My wife and I have been doing our best to practice social distancing. For me the concept of avoiding people is nothing new. It’s actually kind of my jam. One of the newest benefits of autism is that my natural aversion to crowds and unfamiliar environments fits right in with the new social paradigm created by the virus. For my wife, an NT, it’s more disruptive.
She’s a teacher and has been ordered to work from home. It will likely be many weeks, if not months, before face-to-face classes resume. The subject she teaches is one in which some physical interaction with students is fundamental. It’s going to be a difficult transition for everyone, but there are some benefits. For one thing, she figures she’ll save around eight hours of commute time per week. We also get to spend a lot more time together, which is awesome.
We went for a drive, something we haven’t done in a long time. We saw a twelve-foot-tall metal chicken, half an airplane someone with a sense of humor had put in the ground tail up and a church that called itself a “Cowboy Church”. We also discovered the longest dead-end road I’ve ever seen. What we did not do is get out of the car, even to take a picture with Mecha-Chicken, though the temptation was great.
Can one be both part of and apart from the world at the same time? This is a question many need to start answering.
There is a theory, one I like for obvious reasons, that autism may not be a disorder, but rather an as-yet-incomplete evolutionary process. The first objection to this usually revolves around the fact that autism, at first glance, does not seem to provide any evolutionary advantage. But that discounts context.
When most people think of evolution, they think of things like opposable thumbs, walking upright and the physical size of the brain. But those sorts of gross, physical changes are not the whole picture.
There is a saying in neuropsychiatry – “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. Essentially this describes how neural architecture changes according circumstances, most obviously in forming habits. You eat junk food, junk food makes you feel good, your brain links junk food to feeling good. Repeat this often enough and your brain will physically “rewire” itself to create a permanent link between junk food and the release of chemicals that make you feel good. Boom, you’ve just developed a junk food addiction.
Now look at society as a whole.
Even before the coronavirus, social distancing was nothing new. Technology was facilitating less dependence upon face-to-face gatherings. The ability to focus on a single task for lengthy periods of time while blocking out external distractions was becoming an essential skill in many of the best paying jobs. Education and even personal entertainment were becoming more individualized. Social skills were shrinking in importance.
Taken to an extreme, which we’re now actually getting to see, who will be better adapted to these changes, a neurotypical person whose fundamental nature requires social interaction, or a high-functioning autistic who would rather hyper-focus and avoid groups of people altogether?
Keep in mind, I’m not saying the autistics of today – myself included – are some sort of evolutionary paragons. But the theory doesn’t say that the current iteration of autism is the end product of a new evolutionary process. Only that it is one step on a new path.
Another objection to the “autism as evolution” idea is that evolution requires millions of years, or at least hundreds of thousands. But does it? Neurons that fire together, wire together. Thanks to research into neuroplasticity we now know that it is possible for the brain to change in major ways within a period of a single lifetime.
Victims of traumatic brain injuries have shown a remarkable ability to adapt so that functions once thought to be locked to a specific region of the brain can be taken over by other areas. Even fundamental functions such as senses and motor control have been shown to be able to migrate to other areas of the brain.
We’re not talking about a muscle or a bone. The brain is still largely a mystery. Some theories suggest that memory and cognition operate on a quantum-scale. Is it really such a stretch to think that such a marvelous device can change far more quickly than, say, a spine or a hand?
The theory holds that, at some point in the future, the evolutionary process of which autism is part, will result in a new kind of human. A sort of hyper-cerebral. Even in our time we can see an increasing number of autistics who’ve managed make their autism work.
The biggest problem with evolution is that it’s something that can really only be viewed in hindsight. At some point in the future, will humanity look back on what we now call neurotypicals in the same way it now looks back on homo habilis? I would not expect this idea to go over well in the current world. Understandably, no one wants to be thought of as last year’s model. Thinking that your version of humanity is on its way out is a hard pill to swallow. But don’t worry, even if this theory turns out to have legs, it will still likely be at least centuries before Homo autisticus becomes a finished product.
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Stay safe and…
EMBRACE YOUR WEIRD!
Someday, Mecha-Chicken, someday.