Disabilities, Autism, and Neurodiversity in Human Evolution
Vaccines are a form of accessibility technology. This is because not everyone’s immune system works in the same way. As people age, their immune systems naturally start to slow down and weaken so that they are more susceptible to infections. Other people have compromised immune systems that can be temporary or permanent. Other people can’t be vaccinated because they are allergic to some kinds of medicines, so they are at risk as well. When enough people are vaccinated, it breaks down barriers and enables these people with immunocompromised disabilities to participate more fully in society.
There are a lot of myths surrounding vaccines. Today’s blog post will be tackling the biggest of them: that vaccines cause autism. Autism is a complex neurological condition that expresses itself in a wide variety of ways. It affects how people see the world, impacts their behavior, and communication. No two people experience or express autism in the same way. For this reason, autism is best explained as a spectrum because of the diversity found in this community.
There is a continuous increase in the autistic population, particularly in the last couple of decades. Many scientists and researchers are trying to figure out why the population is increasing. Autism is a genetic disorder, but the genes for autism are found in most individuals (1). This is why the saying “everyone is on the spectrum” is popular. But just because everyone is on the spectrum doesn’t mean that everyone is autistic.
Autism has existed since the dawn of humanity. Recent research has shown that one of the genes for autism AUTS2, is one of the things that separated Homo sapiens from other human species (2). It also shows up exactly where early humans diverged from the great ape family. More research needs to be done into this area since disability studies is still a new and emerging field. With new genetic testing, we can detect autism and other neurological conditions in our ancestors.
One of the most interesting things that have been found is that Homo sapiens, in comparison to other human species like the Neanderthals, were highly susceptible to brain conditions (3). In other words, Homo sapiens have a much higher capacity of neurodiversity (4). Neurodiversity refers to brains having a lot of variation in things like social functions, attention, learning, mood, among many other things. To give examples of this, some people are more extroverted and some are more introverted. Some people can learn by listening to instructions while others learn better by being shown what to do. Some people are good at verbally expressing their opinions to others and in other cases (myself included) are better at communicating in other forms such as writing. That’s why some people understand how to compose music, why some people have dyslexia, others pick up on patterns, and some struggle to learn to read. The list of examples is endless. With other human species, their neurodiversity might have been that they were only extroverts or that they learned only by a certain method.
Since Homo sapiens are the only surviving species, our neurodiversity likely played a large role in our ability to adapt and innovate. But this neurodiversity can also cause problems. For example, public schooling is often like a “factory line,” assuming that everyone will learn at the same pace and can learn in the same way. The reality is that there needs to be more diversity in how things are taught because not everyone learns the same way. It’s a topic at the center of education because we are still trying to figure out how to best accommodate everyone’s needs.
In the case of autism, there is no evidence that it developed in other human species or any other type of animal. Therefore, it can be assumed that autism is unique to homo sapiens as an expression of neurodiversity. This also applies to many other types of mental disabilities such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Down Syndrome, and many others. Neurodiversity is not limited to mental disorders either. For example, when it was discovered that I was deaf, there was a whole team of doctors who conducted a study to find out why I was deaf. A physical examination confirmed that there was nothing mechanically wrong with how my ears worked. When I was six weeks old, I was given an MRI which came back as normal. The only conclusion the doctors could come to was that my brain had different connections. In other words, I am deaf as a result of neurodiversity.
Disabilities caused by neurodiversity, such as autism, allow people to bring different toolsets, skills, and talents to the table. Diversity was a huge advantage. So, now that it is understood that autism is a naturally occurring and normal state of being human, the question must be asked: why are more people being diagnosed with autism than ever before?
First, autism is hard-coded into our DNA. There have always been autistic people throughout history though they have been widely misunderstood. Evidence of autism can often be found in folklore such as changeling myths, where a fairy would replace a child and act in odd ways. These myths stem from autism as it generally doesn’t become noticeable until about the age of three to five. Without scientific explanations, it was easy to believe that the autistic child was possessed by an evil spirit or replaced by another being altogether.
Autism may not have been noticed in the past because old societies with repetitive work, such as farming or crafting has fewer barriers. An autistic man who didn’t have great social skills might have been regarded as “the strange, old man over the hill” Societies in the past didn’t have as many barriers to those with autism. It was much harder to see. In contrast, today’s world is bigger, louder, brighter, and far more complex and interconnected to the point that even non-autistic people can become overstimulated in day-to-day life.
In short, the reason why more people are being diagnosed with autism than ever before is that the world is more hostile towards them than it has ever before. Even those with mild amounts of autism are now being affected, whereas in the past, their autism might not have been noticeable or challenged by the society they lived in.
Personally, I don’t think the number of autistic people has increased over time. Rather, because we have a greater understanding of it and because of how hostile modern society is towards those with autism, that’s why the autistic population seems to be increasing. Autism has always existed. We just haven’t recognized it until recently.
In conclusion, autism is not caused by vaccines. Autism has always been a part of what it means to be human. Some researchers argue that we are human because of disabilities like autism (3). Neurodiversity was and still is, important and invaluable. Because of neurodiversity, Homo sapiens were likely able to outthink, adapt, and innovate in a way that other human species couldn’t. Scientists and researchers when trying to find the first signs of humanity and society in human evolution, look for a healed femur. A person or any other animal, that has a broken femur will not be able to care for themselves and will die without help. So a healed femur means that at some point, at least one other person or a whole group helped nurse the injured person back to health, bringing them food, keeping them safe, and adapting to live differently. In other words, the first sign of our humanity and compassion begins with the presence of disabilities.
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- Sinclair, James. Is Everyone on the Autism Spectrum? 18 Mar. 2019, autisticandunapologetic.com/2019/03/16/is-everyone-on-the-autism-spectrum/.
- Oksenberg, Nir, et al. “Function and Regulation of AUTS2, a Gene Implicated in Autism and Human Evolution.” PLoS Genetics, vol. 9, no. 1, 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1003221.
- Spikins, Penny. “What Role Did Autism Play in Human Evolution?” Sapiens, 9 May 2017, http://www.sapiens.org/biology/autism-human-evolution/.
- Langley, Michelle. “Humanity’s Story Has No End of Surprising Twists.” Sapiens, 15 Mar. 2018, http://www.sapiens.org/biology/human-evolution-australia-asia/.