What Is Aspergers? The Evolutionary Benefit of Autistic Traits

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under General

In the past, those with Aspergers were often thought to have anxiety disorders or were simply labeled as “introverts”. Today, the inclusion of Aspergers is one of the main reasons for the rise in the numbers of those on the autism spectrum. 

Despite the fact that it is becoming more mainstream—thanks in large part to mother’s advocacy groups—Aspergers is often greatly misunderstood, particularly in adults. The traits associated with Aspergers can trigger social difficulties and inadvertently lead to anxiety and depression. Most are also unaware that Aspergers and other spectrum traits may have had great importance in our evolutionary history. Those on the spectrum may have thrived when the more social among us could not.

There are a number of strengths inherent in the Aspergers diagnosis, even if it is discouraging due to constant bombardment of how people are “supposed to” behave or feel. Understanding the symptoms, the benefits, and the treatments available may assist those who struggle with the symptoms of Aspergers as well as those who love them.

Let’s start with some definitions. 

What is Aspergers?

The DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) identifies Aspergers cases using the following criteria:

1. Impairment in social interaction, including at least two of the following:

  • Impairment in nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact, facial expressions, postures and other physical gestures, which may include awkwardness or clumsy body language
  • Failure to develop peer relationships at appropriate developmental levels
  • Lack of reciprocation to social or emotional cues
  • Does not look to share enjoyment with others, i.e., doesn’t show interesting objects to others, little interest in pointing out interesting things to other people, or shows little response or empathy to others speaking to them

2. Restricted or repetitive patterns of interests, behavior, or activities, such as:

  • Preoccupations or obsessions with a limited number of topics, which is abnormal in intensity, such as obsessions with data on earthquakes or hockey player statistics
  • Sticking to repetitive actions or routines even if they have little obvious purpose
  • Repetition in mannerisms, such as flapping, hand or finger tapping, twisting, or more complicated movements (These are often used as coping skills)
  • Preoccupation with pieces or parts of objects 

3. The above issues cause significant impairments in important areas of functioning, such as social or occupational issues

4. No significant delay of language development

5. No significant delay of cognitive development, self-help skills, environmental curiosity or behavioral issues (besides social interactions) 

Unfortunately, many of those diagnostic criteria don’t necessarily show how Aspergers might effect someone on a day-to-day level.

So what does Aspergers look like? 

Those with Aspergers:  

  • May have differences in thinking, such as thinking in pictures, thinking in patterns, thinking primarily in numbers or focusing on certain details instead of the entire image or idea (This has the potential to trigger anxiety in those who see small details that might be dangerous, or those who remember things like the number of car accidents that occur every year, leading to fears of driving.)
  • May take things literally, or have a hard time understanding certain types of humor. (However, not understanding humor is not—on its own—indicative of disorder, otherwise half of the people who don’t understand my puns would have a diagnosis. Either that, or I’m just not funny, which is also a distinct possibility.) 
  • May be referred to as “introverted”
  • Trouble engaging in small talk 
  • Often have above average intelligence
  • May focus on certain elements of situations while having trouble understanding others due to alterations in the way the brain processes information  
  • Trouble controlling emotions or processing feelings
  • Responds strongly, often emotionally, when routines or schedules are interrupted
  • May have issues in sexual relationships, such as seeming inappropriate or immature  
  • May have anxiety, social anxiety symptoms, or depression

Aspergers Misunderstandings

Because of the above issues, there are many opportunities for misunderstanding about those with Aspergers, usually because behaviors are misinterpreted by others. So let’s break down a few of them, shall we? 

Myth: Those with Aspergers don’t really like people and refuse to communicate with others.

Fact: In Aspergers, individuals may be able to form close relationships with family members, but may have marked difficulty with outsiders, usually due to trouble integrating information. Those with Aspergers often have trouble processing social cues which may make them seem disinterested or unkind. For great insight into this issue, I strongly recommend The Reason I Jump, a memoir by Naoki Higoshida. Higoshida is an autistic teenager who describes his internal battle with trying to process information and feeling shameful or sad for hurting the feelings of others. From his perspective, what the general population sees as “normal communication” is overwhelming and seems like a different language. This leads him to repeat back phrases, a time stall in order to process the information and attempt to understand it1

What would you do if you found yourself in a country where no one spoke the same language? I get overwhelmed just ordering Italian food at an authentic Italian restaurant. (That whole “me not being funny” thing is looking more and more likely all the time.) 

