Autistics: The Original Holy People?

I think a lot about autism (actually, I just think a lot about a lot of things, period).

Anyway, I guess I think a lot about it because it is part of living with a loved one with it. As any parent knows (and this applies to any parent raising a kid with a chronic condition) some days are better than others. In those rare days when I can think about autism without being pis.., I mean, upset, sometimes I wonder… From the perspective of a biologist, why do any genes that may contribute to autistic behaviors persist in human populations?

You see, one of the main mechanisms of evolution is Natural Selection, which (very simplified) means that only organisms that survive to the point of reproduction are able to pass on their genes to the next generation. There is much more to say about this, but for this post, it will suffice.

Nobody knows exactly what causes autism. Several genes that are thought to contribute to the condition have been identified, but as with any phenotype, the environment must be involved.

When thinking about how these conditions have persisted in a population, autism is especially difficult to explain because of the evident disadvantages for survival that this condition implies. I can give you the example of my son. I have said before that our sweet boy, mind you, is very, very smart. Sometimes he surprises us with his insights and whenever we realize that he knows exactly what is going on in certain situations; however, he could walk into traffic without giving it a second thought!

I just know that if he did not have us and all of his wonderful, dedicated teachers and aides over the years (well, not all of them were wonderful, some of them were really, really bad but this is not the topic of this post) he would be in danger most of the time!

On the other hand, history records many examples of out of the ordinary behaviors that we now consider autistic traits.  In fact, some propose that the ancient stories of changelings, beings that were left in the place of a human child, have their origin on autism-related behaviors.  It is well-known that in many autism cases an apparently typical child, behaviorally regresses and for all intents and purposes develops a different personality. This would cause the parents to perceive their child as a different person, and in those times, the simplest explanation for that change was that an evil creature kidnapped their precious child and left another being in his or her place.

Now imagine 50,000 years ago or so; any guys like my son would probably be the last ones to react when the proverbial saber tooth tiger showed up, and well, it is pretty easy to predict what happened next. So, how did (some of them, that’s all it takes from the perspective of evolution) survive to pass on their genes?

I have a shamelessly speculative theory; many individuals with autism display exquisite attention to detail, and are therefore able to notice things that escape us “neurotypicals”. Many of them like to collect things also and can display an impressive as well as obsessive knowledge of a given topic, from superheroes to cars to the Olympics and everything in between. In many cases, they will talk endlessly about it and at any rate they become quite knowledgeable about their chosen topics.

Now, and again, this is shameless speculation on my part, could it be possible that autistic individuals were the original “holy men” (and women)?

Suppose that a person with autism in those days took an interest on plants. He or she would know plants that can be beneficial because of some property, like for example pain relief, etc. Maybe she knew a lot about rocks, including the ones that will spark when banged against each other, which is a rather useful property for starting a fire. People like them would understandably be revered because of their vast insights and knowledge.

As a consequence, they may have been protected and cared for by their tribe, which certainly improved their chances of survival. Also, it would be a great honor to be the mate of such a person, making them very attractive to the opposite sex, therefore increasing their chances of reproduction, which ultimately is the name of the game in evolution… And the genes would go on…

As I said, and I cannot emphasize this enough, these are sheer speculations on my part. I am not aware of any studies that have looked into this. In the meantime, I’ll just keep thinking, just keep thinking…

Here is a picture of ancient Taino art. The Tainos were the original humans in the Bahamas and Caribbean islands. I happen to be from Puerto Rico, the smaller of the Lesser Antilles. This picture depicts some Taino symbols written in stone. This particular one is found at my parent’s hometown, Jayuya… (:-)…



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  1. Autism: The Eusocial Hominid Hypothesis

    “ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) are hypothesized as one of many adaptive human cognitive variations that have been maintained in modern populations via multiple genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. Introgression from “archaic” hominids (adapted for less demanding social environments) is conjectured as the source of initial intraspecific heterogeneity because strict inclusive fitness does not adequately model the evolution of distinct, copy-number sensitive phenotypes within a freely reproducing population.

    Evidence is given of divergent encephalization and brain organization in the Neanderthal (including a ~1520 cc cranial capacity, larger than that of modern humans) to explain the origin of the autism subgroup characterized by abnormal brain growth.

    Autism and immune dysfunction are frequently comorbid. This supports an admixture model in light of the recent discovery that MHC alleles (genes linked to immune function, mate selection, neuronal “pruning,” etc.) found in most modern human populations come from “archaic” hominids.

    Mitochondrial dysfunction, differential fetal androgen exposure, lung abnormalities, and hypomethylation/CNV due to hybridization are also presented as evidence.”

    A short video introduction:

    The full 2-hour video presentation:


  2. Our ability to diagnose milder forms of autism, like Aspergers, is only quite recent, so it is plausible that a number of historical figures had various forms of autism without anyone realizing it at the time.

    I’ve wondered if Darwin had Aspergers. There’s no hard evidence for it, but his reaction to the death of Annie and the detached, almost clinical way he describes his response to her death in a letter to a friend (who had also lost a child), is quite revealing. Grief was paradoxical to him.

    As you note, autism is a spectrum, with a wide range of variations, several of which are intellectually beneficial, and that there is an advantage to intelligence, especially for a tribe, means it could be naturally selected.

    There is some resistance to the retrospective diagnosis of autism, but as it is only ever diagnosed by behavioural characteristics, I think it is entirely valid to consider historical figures in this light.


    1. I agree. It is possible to at least try to assess the behavior of historical figures based on the available records. It is very likely that the fact that they had these traits contributed to their achievements. Take Newton; they closed the university for a summer, and he went and invented calculus!!!!



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