If you have a narrow view of autism then the word probably conjures an image of somebody with very little in the way of use to society. Those who are more understanding of the condition may imagine a picture of a natural artist or somebody with an incredible memory. These are sometimes known as a savant. (although increasingly the term is considered offensive.)
The list of skills doesn’t stop there. Autistic people can have varied skills: perhaps in engineering or mathematics. There really is no end to the list. Unfortunately, a glut of negative press and a lack of understanding have led to tales of an “epidemic of autism”. The insinuation that the condition is something to be feared. But this simply isn’t the case. People with autism nearly always have a lot to offer society.
A recent study has looked at the genetics of those with autism and found some of their key genes relate back to a shared ape heritage. This dates back to a time before the split which led to us becoming humans and our more ape-like ancestors developing into apes. Some of the other autism genes are far more modern though dating back just 100,000 years or so.
A lot of the time the condition is hereditary as well. With a great percentage being linked to a family gene. Having said that, a third of cases spring from a spontaneous genetic mutation.
The study suggests then that these facts support the idea that autism is with us for a reason.
That the condition played a key role in human development.
Times are changing
It would seem that ironically going back a few thousand years’ people who were autistic would have been respected rather than isolated. This is due to the special traits they would have had. Perhaps their ability to be more in tune with the animal kingdom, or if they had an aptitude for art or music.
The incorporation of these talents would have been beneficial to many communities. These people would have acted almost like specialists and been key to the survival of the group.
If you want to see evidence of this in action then look no further than the cave art found in the Chauvet Cave, in southern France. This contains some of the best-preserved cave paintings mankind has discovered.
The paintings are consistent with what you would expect from a talented autism sufferer. They are ultra-realistic and show great memory skill and focus on certain parts rather than on the whole thing. These can be found in standard artists but are traits far more widely associated with autistic artists.
Unfortunately, these beneficial traits don’t always seem to be passed on and so they haven’t proven to be an evolutionary advantage.
Evolutionary theories have always been male-centric. It is not until quite recently that the role of women in evolution has started to really be explored. So it is perhaps unsurprisingly that the significance of autistic people has only recently been realised. Hopefully, this will go some way to realising that it isn’t something that should be seen as just a “disorder”. And see the influence it has had on our evolution.
It is clear that we need to reassess just how much of an influence this condition has had on our species instead of just disregarding it as a negative trait.
Some experts have even gone so far as to state that if it wasn’t for those that we currently define as autistic that as a species we wouldn’t have evolved as far as we have. Stating we would all be living in caves still if it weren’t for them.