By Damian Challingsworth
Many thinkers, both scientific and philosophical, have noted that the minds of people on the autism spectrum are in a sense “older” than would be expected from an evolutionary standpoint. In addition, Temple Grandin observed that when reacting to unfamiliar stimuli, cattle behave in almost the exact same manner as people on the autism spectrum. She came to this conclusion after putting a briefcase in the middle of a cattle field and witnessing that the cows froze as though they were trying to understand this unfamiliar object. This is the exact same way a person on the autistic spectrum often approaches a change in environment (Peterson). Because of this discovery, there has been a drive to attempt to understand the minds of those on the spectrum by using cows as a baseline.
Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve felt as though there was never a place where I really belong. Being around groups of unfamiliar people is often extremely stressful to the point I begin having physical symptoms such as cold sweats or painful muscle cramps in my stomach. Even when a gathering of people is ostensibly happy or on the outset relaxing, it is nearly impossible for me to experience those same feelings. You might see a group of people having fun at a party, but I see a massive red flag telling me to run away as fast as possible. One of my earliest memories is running out of the house, having a panic attack at my own birthday party with my friends and family there because it was so loud and exciting that my senses couldn’t take it anymore. My animal brain had activated, and like a frightened deer I had to scamper off into the treeline. I returned later kicking and screaming. I didn’t have the words to describe my discomfort and to an extent still don’t have them.
Nature is far less dynamic than humanity, despite what popular culture would have you believe. Strange or unexpected things don’t often happen in the middle of a forest. The natural world is far more comfortable and controllable, with even more mundane events amplified. For instance, you might expect to find a bird’s nest in the forest, but actually encountering one after hours of seeing nothing but trail and trees can be a sublime moment in its own small way. This is a departure from John Muir’s experience of the sublime, where he is surrounded at all angles with excitement. My sublime moments in nature are small experiences, like when I found a baby turtle on the trail or a low lying bird’s nest. They are sublime to me because for a moment I realize I have total control and anything I do could affect the small creature, as if for a blink of an eye I had a God’s-eye view. I returned the turtle to the water and left the nest undisturbed.
A possible evolutionary explanation for why despite so many years a condition such as autism still exists is the role it once played in humanity’s past. In the same way, there is a paleological explanation for why whales still have vestigial leg bones or why the human genome has decided to maintain support for autism. The theory goes that during prehistoric days of hunter-gatherers, men and women with autism or autistic tendencies were actually a subset of a tribe’s infrastructure. They functioned as a sort of constant long-range hunting party to bring back food for the tribe (USC). The ability to withstand being alone for extended periods of time, the ability to hyperfocus on small details, and the fixations on singular interests may seem like odd traits today, but in the context of a neolithic hunter in the forest they begin to make sense. In reality, those with Autism Spectrum Disorders are simply existing out of a time and place where their skills and personality could be appreciated for what they are. With this being a possible reason for the existence of autism, the adaptation of this hyper-focused mindset has to be retooled for a modern purpose. The same drive that once allowed for solitary hunting in prehistoric times now allows a subset of those with autism to “adapt” to modern society, redirecting their energies to other tasks such as computers, engineering, art, etc. I used quotations around adapt because it is never truly possible to adapt to autism, just to work around it until it is no longer a hindrance. Those of us who are aware of the rules that have been forced on us have to keep a mask on.
We live in such a hyper-socialized society that those who do not live in lockstep with social norms and expectations are seen as odd, broken, or downright defective. Hyper-socialization is an incredibly common trope in dystopian literature: pick any book from the genre and see how this theme occurs again and again. In every dystopian story, the protagonist is an outsider who does not mesh with the society they live in, often to dire consequences. From 1984 to Brave New World there is a constant need on the part of the protagonist to simultaneously want to fit in and to run away into nature never to be seen again. It is chilling to compare the way these people in the stories are abused to the way that society once treated the autistic. Winston Smith being tortured in Room 101 pales in comparison to the decades if not centuries of abuse that have taken place in our own backyards in asylums. Unlike Winston’s experience, there was no end to the suffering there. There was no magic word to let us be freed; we didn’t even have a voice.
In the recent past, average people never really got very far from their home villages or towns. Every day was essentially the same. If you recorded the life of an average medieval workman, you would be appalled by modern standards at the lack of dynamism in his life. No fast cars, no constant excitement, no overstimulation. Are we the abnormal ones or are you just desensitized?
There is often alarmism when new and frightening statistics are dropped suggesting that rates of autism are rising year after year. But there have always been people like me. They’ve just been able to pass as normal, marginalized, overlooked as being mentally deficient, or considered eccentric. Those on the lower end of the autism spectrum in years previous would have been cast aside and forgotten about. Interesting how people with autism are noticed more when you don’t lock them in a cell and throw away the key.
Ultimately, I find that nature provides a place where I can act unraveled. I can swing around on trees, stare at water, climb, sing, scream at the top of my lungs, and do things that in a civilized location would be considered unkempt. I can feel a connection to animals and their struggles. Sometimes I want to slink away like a cat, sometimes I want to roam the hills like a deer, and sometimes I think I am just right the way I am.
I have noticed recently due to the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent mass quarantining of populations that people have tried to develop ways of coping with being alone far more often than normal. I am glad that mental health is becoming a focus now more than ever before. To those struggling with keeping their heads on straight, I would want them to take away the idea that they are not alone, and to think of those long past days of hunter-gatherers living in solitude to provide for their tribes and loved ones. You might be alone, but you are on a mission.
Peterson, Jordan B, director. “Jordan Peterson on Autism.” Youtube, The Vids, 9 May 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMUIbQH-Id8.
(USC) University of Southern California. (2011, June 3). “Autism may have had advantages in humans’ hunter-gatherer past, researcher believes.” Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110603122849.htm
Muir, J. (n.d.). “The Mountains of California, by John Muir (1894).” Retrieved from http://www.yosemite.ca.us/john_muir_writings/the_mountains_of_california/chapter_10.html