Autism May Have Had Advantages in the Past

People with autism face multiple challenges because of their condition, but they may have been capable hunter-gatherers in the prehistoric era, according to a paper published in Evolutionary Psychology.

The autism spectrum may represent an ancient way of life for a minority of ancestral humans, said Jared Reser, a brain science researcher and doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Some of the genes that contributed to autism may have created beneficial behaviors in a solitary environment, amounting to an “autism advantage,” a relatively new perspective, Reser said.

The advantage contends that autism sometimes has compensating benefits, including increased abilities for spatial intelligence, concentration and memory. Although individuals with autism have trouble with social cognition, their other cognitive abilities sometimes are largely intact.

The paper looked 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 toward the learning and refinement of hunting and gathering skills, he explained.

Since autistic children now are fed by their parents, hunger does not guide their interests and activities. Because they can obtain food free of effort, their interests are redirected toward non-social activities such as stacking blocks, flipping light switches or collecting bottle tops, Reser said.

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