The Autism Advantage: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis

Being autistic is an advantage, according to a recently published article in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Jared Reser, a brain science researcher and doctoral candidate in the University of Southern California Psychology Department, argues that many of the traits seen in autistic individuals including heightened abilities for concentration, spatial intelligence and memory — and even an unusual capacity for being solitary and not being dependent on the usual sorts of human social interactions — would have made someone a highly capable “hunter-gatherer” in prehistoric times.

That is, some of the very aspects of autism that make everyday living so challenging for many autistic individuals like my teenage son Charlie — events such as cooking a hamburger a different way, getting a new teacher or a visit from his grandparents, can result in “rigidity” in thinking and in habits — would, once upon a time, have helped him to survive and even thrive.

It’s a highly hypothetical and theoretical argument that Reser presents in his paper, Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis. Still, one thing that can be taken from such theorizing is the point that much about being autistic can be positive; can have its advantages. This is quite a different way of thinking about autism, which is usually described as a “disorder” and “pathology.” In the past few years, autistic self-advocates including Ari Ne’eman and members of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network have called for a rethinking of autism from “dreadful devastating tragedy” to a “difference” that is part of “neurodiversity” to a sort of “natural human variation” that one should take pride in. Indeed, June 18th is Autistic Pride Day and here is more about that from one self-advocate, Jason Ross. I’ve also learned much from researcher Michelle Dawson’s work and writings.

These ideas may strike many as puzzling if not ridiculous at first (believe me, many people, including some parents of autistic children, have been highly critical of the idea of neurodiversity). What’s important is learning to see that, consider things from a different angle, “pathological autistic behavior” can be seen as having advantages and strengths.

So to turn again to Reser’s article. Reser conceptualizes autistic persons as “ecologically competent individuals that could have been adept at learning and implementing hunting and gathering skills in the ancestral environment” precisely because “many of the behavioral and cognitive tendencies that autistic individuals exhibit are … adaptations that would have complemented a solitary lifestyle.” 

The “behavior of autistic individuals is often seen as bewilderingly inappropriate” in today’s social context because of the often obsessive interests of autistic individuals in what society deems “meaningless activities.” Reser suggests that the apparently useless obsessions of autistics in rocking or arranging objects in precise orders on the floorboards (my son does this) would have had their advantages:

In a natural environment though, it is likely that hunger would have motivated them to redirect their obsessive tendencies toward food procurement. Today, their hunger for food does not drive them to refine food procurement techniques because their parents feed them every time they are hungry. Modern humans are responsible for social and academic learning and are rarely given the chance to be positively reinforced by successful food acquisition. This temporal or causal pairing between learning and satiety, integral for wild animals (Domjan, 2003), has been artificially taken away from modern children. Because the compelling and coercing natural instinct of hunger does not actuate or motivate modern individuals with autism, their efforts and skills are misplaced onto irrelevant stimuli [my emphasis].

Indeed, what are thought of as “powerful and mobilizing asocial fascinations and preoccupations” in autistic individuals “could have aided their prehistoric counterparts in self-preservation.”

Humans habituate to things that they are not interested in and systemize things that they find rewarding, motivating, or intrinsically interesting. In the ancestral past, activities leading up to the sating of hunger would have been highly reinforced, and thus food procurement and food processing strategies would have been the primary variables of the reinforcement schedule for individuals with autism. Perhaps, when children with autism ignore their parent’s examples of social behavior today, it is because these examples seem uninteresting and meaningless, whereas in the ancestral past they would have been inspired by their parent’s hunting and gathering activities. Today, because they are not able to forage or to watch their parents forage and because they can obtain food free of effort, their interests are redirected toward salient, nonsocial activities, like stacking blocks, flipping light switches, lining toys up in rows, playing with running water, chasing vacuum cleaners, and collecting bottle tops. [my emphasis]

Often autistic individuals are said to have “splinter skills” or “islets” of ability in certain areas — from having perfect pitch to being able to recite strings of prime numbers – while still struggling deeply with what we consider basic social skills, such as knowing when to say “hi” and “you’re welcome.” Other individuals are hyperlexic, or can perform advanced mathematical calculations, or identify calendar dates in a second, all abilities that in the past “would probably have mapped onto the acquisition of foraging techniques, which, would have been honed to proficiency through rote repetition and practice.”