While autism clearly has a higher position on the spectrum than Aspergers, and thus more intense symptoms, the discussion may help those at lower levels of impairment to feel understood. 

Myth: Those with Aspergers lack sympathy or empathy.

Fact: Those who have Aspergers are not lacking empathy or feelings. While many (though not all) do not feel lonliness in the same way as those not on the spectrum due to the evolutionary benefits discussed below, for the spectrum of other emotions there is instead a deficit in understanding the feelings themselves and trouble understanding how to express them. For example, they may recognize that something negative is occurring, but is it anger? Is it sadness? And what should they do about it, particularly if they don’t quite get understand how to mirror those emotions? It is a truly overwhelming place to be, and often causes great anxiety and misunderstanding. 

Myth: Those with Aspergers are less intelligent and just don't really understand what others are talking about.

Fact: Often the differences in processing information leads those with Aspergers to focus on different things than the rest of the popultion. While others may look at an entire picture and see a sunset over the ocean, someone with these traits may focus on boat on the water, or a pattern of ripples on the waves. Sometimes, this shift in focus can make those on the spectrum seem as if they are not paying attention, but many are simply paying attention to small details--like parts, patterns or visual cues--that the rest of the popultion would miss. But attention to detail matters. A lot. For all of us. 

"Hey, Jerry, I know you said the small parts on this airplane engine are not quite right, but the whole looks pretty good to me. Send her to the tarmac."

I'll be damned if I want someone without a strong attention to detail tinkering with anything that is going to hurtle me over an ocean.  I don't care if they see the plane or not as long as the peices work correctly so I can avoid a fiery death. 

Myth: Those with Aspergers are self-absorbed or long-winded.

Fact: Those on the spectrum tend to miss the social cues like eye contact or gestures that would signal them that something they said was inappropriate or that it is time to let someone else speak. For example, if a statement made by someone with Aspergers was offensive or hurtful, they may miss the shock or sadness on the face of another. They may only later realize that something negative is happening, but have no idea why, leaving them shocked and remorseful when they find out that something they did hurt someone else. This is why social skills training can be helpful to this population, a crash course in understanding the non-verbal cues that others understand innately.

To be honest, most of those who need social skills training are not in the least Autistic.

"I'm talking to you, guy who cut me off on the freeway this morning..."

But since being a dick is not a clinical diagnosis, these individuals in our general population rarely get the help they need. 

"Accoridng to the DSM-IV, you have Generalized Jerkoff Syndrome Not Otherwise Specified, with strong douchebaggy traits."

Anyway, jerkoffs on the road are probably something that those with Aspergers and neurotypical triats alike can understand and agree on. What everyone doesn't understand on is how important the traits in Aspergers are, not only to modern society but to our history as a human race.  

But where would any of these traits come from? Why would a highly social species, one that relies so heavily on one another for survival, develop the capacity to live without social cues? 

It turns out that autistic traits may have been selected for at numerous times in our evolutionary history, giving us a genetic predisposition for reduced interaction without detriment, provided we didn’t find ourselves having to live among others. 

The Evolutionary Benefit of Autism

Those on the autism spectrum may possess qualities that would have been critical in certain environmental contexts, according to researcher Dr. Jared Reser. Dubbed “The Solitary Forager Hypothesis”, the behaviors common in those on the autism spectrum may point to an evolutionarily selected for set of traits that would have been advantageous for our ancestors in times of scarcity2. Instead of focus on group living, which may have proved difficult or impossible when food was sparse, early humans may have disbanded from time to time in order to increase the odds of survival.

Modern-day solitary animals follow similar patterns, says Reser, and place little emphasis on social contacts because of this shift in attention. They tend to be introverted or reclusive, score low on eye contact, emotional engagement, facial recognition and empathic responses to others. Instead, their narrow focus remains on the necessities of living.

Like my fucking cat. Except his focus also includes putting dead things in my shoes. 

