Autism and the Evolving Mind
In March, the Center for Disease Control released an alarming statistic: one in 68 children is currently diagnosed with autism. If we maintain this trend at its present pace––more than doubling the ratio each decade––one in every ten children will be autistic by 2030.
Scientists, desperate to find an exclusive cause for the epidemic, have linked both genetic and environmental factors, but have yet to pinpoint a single, fundamental determinant. Part of their problem might be the tendency to overlook the co-dependency of the two categories, that is, the penchant of a species to adapt to its surroundings precisely when the moment allows.
The CDC defines the autistic condition as a "developmental disability." The National Autism Association labels it a "bio-neurological disorder." These designations, while well-intentioned, stigmatize the growing autistic community, whose symptoms exist on a fluid scale shading from severely impaired to high-functioning Asperger's cases.
A curious side note about the CDC study: The highest rate of increase in the autistic population occurred in children with average or above-average IQ levels. This would indicate the IQs of autistic children are accelerating toward normal. Is it unreasonable, then, to speculate that the next test might find autistics ahead of the curve?
Temple Grandin, in her book, "Thinking in Pictures," described the autistic experience as a shift in optical perception, a slight alteration in the primary visual cortex. She claims many of the world's great minds — Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Mozart, critical thinkers with enhanced spatial and mechanical cognition and a preternatural ability to focus –– would have been classified autistic spectrum today.
Geneticists have shown that de novo mutations in the fetal DNA contribute to the prevalence of autism. They also define evolution as "a change in the genetic composition of a population over successive generations, caused by natural selection, inbreeding, hybridization or mutation." While mutations can certainly lead to malformations and other disabilities, they might also (if Darwin is to be believed) contribute over the long generations to the advancement of a species. De novo mutations might be seen as the tips of young roots, reaching for uncharted soil, seeking out new pathways in the ever-shifting environment.
If autism is in fact an evolutionary experiment, then why now? Wouldn't the "specialist mind" have thrived a century ago, on the assembly lines of the Industrial Revolution?
Today's humans are moving toward different modes of communication. Eye contact and face-to-face interaction have become less essential than an aptitude to co-exist in the cloud. Facebook ––arguably created by a high-functioning Asperger's individual in his struggle to form a new basis of communication –– has in some ways supplanted the societal need for physical companionship.
Daniel M. Wegner, in a November 2013 article in Scientific American, theorized that the Internet might serve to "expand the memory capacity of the group as a whole. When we off load responsibility for specific types of information to others, we free up cognitive resources that otherwise would have been used to remember this information."
At what point does mutation cease to be an anomaly? Time will tell. Meanwhile, non-autistics would do well to reconsider the use of the terms "disabled" or "disordered" in describing a rapidly expanding percentage of the human population. A more productive focus might be spent on comprehending their changing patterns of perception.
Institutes like the Scott Center for Autism Treatment in Melbourne, which provides functional behavior assessment, life and social-skills training, community and family resources, and focuses on early intervention and direct person-to-person contact, might be the first step in bridging the communication gap between the autistic mind and modern society.
Grandin, both an autistic and a pragmatist, suggests we introduce those on the autistic spectrum "to a wealth of specific tasks and see which one they gravitate toward. Use their fixation to motivate them to be useful, to be positive effects on our world."