Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jabberwocky of the Day : Autism an Advantage for Cavemen

Flickr image by Jason Schleifer
Did you know that autism might have been an advantage for hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times?

No, you can stop laughing, I am serious.  There was actually a paper published (and covered on Science Daily) a few weeks back that suggested that "the autism spectrum may represent not disease, but an ancient way of life for a minority of ancestral humans."

I don't want to copy the entire article from Science Direct (even though the entire thing is a riot) so here is just some highlights -
The "autism advantage," a relatively new perspective, contends that sometimes autism has compensating benefits, including increased abilities for spatial intelligence, concentration and memory. Although individuals with autism have trouble with social cognition, their other cognitive abilities are sometimes largely intact.
The paper looks at how autism's strengths may have played a role in evolution. Individuals on the autism spectrum would have had the mental tools to be self-sufficient foragers in environments marked by diminished social contact, Reser said.
The penchant for obsessive, repetitive activities would have been focused by hunger and thirst towards the learning and refinement of hunting and gathering skills.
Today autistic children are fed by their parents so hunger does not guide their interests and activities. Because they can obtain food free of effort, their interests are redirected toward nonsocial activities, such as stacking blocks, flipping light switches or collecting bottle tops, Reser said.
The paper is available for free online if anyone cares to read it.  I made it through the first two pages but I couldn't make it through any more than that.  Who knows, maybe this guy has the right idea but I tend to doubt it.  It sounds more like he has never met a person with even moderate autism let alone any children with  autism.

There are so many wrong ideas in even the first two pages that it is hard to know where to start talking about it.  For example, the paper suggest that people with autism are "ecologically competent individuals that could have been adept at learning and implementing hunting and gathering skills".

As anyone who has struggled to teach their child to teach their child even basic skills can tell you, teaching children with autism is rarely easy.  There is a very good reason why behavioral therapies such as ABA are popular for teaching children with autism and that is because they don't normally learn naturally or from their environment.  To call most children with autism "adept" at learning about the environment is like saying that a rock is "adept" at swimming.

And the idea children with autism are aware of their environment?  Many parents struggle with day to day basic safety concerns because their children have no awareness of their environments.  My children would walk out directly in front of a speeding car without blinking an eye.  They would walk up to a polar bear and poke it in the stomach, which would definitely not be "ecologically competent".

Maybe this is all supposed to change when children achieve "independence from their mothers"...  Wait, how many children who have autism actually grow up to be able to live independently?  I know there are some but I don't think that it is the majority.

Talk about one of the greatest fears that parents have for their children.  I am worried - like many other parents - whether my children will ever be able to learn enough skills to be able to function on their own.  Yet this paper assumes that young adults will automatically be able to achieve independence.  The hunter-gatherers must have had some kick-ass services available to be able to make that leap of faith.

But I think the most absurd idea here is that some trivial external factor such as hunger could refocus the repetitive and restricted interests of autism.  After having dealt with the repetitive and restricted in three children for over five years, I can confidently say that I don't think that it is really possible for any external factor to force these obsessions into a desired form.  You can extinct, redirect, distract, plead, beg, or threaten until you are blue in the face and still not make a dent in the behaviors - let alone changing them to focus on something specific.

I wish that someone had told me that all I had to do to refocus the behaviors was to withhold food.  Because  I spend at least an hour a day trying to get my kids to eat more.  Left to their own devices, I swear that they might forget to eat or only eat pretzels.  But according to this paper, letting the kids go hungry might help them able to be better survive on their own and learn that poking the polar bear would be a really bad idea.

Yeah, uhm, I am going to go out on a limb and say that I don't really think that it would work like that.

But seriously, I think the gentleman who wrote this, err, paper needs to get out in the real world and work with some real kids on the spectrum before coming up with any more theories.

P.S. The bit about starving children and withholding food is obviously a joke.

P.P.S That is unless it actually works in which case there are going to be a lot of hungry children with autism shortly.

P.P.P.S.  Just in case, maybe someone should bring Dr. Lovaas back from the dead to tell him that he had the right idea but was using the wrong reinforcer.

References (and I use that term loosely)

Jared Edward Reser. Conceptualizing the autism spectrum in terms of natural selection and behavioral ecology: The solitary forager hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, 2011; 9 (2): 207-238


  1. He's talking about the "new autism", which used to be the old ADHD or LD or Dyslexia. Only this isn't a learning disability it's a mental illness. Pyschoactive drugs don't work for learning disabilities, so we have to make them mental illness.

    I'm convinced autism is anything an expert says it is, at least for his/her day in the sun, whether or not it is based on true observation or something they just made up in their own little mind that day.

    As regards to being the old ADHD, Thom Hartmann came up with the hunter/farmer theory years ago, so this person isn't even creative, but probably guilty of plagarism.

  2. This sort of sophistry is nothing new. Temple Grandin is claiming that autism was an advantage going back to caveman days because the first person who invented a spear and was responsible for the genesis of modern civilization did not go around socializing with other people. Also Thomas Armstrong in his favorable book about neurodiversity says that cavemen with autism were able to distinguish a predator's eyes from barry's at nighttime and was more apt to be around someone who was inventive enough to discover the use of fire instead of someone more social. There are probably other examples as well.

  3. Hans Asperger 1943:

    Unfortunately, in the majority of cases the positive aspects of autism do not outweigh the negative ones.

    There seems to be little that 3 generations of research have added to Asperger's original paper that is of benefit to people like me and Jonathan.