Autism isn’t a new “trend”—it’s been part of human history for millennia


Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi

By Rachel Choi, Illustrations/Graphics Editor & Chief Copyeditor & Social Media Manager

The idea that autism is a new and recent trend due to nefarious, external factors is cementing itself in the minds of many with terrifying speed. The anti-vaxxer ideology of autism being a disease is on the rise, and the belief that autism is a modern problem that has only surfaced due to weakness of the younger generation is alarmingly commonplace. 

As Autism Awareness Month greets us, it’s important for me, personally, that this stupendously vacuous notion is destroyed with facts; something a lot of bigots have never heard of. Here’s something to throw such people into a loop: there is evidence to suggest that autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, has been part of society since the hunter-gatherer era. Autism is not an epidemic, it’s human. 

Before we dive into the background and implications of ASD, also referred to as autism, we need to understand the broader umbrella term you might be vaguely familiar with: neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is a nonmedical term that describes the different ways that brains function in cognitive processes. The term categorizes two different groups of people: neurotypical, which is seen as the standard of how people think and process information, and neurodivergent, which is seen as anything that deviates from the standard. 

Neurotypical people will generally hit the same developmental and behavioral milestones around the same time—and because they have no reason to, won’t think about the fact that they are neurotypical. Neurodivergent people, on the other hand, will notice when they behave or process certain ideas and stimuli differently than others. Neurodivergence manifests differently for everyone, from subtle signs that most people—including the neurodivergent person—might not notice, to more obvious traits that contrast societal standards, like lack of ability to focus, social-interactive trouble, and so on.

Many times, people who identify as neurodivergent will be diagnosed with one or more conditions and disorders like ASD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, and so on. The reason I clarify this is to highlight the fact that many mistakenly assume neurodivergent means solely autistic, but this is not the case. Neurodivergence is not interchangeable with autism—while autistic people may identify as neurodivergent, not all neurodivergent people are autistic. Yet sometimes, autistic people will have similar symptoms that overlap with other neurodivergent conditions, which makes it tricky to accurately assess.

With this information in mind, the CDC estimates that one in 36 children identify with ASD—the exact numbers are even harder to find as many autistic adults go undiagnosed throughout their life, and more men get diagnosed than women in general. Many autistic people can have symptoms similar to other diagnoses, or simply not display any outward symptoms, making it a lot harder to detect. 

ASD affects the way in which an individual behaves, communicates, interacts, and learns. The fact that it’s a spectrum disorder also makes it difficult to put a concrete definition or list of symptoms—the more common ones can be difficulty with communication and interaction with other people, restricted interests and repetitive behaviors, little or inconsistent eye contact, the ability to learn and remember detailed information for a long time, being strong visual and auditory learners, excelling in certain topics like math, science, music, art, and more (or less for some). The lack of concrete symptoms and methods of detection is mainly due to how recent in-depth studies on ASD are being conducted and how little we know about the medical and biological processes of it. 

The bigoted views on autism mainly surface because of this shallow level of knowledge medical professionals, along with the general public, possess—and it makes it all the more important to dive deeper into the understanding of autism. ASD is often seen as monolithic, but this is not true. The lack of knowledge is just now being addressed, as the term itself only came to be not long ago. 

The term “autism” was coined in 1908 by Eugen Bleuler, a little over 100 years ago, to categorize severely withdrawn schizophrenic children. The term was redefined after a study on a set group of children was conducted. The actual definition underwent multiple revisions afterward, though, like by the notable Hans Asperger in 1944 who is thought to be the pioneer of studies on autism. It became better known in society during the ‘70s—although parents were still unable to differentiate ASD with intellectual disabilities and psychosis—and then widely known and researched during the ‘80s. Although the term has been around for a century, the actual understanding of ASD has only recently surfaced through research, and continues to grow. 

