sensory integration and processing problems, and a lack of inherent understanding of social cues. As many behaviorists and psychologists have observed over the course of the 20th century, autistics are also often endowed with particular and impressive skills. Most commonly described being a powerful memory, higher than average IQ, an incredible speed of learning, single-minded focus (leading to savant-like expertise in their particular fields), and unique, outside-the-box thinking. Autistics can likely take credit for innumerable “why didn’t I think of that” inventions—Temple Grandin alone has revolutionized the way factory farms and slaughter houses work, providing several new technological and policy advancements. Autistic advocate John Elder Robison has often said that the person who invented the paper clip was “probably autistic, because who else could have thought of that?” In a similar vein, things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are known to endow extreme creativity and skill in spiritual philosophy. Perhaps there is a second side to many such conditions.
It is often said that altruism “should not have evolved,” being that it is defined as behavior that is detrimental to the giver, yet evolutionary biologists agree that altruism makes perfect sense in a species as communal as humans: altruistic behavior towards those one is closely related to makes perfect sense, and in the environment of evolutionary adaptation of humans, communities were likely composed of 10-50 individuals, all relatively close genetically. Altruism evolved because it benefited the genotype of the entire species, despite harming the individual. Many view homosexuality in the same way: why does such a common trait exist if it directly hinders reproduction? The “gay uncle” hypothesis (colloquially named) presents the idea that non-reproducing relatives are advantageous to a species that requires such intensive parental investment. If the gay uncle takes care of his sister’s children, he is indirectly ensuring the continuation of his own genetic line. In a similar way, we can approach the issue often referred to as the “autism paradox.” Autism is obviously highly heritable (autistic parents nearly always produce autistic babies), yet in many ways it hinders reproduction. Why then is autism so common?
If it can be assumed that autistic individuals have “always” existed, it thus follows that autistics 50,000 or even 200,000 years ago would be similar to those today. An autistic individual who has trouble finding a mate and successfully reproducing, yet who is also highly intelligent, creative and innovative may in fact be a benefit to his or her community. Is it so hard to believe, then, that autism was beneficial enough to be preserved in the Homo sapiens genotype?
I believe that autism is not simply pathological, a disruption of the normal human condition, but an alternate—and equally important—“type” of human, naturally occurring and here to stay. As diagnostic assessment becomes more accurate, and as an empirical diagnostic test is achieved, I believe we will find the prevalence of autism to be even higher* than 1 in
88 68. And in our modern world of exponential technological advancement, and an increasing reliance on logical as opposed to emotional skill sets, autistics may prove even more beneficial in the decades to come.
*Footnote 1: There are documented cases of children developing, almost overnight, autistic symptoms after getting vaccinated—typically with more vaccines at one time than is recommended, as with toddlers who missed their newborn vaccinations—and this phenomenon is very real. Yet a child who suddenly loses all ability to speak, experiences constant sensory overload, etc., is not exactly easy to diagnose. So, though vaccines may trigger regression and disability in children, they do not cause “autism.”
*Footnote 2: I don’t mean to imply I believe the occurrence rate of autism is 1 in 10 or anything so extreme, but the stats are heavily dragged down by deficiencies in assessing girls on the spectrum. The rate is an average of two statistics, divided by gender: 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls. As the medical community becomes increasingly adept at recognizing autism in girls that rate will increase. I will write about this diagnostic discrepancy in a future post. [EDIT: Since the time of posting, this diagnostic rate has predictably increased from 1 in 88 to 1 in 68, and is possibly still climbing, thanks to widening criteria and increased awareness.]