in which anthropologists rescue autism’s reputation from psychiatry

If autistic traits were purely bad, natural selection would’ve eliminated them by now. Thus, we need to account for the evolutionary advantages of autism.

This is a thought-provoking attempt at doing that, which has been expanded into a book called The Prehistory of Autism. The paper makes me want to read the book.

The important point is that we have to think about autism in the context of society as it existed for most of human history, which was not a late-capitalist society:

The evolution of social cognition may be more complex than increasing complexity of theory of mind abilities, however. High levels of ‘recursive’ theory of mind (thinking though several levels of others’ thoughts) do not carry the advantages we might at first assume. Recursive theory of mind is cognitively costly. Moreover on an individual level, recursive mentalising can lead to anxiety as to what others think or feel, and is associated with psychosis (Brosnan et al. 2010). Recursive mentalising in response to social situations can also carry negative judgements from others as we trust and respect those who cooperate without counting the costs, i.e. those motivated by another’s wellbeing adhere to moral principles without attempting to think through the intentions of others. We collaborate and go to great lengths to support such individuals as they can be trusted in important situations (Hoffman, Yoeli, and Nowak 2015). Advanced levels of perspective-taking can even increase competitiveness between individuals (adding ‘fuel to the fire’), where it becomes ‘do unto others as you think they will try to do unto you’ (Pierce et al. 2013). Whilst low theory of mind abilities carry a reduced understanding of complex social relationships they also bring advantages which enable their persistence in collaborative contexts (Devaine, Hollard, and Daunizeau 2014).

Whilst we generalise evolutionary pressures as proceeding towards greater cogitation of other’s thoughts and feelings and increasingly complex intuitive models of other minds, the reality is likely to have been more complex. We argue that social buffering of vulnerabilities in increasingly complex human societies may have encouraged a range of different strategies to pro-sociality that go beyond increasingly recursive theory of mind, and lead to a wider range of pro-social human personalities.

I think it’s great that autistic people’s moral reasoning is often pathologized, but Spikins et al. make it central to autistic people’s continued existence:

However as human collaborative morality emerged the following of and enforcement of group norms became primary, and reputation, influence and selection were structured through these norms. This transition is significant in opening up a niche for alternative adaptive strategies to sociality for several reasons. First, collaborative morality brings with it the punishment of free-riders, bullies and cheats and third-party retaliation for anti-social behaviour (Boehm 2011) creating an environment in which those with less complex theory of mind abilities would be protected from exploitation. Second, as relationships shift focus from individual alliances seen in other primates (where monitoring of potential personal exploitation is of prime importance) to a larger-scale group, judgements and contributions to group wellbeing become important (Tomasello and Vaish 2013b). Rather than social astuteness, signals of pro-social motivations and behaviours that positively affect the group thus become a major factor in reputation and selective success (Tomasello et al. 2012; Silk and House 2016). Third, the food sharing, collaborative parenting and maintenance of egalitarian dynamics which form the basis of human evolutionary success (Whiten and Erdal 2012) buffer individual shortfalls not only in resources (the basis for economic success) but also in abilities. An expert hunter need not also be an attuned and sensitive parent to be reproductively successful, and the converse is equally the case.

Autistic theory of mind is good enough!

Rather than see individuals with AS as outside society, anthropological perspectives argue that we should recognise a different sociality (Grinker 2010; Ochs and Solomon 2010). Individuals with AS certainly develop a theory of mind which is different in being based on the use of rules and logic, but nonetheless works. Theory of mind develops late in children and is constrained (with individuals with AS being more likely to fail at the level of second order theory of mind, i.e. ‘Y believes that X believes this’: Baron-Cohen 1989). However rather than being asocial, a rule-based theory of mind is sufficient to ‘get along’ socially (Baron-Cohen 2009), including facilitating long-term collaborative planning (W. Yoshida et al. 2010). One is often unaware from casual acquaintance that someone has autism and individuals with AS often have high levels of role and function in society (Howlin 2000) particularly in spheres such as engineering, mathematics, physics, information technology and law (Rodman 2003; Fitzgerald 2004) and have partners and children (Baron-Cohen et al. 1998; Lau and Peterson 2011).

A social understanding based on logic may bring disadvantages to understanding emotionally and socially complex situations, but it frees up cognitive potential for enhanced abilities in other realms, both technical and social, which can contribute to a positive social reputation.

Enhanced memory and perceptual skills are obviously helpful when you’re not having a meltdown in a grocery store:

It isn’t difficult to see how such skills might contribute to survival and be accorded a certain respect in a Palaeolithic context. Indeed, Happé and Frith concluded that the persistence of an extreme cognitive focus on detail within the gene pool, ‘is not hard to explain’ (Happé et al, 2006). Enhanced perceptual abilities alongside exceptional memory for example provide advantages in domains such as identifying plant resources (from smell or fine visual details) to discrimination of animal properties (through enhanced differentiation of movement and sound) with acute perception of motion likely to be significant in hunting success. Enhanced understanding of animal behaviour, plus a unique connection with and focus on animals, is likely to be particularly significant in hunting. Several authors also argue that the technical and analytical focus of AS in past hunter-gatherer contexts can facilitate improvements in tool making and mechanical thinking (Spikins 2009; Lomelin 2011; Reser 2011), and others for their role in agricultural contexts (Del Giudice et al. 2010; Charlton and Rosenkranz 2016). The incorporation of these skills into a community would, in this way, play a role in the development of specialists, the construction of specialist niches and enhanced innovation.