Reser is himself aware of the limitations of his argument, and the need for further development of his ideas:

The hypothesis presented here is underspecified and vague but may be progressive as it is thought that analyzing disease states from an evolutionary perspective can ultimately do much to inform and influence medical theory and, ultimately, even intervention strategy (Nesse and Williams, 1995). Furthermore, the evolutionary perspectives delineated here could potentially provide structure for empirical investigations in animal behavior or cognitive neuroscience.

Reser concludes:

Showing that autism had ecological viability and that it exists today because of its success in the past suggests that it should not be considered a disease, but instead a condition. It should not be thought of as something to be ashamed of, but as something that represents individuality, self-determination and autonomy.

A practical application from Reser’s article is to consider an autistic person’s strengths — the ability to hyperfocus on a task, spatial intelligence, seemingly photographic memory — and build on these. As a small example, my son’s unerring ability to remember where things (including our house keys are) is quite helpful. Charlie has a lot of academic and cognitive challenges in a classroom, but give him a box of metal pieces and he can put them together as part of a sprinkler. Reser’s research reminds me that, in order to help Charlie find his place in today’s modern world, we need to think about how we can change and accommodate his strengths and talents. Indeed, once upon a prehistoric time, without individuals like Charlie foraging and bringing in food, none of us may have survived.


Related Care2 Coverage

Understanding Autism: Causes, Genes, Brain Function, Symmetry


Arrangement of Leapsters and pens by Charlie Fisher.


Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

You're a corporate shill, you're another whore at the capitalist gang-bang, and if you do a commercial, there's a price on your head, everything you say is suspect, and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink...

Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

For The Good Dr Chew,

Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

I would now like to take the time & trouble to dedicate this* very special song to the good Dr, Kristina Chew as she goes to such great lenths to bring forth these totoally unbiased articles with absolutely no conflict of interest in any way, shape or form~ ;) [search YouTube: Corporate Shills, Bill Hicks] Thanks Sweetheart!

Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

Dr. Rima’s Reply, offered for posting on

Let me get this straight: we poison infants and young children with injected toxins which have zero rigorous scientific justification. We overload their innate ability to detoxify heavy metals. We compromise their immune systems by exposing them to foreign proteins and we create chronic inflammatory neuropathology by vaccinating them repeatedly in utero and after birth. When their detoxification systems collapse, we make a virtue of their imposed incapacitaties and create a myth of “natural selection” to make their cataclysmic neurological and physiological collapse seem like both a natural and a good thing.Sorry. I am a physician using drug free methods to retrieve these folks. Not one of them has ever said, after being so assisted, “Gosh, Doc, what a hunter-gatherer I would have made!” Instead, they talk about how lonely and despairing they have been and the pain of their autistic state before they were assisted out of it. Sorry. You can create all the rationalizations you like.My career spans more than 4 decades. In 1970 1 child in 10,000 was autistic. Today the pandemic rages to incomprehensible numbers. Natural selection does not occur, retrograde, in 40 years.If autists were the Hunter-Gatherer successes, they would have been better feeders, and therefore, better breeders so there would have been a selection pressure for them, not against them.In summary, BALDERDASH! Dr Rima Laibow.

Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

Just ask one simple question: who funded Jared Rese’s doctoral thesis? Who funds the professor he is writing this thesis under? Is Mr. Reser’s paper mere academic wrong-headedness or a commercial bargain wrapped up in a diploma, academic prostitution?The larger question, of course, concerns the magnitude of harm done by normalizing tragedy, telling parents, teachers and doctors, for example, that autism is not something to prevent, fix or ameliorate, but something to “celebrate”.Let us understand their experience and support them and their families in their battle with this destroyer condition. But let us not celebrate the malfeasance, the crminal misdeeds of regulators, manufacturers, corrupt scholars and ill-informed doctors. Let us celebrate that we know what causes most autism. Let us celebrate that we are gathering strength to bring an end to the slaughter of the brains of innocents on an alter of lies about vaccine “efficacy”, “safety”, “necessity” and “science”.
All of these prerequisites for introducing toxins into babies bodies are lacking. Every single one. Let us celebrate the fact that more and more of us know that. Dr Rima E. Laibow MD

Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

THE TRAGEDY OF VACCINATION. DR RIMA REPLIES TO THE VACCINE PUSHING, CHILD DESTROYING, TRAGEDY OF 'STANDARD MEDICINE.' Yes, some institute somewhere actually provided funding for this bizarre and profoundly anti-human “research” concocted to “prove” that autism is good for us! And merely a result of evolution (thus, not a result of children made toxic by mandated “medicine”). Anything to justify continuing the status quo… E. Laibow, MD
Med. Dir., Dr. Rima Institute
Trustee, Natural Solutions Foundation

Jason T.
Jason T.5 years ago

I encourage you guys to take a look at the article, several sections were well worth the effort. I also appreciated this quote:

"In her book “Animals Make Us Human” autistic professor Temple Grandin (who herself engaged in repetitive, restricted and self-injurious behavior at a young age) points out that even though domestic dogs and cats both live comfortably with humans, only cats can leave a human family to live solitarily in the wild (Grandin, 2009). “If you put the family poodle out in the countryside, his chances of surviving are low unless he finds another family to live with. But abandoned cats do fine” (p. 70). Here she underscores the fact that some animals are obligately social whereas others can transition between social and solitary lifestyles. Her life story is attestation to the fact that individuals with severe autism can make this transition while maintaining the “cognitive coherency” to contribute profoundly to both industry and academia (Grandin, 1996)."

Jason T.
Jason T.5 years ago

Have you guys read any of the article? It tackles the issue from a large variety of perspectives. I have never considered that individuals with autism avert their gaze and avoid eye contact for the same reasons that other solitary animals do:

"Curious phenomena that are very common in autism are averted gaze and poor eye contact. Autistic individuals describe eye contact as uncomfortable and even threatening. Interestingly, eye contact is also very rare in the vast majority of solitary species, including orangutans, who actively avoid both direct gazing and even facing. Chimpanzees and gorillas share gazes and use the eyes for communication frequently, just like most humans. Staring between unfamiliar apes though is often interpreted as a threat signal; therefore, it is best for the solitary orangutan to avoid both eye contact and direct gazing in order to forestall an attack. Orangutans actively avoid gazing and eye contact and this tendency, very common among solitary animals, has been explicitly interpreted as adaptive for their solitary foraging niche. Instead of face-to-face direct viewing, orangutans, like individuals with autism, glance momentarily at others sideways with the head turned away. The neurological substrates that underlie this very specific and prominent tendency may have evolved for the same adaptive, defensive reasons in both autistic individuals and orangutans."

Lika S.
Lika S.5 years ago

I think that many a times, people with autism have specific focus where many of the rest of us don't.

Remember how way back, there was the thought that men are better business owners because of specific tunnel vision to get the job done, where women are better in the home because we can multitask? Many autistics have this great drive to finish the job, and have honed in on the focus, and are even more detail orientated.

The few people I've met with Asperger's Syndrome were great at detail orientated stuff, like looking at html code and what not. These people really would be great at some of these jobs, and help make the boss "look good".

Prim Prior
Colin K.5 years ago

No question....about their contribution...sadly in so many areas they are our seniors...and we are not mature enough to understand their many can't figure ours out: is pi something to eat or measure circles?
If you have any doubts about ability.... see the Youtube and PBS story on the boy who at 6 did not talk. He was given a pencil in a progressive school for gifted (positive fulfilment) children and he never stopped drawing with amazing skill and spatial intelligence...he was taken over London in a helicopter for 15 minutes and then was taken to city hall which had set up a circular wall of drawing material....when he was finished...three days I think...he had drawn in perfect perspective and detail....the fenestration and floors of the high-rises....which were authenticated by the designers, engineers etc. as ACCURATE....makes me feel real dumb....not that I would be comfortable with Autism....or maybe I would...I just don't have the guts to find out...thank God some do and we all benefit.
The six year old is now around 30 and very wealthy from his talent....and travels on his own and is very successful in our world. those who think different...we need their expertise to move us from becoming early fossils from our dependence and consumption of fossil and the wars over it that consume us.