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.
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.
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Arrangement of Leapsters and pens by Charlie Fisher.