In fact, research is suggesting that ASD, and neurodivergence as a whole, have been around for a lot longer than anyone thought, dating as far back as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The theory that our hominid ancestors were living in rapidly changing environments, like the Ice Age, sometimes even within an individual’s lifespan, made it so that cognitive behavioral adaptation—specialized brains for specific tasks—was necessary. According to the University of York, hereditary autism is predominantly found within people of Northern European origin, specifically those whose ancestors would have had to live through the Ice Age. 

In response to adversity, ancestral humans developed specialized behavior to survive: the majority of our ancestors were capable of general knowledge—predicting trends and recognizing global, hereditary patterns—while others would be better suited for a specific, precise skill set. These individuals with the capacity for specificity share traits with our modern understanding of ASD. They would be better at making hunting spearheads with deadly accuracy and efficiency, remember minute details to navigate many miles of hunting terrain, and accurately analyze animal behavioral patterns. 

This type of benefit stemming from ASD is referred to as the “autism advantage,” a relatively new way of explaining the fact that autistic individuals have advantages, like focus, memory, and spatial intelligence.

Trouble with social cognition would have been a benefit back at a time when people had to focus on survival rather than large-scale social harmony. The prehistoric implications of ASD are also supported by the world’s earliest forms of art, as the “autism advantage” offered our autistic ancestors the boost needed to perceive the environment three-dimensionally. Individuals were able to produce realistic, dramatic, and dynamic drawings of animals with incredible accuracy and perspective—like the painted artwork in caves such as the Chauvet Pont d’Arc Cave in France. 

So yeah, it’s not preposterous to tell your anti-vax parents that autism has been around before the sperms and eggs that formed their great grandparents on this deranged planet. Autism didn’t appear out of thin air once vaccines became a thing. 

In the 21st century, hunter-gatherer dynamics have evolved and much of society no longer actively forages for food. As such, the focused and repetitive nature of ASD is thought to have manifested in different ways, such as a specialized skill in the arts or an expansive knowledge of a certain topic. However, the importance of neurodiversity still persists in both corporate and everyday life to balance cognitive groups and communities in society. 

Despite this, however, the stigma against ASD persists. This is largely due to how people perceive autism when observed outwardly—a lot of people have a mean tendency to oust individuals who seem different than the standard. The lack of eye contact in the West is considered rude, so neurodivergent people who struggle with eye contact are deemed as abnormal. Repetition is observed as obsessive and therefore odd, so repetitive behaviors are seen as uncomfortable. 

Society is also frightened by the more severe symptoms of autism, such as violent or sudden movements. There is no delicate way to put this, as it’s true that some autistic people need help in preventing self-harm or hurting others. This potential for aggressiveness, however, doesn’t diminish the fact that people with autism are still human and deserve respect. They’re not scare tactics to reinforce the idea that ASD is something that needs to be eradicated; they’re not freak cases to be dissected with a pitying glance and a fearful gasp. 

This is an old story. Anyone who goes against the norms are written off as weird, scary, odd—and shunned. It’s a tired story, and despite the growing recognition of neurodiversity, the stigmas still stand. 

Evidence suggests that autism isn’t a new trend, yes, but it also serves as a wake-up call to everyone who’s complicit with the biases of a lot of bigoted people. Every single derogatory statement and every single moment of silence in front of them is another person hurt, left to wonder why they’re the way they are despite the fact that they’re just as normal as any neurotypical person out there. Hey, fun fact, there’s literally not one brain that works the same way as another. 

The idea that ASD is a disease needed to be cured or a disorder to be fixed is outdated and extremely ignorant. It’s Autism Awareness Month. It’s the perfect time to learn about the ways ASD presents itself, and how it’s a different experience for everyone. It’s also the perfect opportunity to grow a spine and tell someone off if they’re being a pisshead about ASD. 

Happy Autism Awareness Month to all. It would do well for those who think autism is a disease and is contagious to actually research instead of scrolling through Facebook for once.