Distinctive technical and social roles for the skills of individuals with AS that collaborative morality allows to be integrated can be seen in ethnographically documented contexts. In his study of Siberian reindeer herders for example Vitebsky describes ‘old grandfather’, an individual who had a detailed memory of the parentage, medical history and character of each one of the 2,600 reindeer in the herd, vital knowledge which made a significant contribution to their management and survival. Old grandfather was more comfortable in the company of reindeer than of humans, but was much respected and had a wife, son and grandchildren (Vitebsky 2005). In archaeological contexts the elaborate specialisation on precision and extensive practice seen in lithic manufacture at the last glacial maximum (Sinclair 2015) provides another example where autistic traits would be advantageous with technical specialists also recognised amongst modern Inuit.

Having qualitatively different theory of mind might bring a whole variety of advantages:

The logic-based theory of mind of AS for example confers an elevated understanding of certain minds. Individuals with AS understand, and can predict, each other’s thoughts and motivations better than neurotypicals (Chown 2014), and some appear to possess a heightened understanding and sensitivity towards animals (Prothmann et al. 2009). This latter facility may have been significant not only in hunting, but in domestication, for example of wolves, which occurs from at least 30,000 years ago.

Most particularly, however, AS brings a distinctive understanding of, and responses to, others’ emotions. A perception that individuals with AS do not feel for others, is wrongly placed. Affective empathy for example is shown to be relatively preserved compared with cognitive empathy in some studies (Rogers et al. 2007), and brain activation studies show that empathic brain responses are not absent but may be modulated by differences in thinking for example (e.g. alexithymia [Bird et al. 2010] and appraisal differences [Hadjikhani et al. 2014). Nonetheless, faced with a complex emotionally charged social situation those with AS show reduced expressed or intuitive empathy (Grove et al. 2014) and have difficulties identifying complex social emotions (Wright et al. 2008). They may go through continual cognitive re-appraisal (Hadjikhani et al. 2014; Torralva et al. 2013) and depend on logic (Hill, Sally, and Frith 2004) to search for appropriate ways to respond, which can lead to an apparent lack of caring (Hadjikhani et al. 2014). Though not lacking in pro-social motivation the strategy of pro-social engagement associated with AS becomes distinctive, and in turn leads to suitability for certain roles. For example individuals with AS are often valued for their logical response in a crisis (Rodman 2003). They may stay true to principles rather than being influenced by a need to maintain social standing (Cage 2015).

Specific kinds of social interaction of those with AS are thus distinctive. Such individuals tend to rely on logic, rules (Gleichgerrcht et al. 2013), patterns, and memory (Sahyoun et al. 2009) as well as environmental and sensory information (O’Connor & Kirk 2008; Baron-Cohen 2000) in social interactions and tend to focus on scientific and analytical discussions, contributing new knowledge (Bauminger et al. 2008), or discussing particular shared interests with similar minded friends. They may prefer to employ material culture or technology to communicate (Ochs and Solomon 2010; Grinker 2010) rather than engage in face-to-face sharing of narratives or emotional displays (Fitzgerald and O’Brien 2007; Baron-Cohen 2012). Although often uninterested in social reputation (Izuma et al. 2011), a distinctive focus means that those with AS often attain notable roles in society (Howlin 2007), particularly in the fields of medicine, engineering, mathematics, physics and information technology (Baron-Cohen et al. 1998; Rodman 2003; Fitzgerald 2004; Fitzgerald and O’Brien 2007). Evidence for rule-based morality associated with AS deriving from a logical approach to relationships can also be found in the literature (De Vignemont 2007). The intuitive and empathetic theory of mind of those who are neurotypical may facilitate agreeableness, yet this very same trait makes it difficult to resist authoritarian controls (Bègue et al. 2014). In a pertinent study of enhanced perceptual abilities and resistance to social conformity (Yafai, Verrier, and Reidy 2014), which compared people with autism with neurotypical individuals in the Asch conformity paradigm (Asch 1951), those with autism were found to resist changing their spontaneous judgement to an array of graphic lines despite social pressure to change by conforming to the erroneous judgement of an authoritative confederate. Whilst a logical and moralistic approach to social interactions may not lead to fluid conversations, pleasing comments or a natural ability to put others at ease, a tendency to be whistle-blowers, and to counteract aggressive behaviour through adherence to moral principles, gives individuals with AS a certain respect in a collaborative social context. A willingness to police cheats and counteract dominance is highly regarded in hunter-gatherer contexts (Boehm et al. 1993). Likewise in modern contexts individuals with AS are often drawn to careers in law (Rodman 2003; Fitzgerald and O’Brien 2007) and in past contexts to the imposition of social norms and rules. Clearly agreed rules are essential to intergroup collaboration in modern hunter-gatherers. Amongst the Yamana individuals with a reputation for adherence to rules are given authority to impose order at initiation ceremonies for example (McEwan, Borrero, and Prieto 2014), and equally the strict imposition of highly complex and precise rules, known as niqaiturasuaktut, allow collaboration and division of carcasses during collaborative winter seal hunts amongst the Netsilik (Balikci 1989).

Autistic people also do a lot of valuable work in modern society, but the difference is that modern society is ungrateful. It’s gotten so complicated that it’s possible to be completely clueless about most things required to sustain your life.  How many people sit around and stop to appreciate the work of chemical engineers, for example?

Other “mental illnesses” probably had their advantages, too.  How much anthropology is the average mental health worker exposed to?