In early humans, repetitive behaviors would have been a necessary part of this process, a constant gathering of berries, searching for tubers or seeking water. Today, without a goal to work towards—like seeking nourishment because it is provided to them—individuals with these traits focus their energy on other non-social activities such as stacking, collecting coins or lining things up. 

"Berries, berries, berries, berries, water, water, water water, berries, berries, berries, berries, water, water, water, water..."

Due to the wide variations in those early hunter-gatherer groups, the traits selected for may have been slightly different between them, which may account for the vastly different sets of symptoms seen across the autism spectrum and in Aspergers conditions. The fact that it would have happened over and over again across groups would also explain why there are currently so many different genetic traits linked to autism. The genetic predisposition may also explain why males tend to be more susceptible to autism, as child-bearing females would have found fewer advantages to isolation. 

Those with Aspergers are not in some way “less than”. They are perfectly suited to an environmental context that just happens to be different from our current model of forced socialization. And if I'm being totally honest, I sometimes have days where the idea of a solitary existance seems pretty fucking sweet, thanks in no small part to douchebags on the highway. 

Aside from the fact that we happen to live in a highly social environment, we may also be seeing a rise in problematic issues in the spectrum population due to things like assortative mating factors, where the traits themselves are magnified beyond the point of functionality. In assortative mating—or like marrying like (link)—two individuals with genetic predisposition to spectrum traits may have a child with higher levels of disorder than either of the parents themselves because the child gets both sets of traits in their genetic makeup3

So what do we do when solitary foraging is not only unnecessary, but shunned? How does one with Aspergers cope? 

Treatments for Aspergers

Usually, Aspergers treatment involves training in social cues. This may include learning what different cues mean, practice in mirroring different facial expressions and practice in bodily gestures. For day-to-day issues, many benefit from breaking things into concrete, meaningful tasks, a checklist of sorts for getting through the day which may play on the need for order and predictability. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral modification therapy or medications may also assist with the co-occurring conditions, such as anxiety and depression, that are common in those with Aspergers diagnoses.

But not everything needs to be treated. There is something to be said for personality traits inherent in Aspergers that may well be beneficial, particularly for those in certain occupations. Those who look at details or think from the bottom up--putting smaller parts into bigger wholes--are vital for things we rely on every day.

One dear friend of mine, who labels herself "a visually sensitive Aspie" can always pick out the most delicious fruit, the best color for a room--including how the light will hit it at different times of the day--and can, at a glance, choose the best jewlery to go with whatever I happen to be wearing. Usually, I choose wrong. My attention to the whole apparently makes me terrible at such details.  Luckily, she likes me anyway. 

Fruit and jewelery aside, there are a number of career paths that seem custom made for those with these traits, particularly jobs with this attention to detail and analysis built in as part of the description. 

The following are jobs embraced by just a few of my clients and dear friends who happen to carry an Aspergers diagnosis: 

  • Engineer
  • Computer programmer
  • Website or video game designer
  • Mathematician 
  • Physician/surgeon
  • Statistician
  • Accountant
  • Photographer
  • Artist/Scuptor
  • Wedding planner

While it is clearly not an all-inclusive list, and the interests of individuals will drive their career goals, having Aspergers does not preclude anyone from having a lucrative career. It may simply mean redefining how you see normal, embracing the strengths that are inherent in the diagnosis and getting treatment for those issues that are causing pain. 

As with any diagnosis, Aspergers comes with challenges. But understanding where learning can occur, as well as what benefits might exist within such a diagnosis, may help those who suffer to find a new perspective, one where acceptance can lead to improved relationships and more security throughout their lives. 

Security and understanding are critical to the human condition, regardless of what diagnosis you happen to carry. Everyone deserves the very best chance of obtaining them.

Related Posts:

  1. http://www.amazon.com/The-Reason-Jump-Thirteen-Year-Old-Autism/dp/0812994868
  2. http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP09207238.pdf
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16519981 

Topic-Relevant Resources

The Reason I Jump
Insight into the mind of the autistic from a thirteen year old boy. Wonderful read for any parent.

Darwinian Psychiatry
Detailed evolutionary explanations of the roots of clinical diagnoses from depression to eating disorders to personality issues.