In “Autism May Have Had Advantages in Humans’ Hunter-Gatherer Past, Researcher Believes”
(ScienceDaily, June 3, 2011), we are told
The autism spectrum may represent not disease, but an ancient way of life for a minority of ancestral humans, said Jared Reser, a brain science researcher and doctoral candidate in the USC Psychology Department. Some of the genes that contribute to autism may have been selected and maintained because they created beneficial behaviors in a solitary environment, amounting to an autism advantage, Reser said.
Parents of autistic children will wonder about that. One such knowledgeable source commented, “But a feature of autistic/Asperger’s people is that their focused attention is generally toward things that do not provide important survival skills and that they are not as aware of their surroundings ”
Language warning: Present tense of observable fact is used in the main text sentence above and in those below.
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.
While no one disputes the ability of autists to focus on repeating one activity only, many doubt that the resulting loss of adaptability to a changing environment could be an advantage often enough.
No one knows the exact cause of autism/Asperger’s. Depending on that, the question of why it isn’t bred out of the population need not turn on usefulness at all.
Some individuals, particularly in advanced theoretical disciplines, do better because of Asperger’s concentration potential, but the usefulness depends on having arrived at a useful subject to focus on.
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.
Presumably, Reser meant “non-useful” activities, since the “non-social” part is simply one aspect of a description of autism. Didn’t prehistoric parents feed their children? It’s not clear that being non-social was ever much of an advantage to humans, described by some sources as the most social of species – for better or worse.