Thursday, June 2, 2011

Radio Interview & Press Release on Autism

- Press play above to hear an interview that I did with KFWB news radio about autism.

- This is the USC issued press release for the article:

Autism May Have Had Advantages in Human’s Hunter-Gatherer Past, Paper in Evolutionary Psychology Finds

Los Angeles, CA. A brain science researcher at the University of Southern California has concluded that the autism spectrum may represent, not disease, but an ancient way of life for a minority of ancestral humans. The article, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, proposes that some of the genes contributing to autism were selected and maintained because they facilitated solitary subsistence during prehistoric times.Individuals on the autism spectrum are described as having had the potential to be self-sufficient and capable foragers in environments marked by diminished social contact.In other words, these individuals, unlike neurotypical humans, would not have been obligately social and would have been predisposed toward taking up a relatively solitary lifestyle. In fact, certain psychological characteristics of autism are taken as a suite of cognitive adaptations that would have facilitated lone foraging.

People with autism have difficulty interacting socially, preferring to focus on narrow fields of interest. Reser speculates that, in the ancestral past, the penchant for obsessive, repetitive activities would have been focused by hunger and thirst towards the learning and refinement of hunting and gathering skills. Today, autistic children are fed by their parents and so hunger does not actuate or guide their interests and activities. Because modern children with autism are not able to forage or to watch their parents forage, and because they can obtain food free of effort, their interests are redirected toward salient, nonsocial activities; some classic examples being: stacking blocks, flipping light switches, lining toys up in rows, playing with running water, chasing vacuum cleaners, and collecting bottle tops.

A popular new perspective on autism, frequently referred to as the “autism advantage,” purports that unlike mental retardation, autism has compensating benefits including increased abilities for spatial intelligence, concentration and certain forms of attention and memory. A great deal of new research supports this line of reasoning by illustrating that although individuals have trouble with social cognition, their other cognitive abilities are largely intact. Until now though, very little attention has been given to how autism’s advantages may have played a role during human prehistory.

Reser compares the behavior of individuals on the autism spectrum with the behavior of other solitary foraging animals including orangutans and montane voles. Reser points out that like dogs, some animals are obligately social whereas others, like cats, can transition between social and solitary lifestyles. He emphasizes that individuals on the autism spectrum share a variety of behavioral traits with solitary species.  Both are low on measures of gregariousness, socialization, direct gazing, eye contact, facial expression, facial recognition, emotional engagement, affiliative need and other social behaviors. Despite the fact that solitary animals are low on these measures, they do not have difficulty learning the behaviors they need to survive. It may have been the same for individuals with autism.

In prehistoric times group size may have fluctuated greatly and inconsistencies in the ways that natural selection influenced the social abilities of humans may well be responsible for the large variation in social abilities seen in human populations.

“Conceptualizing the autism spectrum in terms of natural selection & behavioral ecology: The solitary forager hypothesis,” is published in Evolutionary Psychology and is available at:

Eddie North-Hager / Associate Director of Media Relations /  University of Southern California


- Below are some recent posts about the article, including one by Science Daily. The one at is very interesting to me. It is written by a doctor who is the mother of a child with autism and it makes several great points.

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