Thoughts and illustrations on living with Asperger's Syndrome.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Are We Here? Autism and Evolution

“Some say Asperger’s is a gift, and even vital to human evolution.”

Who said that? Oh, that’s right… I did! What’s the deal with Asperger’s and evolution? Let’s take a closer look.

Evolution favors traits that help an organism adapt to its environment, and produce more offspring. Is Asperger’s a favorable set of traits?

Aspies have some advantages over NT’s. We are unique problem-solvers. We are truth-seekers. We are well-adapted to the information age.

We also have some disadvantages. We have stims and social difficulties. We are terrible liars. We are less likely to maintain a relationship and reproduce.

So we have both favorable and unfavorable traits. Some autistic traits pose severe challenges. There’s also reason to believe autistic genes have existed for a long time. Perhaps as long as humans have existed. So why are we here? And why, in spite of our challenges, do we seem to be growing in number?
The apparent increase in autism is partly due to increased public knowledge and recognition of autistic traits. But could it also be that we are increasingly useful to our species and our world?

Consider the difference between NT’s and Aspies. We are different in one major way: how we make sense of our environment. Starting from birth, NT’s learn to understand the world through their innate attachment to other humans. Aspies, however, focus on observing the patterns and structure in our environment.

Most of us learn the other way of functioning later, as a “second language.” NT’s acquire autistic behaviors, and vice versa. In this way, we have a symbiotic relationship with NT’s. They learn to specialize, to program a computer, and to enjoy alone time. We learn how to find a job, and buy a house, and read others’ emotions.

How has the symbiotic relationship affected our species? History is filled with eccentrics who became innovators. The Einsteins, the Beethovens, the Michelangelos, engrossed in their work, misunderstood in their time, but later recognized as the developers of new knowledge. No one can say for sure, but they share many characteristics with those of us on the spectrum.

Humans have evolved faster than any other species. We developed tools, built a society and industry, and catalogued our knowledge, all in a comparatively short 50,000 years. We transformed our own environment to favor our own survival. Would this be possible without the innovators? Their unique understanding of the environment based on structures and patterns enabled them to change it for the better.

But we Aspies did not change our world alone. We are different. Not superior. Autistics need NT’s. The inventor’s customers, the philosopher’s audience, the painter’s admirers, are all NT. Without NT’s we wouldn’t have team sports, CEO’s, or soldiers. Without NT’s, how would we spread our ideas?

Some like to think autism is “the next evolutionary step.” It’s an appealing upside to the challenges of the condition, or maybe it just makes a good sci-fi story. I don’t think autism is “the next step” if it means we will become a separate species. Neither do I think we are, in fact, aliens.

Instead, I think we’re meant to go forward together. Humanity has always depended on the different, to look ahead. We need neurodiversity. We need symbiosis between NT’s and autistics, with each understanding the other’s perspective. And we who are different must make our voices heard, by being our authentic selves in spite of the obstacles the world throws at us.

So no, not everyone will evolve to be autistic. But humanity will always need a few, and it will need to hear us. We need everyone to make the world. To advance, to metamorphize, to reach for the stars, and beyond. That is our “next step,” and we all must take it together. When it comes to our collective evolution as humans, Asperger’s is indeed vital.


Many of the ideas in this post draw on the writings of Alan Griswold. To read more about this theory of autism and evolution, please visit autisticsymphony.com.

39 comments:

  1. Chris here.

    I loved this particular article, but especially the doodle with the rosetta stone for the language known as "neurotypical"!! Funny! I love coming back here to read, or even reread, your doodles and posts. It makes it great for when I need some sort of pick me up. Reminds me of why I am the way I am and why something bothers me and a reminder of how I can deal with it. In short, it's a great refresher on how to be me and enjoy it.

    Keep up the awesomeness and I hope to keep following you for a long time!

    (hope this doesn't post twice... first time I hit post comment it said there was an error on the page, and I know I used the drop down menu to choose my comment status!)

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  2. Hi Chris, I'm so glad you feel you can come here for a refresher or a pick-me-up. That's why I do it.

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  3. Matt,

    I LOVE this post! And like Chris, my favourite cartoon was the Rosetta Stone. That really made me laugh! Thanks for all your great posts. Hope you had a wonderful weekend!

    Laura

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  4. I know I say this every time you post, but I just love what you do. This one might be my favorite so far. LOVE it!

    (I couldn't log in, but this is Darcy, AKA asdmommy, from over at "What We Need.")

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  5. Thanks, all! I'm glad you enjoyed it. This is such a huge topic, so I hope I did it justice in a limited amount of space.

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  6. Wow, that was really well thought out but I had to read it three times because I kept getting distracted by the cartoons.

    They're good. Very good.

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  7. Ha! Thanks, Gavin. Yes, this post took weeks of researching and thinking. The cartoons were actually the easiest part!

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  8. This is brilliant. Such thought-provoking ideas and your cartoons (as usual) bring them to life. Great post!

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  9. I'm not sure if there's a missing link up there in that 'toon? Can't quite put my opposable thumb on it...

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  10. What a beautiful post-got a little misty eyed reading it.Great article!

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  11. Thanks all! Hmm, missing link? I don't think so, but did you catch the Planet of the Apes reference?

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  12. Brilliant presentation! I should have used you as my illustrator.

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  13. Alan, thank you, I take that as quite a compliment. Your ideas are phenomenal, and when I stumbled across Autistic Symphony in my research on evolution, I knew I had to make it the focus of my post. I am grateful you found this post and that I've done justice to your concept.

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  14. Nicely done! Inspired by Bruce Lipton's "Spontaneous Evolution," I have written a few posts on similar topic. I write from a parent's perspective for parents. Not nearly as elegantly as you have. I will be sharing this!

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  15. This is great. I agree with the basic premise - especially the idea that we need each other! Love the cartoons too!

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  16. Great minds think alike, I also believe the rise of technology has created an environment where autism is beneficial. Has there been any research into this?

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  17. Thanks Natalia and #16 for your comments. Robert, I'm not aware what research there is, but it would make an interesting study, wouldn't it?

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  18. I am going to show this to my ten year old son. He's just recently starting asking us "why" he's an Aspie. I think he'll really get a kick out of this post.

    PS, I am here via Stimey who is, as you know, delightful and the knower of all people good and wonderful.

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  19. Thanks for visiting, Jen, and of course I'm grateful that Stimey sends some of her awesome audience my way.

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  20. Check out the website www.solitaryforager.com. This is an interesting site that discusses the adaptive qualities of autistic thinking. It seems to imply that autism is a different, but equally valid step in human evolution - a mind state that gates social distracters out, so that the mind can be focused on nonsocial activities - like foraging.

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  21. Interesting link - thank you! "[Autism] should not be thought of as something to be ashamed of, but as something that represents individuality, self-determination and autonomy." All qualities that surely came in handy, even in prehistoric times.

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  22. Hi Matt,

    I am unbelievably thrilled to have found your blog. My 12 year-old son has AS and I have often told him that I feel that this is a sort of evolution. I cannot wait to show him some of what you have posted on your blog. It is wonderful to see AS described in a positive and honest manner. Thank you!

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  23. Very interesting concept/visual demonstration. VERY nice!

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  24. I just found you via a websearch on the topic. Very cute, funny, and educational. Great job :) My son is about to turn 9. He is on the spectrum and high functioning but not actually diagnosed as an Aspie. He is PDD: NOS and was echolalic as a young child. Luckily, he is now a very good communicator. He has taught me a lot with his interesting views on the world. I think he'll like your blog :)

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  25. Welcome Karla, I'm glad you enjoyed it and that you're able to learn from your son.

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  26. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    Replies
    1. Feel free to disagree, however, the language used was not necessary as this blog caters to the younger as well as older crowds.

      Sorry that you feel the need to vent in such a manner, crude and distorted as it was.

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    2. Comment removed for offensive language and not really being on topic. You do make valid points about NT’s creating social norms and having their own “weird psychological disorders.” You’re welcome to your point of view; please keep your comments civil.

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    3. That had to be, hands down, the worst language and offensive attitude used in a post. Thank you for removing it.

      Chris

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  27. Autism: The Eusocial Hominid Hypothesis

    ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) are hypothesized as one of many adaptive human cognitive variations that have been maintained in modern populations via multiple genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. Introgression from "archaic" hominids (adapted for less demanding social environments) is conjectured as the source of initial intraspecific heterogeneity because strict inclusive fitness does not adequately model the evolution of distinct, copy-number sensitive phenotypes within a freely reproducing population.

    Evidence is given of divergent encephalization and brain organization in the Neanderthal (including a ~1520 cc cranial capacity, larger than that of modern humans) to explain the origin of the autism subgroup characterized by abnormal brain growth.

    Autism and immune dysfunction are frequently comorbid. This supports an admixture model in light of the recent discovery that MHC alleles (genes linked to immune function, mate selection, neuronal "pruning," etc.) found in most modern human populations come from "archaic" hominids.

    Mitochondrial dysfunction, differential fetal androgen exposure, lung abnormalities, and hypomethylation/CNV due to hybridization are also presented as evidence.

    A short video introduction

    The full 2-hour video presentation

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  28. I can completely understand this! No I am not Aspie, I don't think;) but my son is autistic and the theory of evolution comes off as a bit crazy to people. To me it makes sense and I actually felt this way before I was an autism mom. It is really the only theory I have confidence in and can accept, but sometimes I do have to keep it myself to others. Glad I found your blog! tells me I am not alone in my thoughts. love it!

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  29. Aspies can become more NT, and NT’s can acquire Aspie traits. Evolution is an ongoing process. My son was diagnosed at a time when autism was thought to be caused by maternal rejection, and psychotherapy was the treatment. Eventually it was the therapists who were cured of their bizarre thoughts, and psychotherapy is no longer a treatment for mental illness. I’ve spent 50 years writing a book about our experience, and have reached conclusions similar to yours. It can be read at
    A Few Autistic Questions about Freud, Marx and Darwin
    http://30145.myauthorsite

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  30. I have aspergers and my mother has bi-polar. We have never gotten along and my reactions always make her angrier with me. I showed her this and I hope she understands me more.

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