Theodore A. Hoppe


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Is autism, or some types of autism, an evolutionary effect.

This is an uninformed notion I have had, and this is the first time I have found support for it.
Toward the end of this TED talk Enriquez provides some numbers on the rate at which autism has increased in a decade, 78%.

He says, "We are trying to take in as much information in a day as people use to take in in a lifetime."
Is autism a rapid evolution of the brain?

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    Jun 14 2012: Interesting; I happened upon this discussion in almost identical fashion - I started from the Enriquez talk "Will our kids be a different species", a piece that resonated with me as deeply related to recent philosophical discussions and personal writing topics. When he mentioned that the norm for human evolution is that you have multiple species sharing the same overlapping time windows, I began to look for evidence of this.

    Part of this led me down the path of looking at Autism, a condition that always struck me as being... different...a syndrome at most, but certainly not a true disorder. This is a very subtle difference in the realm of abnormal psychology that is often misunderstood, in that the study of *unusual* patterns & behaviors does not always lend itself to the diagnosis of a disorder or disease.

    The problem is that terms like "abnormal" and "syndrome" carry with them a negative connotation - so the entire language of discussion has the propensity towards a feeling that there is a defect in play - some underlying pathology that must be identified and later "corrected". I've always found issue with this because, as history shows, the observation of "normal" vs. "abnormal" is a slippery, slippery slope. Regardless, Autism is currently classified as developmental disorder - a problem that begs prevention and treatment.

    Ami Klin's talk "A new way to diagnose autism" struck a chord towards the end when he mentions that the goal is not to cure autism - and that, in fact, individuals with autism have a unique perspective on life. This is the point that sticks with me along the lines of a potential evolution that is simply not well understood or in the early developmental stages.

    A simple hypothesis - what if, as humans grow closer and closer to global interdependence, nature is simply selecting for cognitive specialization? To me then, something like Autism could instead be viewed as an efficient, pattern-based organizational behavior *advantage*.
    • Jun 14 2012: George, that is a really interesting viewpoint and even more profound question - I like it.
  • Jun 14 2012: I've read the comments here and something interesting strikes me about Autism: Emotional detachment.

    From all the literature I've been exposed to, I would probably classify myself as having a mild form of Asperger's. That is by no means a clinical analysis - just a personal guess. From this viewpoint I would propose a simple cause-effect-effect-.. regarding why Asperger's and Autistic people are so detached:

    No one understands them.

    "Birds of a feather flock together" is an old, old saying and it probably applies here too. I'm socially outgoing enough (thanks, mom) but I don't feel like I 'connect' with people. I have always been the awkward one. I never connected with kids when I was a kid and I have a very hard time connecting with adults now. It's not that I have nothing in common with people, it's just they don't have anything _deep_ in common with me. I would propose this is a mild version of what Autistic people endure.

    Lets say you are 23 years old and you LOVE space exploration. You're confined to a room with a bunch of your peers and all they can talk about is American Pie and getting drunk. Your world revolves around physics, space, astronomy, cosmology, orbital mechanics, robotics, and.. Their world revolves around people being dumb and getting drunk.

    Wouldn't you clam up and disconnect from them after a while? You'd recess into your own little world. What if you were confined to that room of you vs. 100 for a day.. for a week.. for a year.. what if you were confined to it your entire life?

    Even better: What if those 100 were in charge of defining "normal"?

    I'm not sure if Autism is an evolutionary effect in and of itself. I'd postulate that it is an expression of the evolution that has already been happening since human life started - just another step on the road.

    I'd also propose that "normal" people might be part of devolution (going the wrong way - lower cognitive capacity, causing them to become less aware of details)
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      Jun 15 2012: re: No one understands them

      "A few years ago, the marriage of David and Kristen Finch was falling apart. They barely spoke anymore. And then Kristen asked David to take a test - a quiz with 153 questions that led to a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. The diagnosis changed their lives. They talk about how the recognition of Aspergers changed how they relate to each other."
  • Jun 7 2012: Autism: The Eusocial Hominid Hypothesis

    ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) are hypothesized as one of many adaptive human cognitive variations that have been maintained in modern populations via multiple genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. Introgression from "archaic" hominids (adapted for less demanding social environments) is conjectured as the source of initial intraspecific heterogeneity because strict inclusive fitness does not adequately model the evolution of distinct, copy-number sensitive phenotypes within a freely reproducing population.

    Evidence is given of divergent encephalization and brain organization in the Neanderthal (including a ~1520 cc cranial capacity, larger than that of modern humans) to explain the origin of the autism subgroup characterized by abnormal brain growth.

    Autism and immune dysfunction are frequently comorbid. This supports an admixture model in light of the recent discovery that MHC alleles (genes linked to immune function, mate selection, neuronal "pruning," etc.) found in most modern human populations come from "archaic" hominids.

    Mitochondrial dysfunction, differential fetal androgen exposure, lung abnormalities, and hypomethylation/CNV due to hybridization are also presented as evidence.

    A short video introduction:

    The full 2-hour video presentation:
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    Jun 6 2012: "The Assortative Mating Hypothesis" A recent theory put forth last fall by British researcher Simon Baron-Cohen claims that more children are being born in the autistic spectrum because people with certain autistic traits are more likely to meet, marry and reproduce than in past generations. The theory of ”assortative mating” is based on anecdotal evidence, speculation, and what appears to be a pretty common-sense assessment of various societal trends.

    "Basically, what it comes down to is, as more women are going into the fields of science, math, and technology than ever before and because people within the autistic spectrum are drawn to those fields, it is only natural that more couples where both the male and female carry autistic characteristics that would be passed on to their children. One of the anecdotal pieces drawn from is an observation that it is unusually common among alumni of MIT to have children diagnosed with Asperger’s. Another cites a study that found children in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, considered to be their Silicon Valley, two to four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than children in similar cities that aren’t so tech-centric."

    But there is more to the story. There is always more.

    I have been sorting through the research and found that the research that put forth by Baron-Cohen builds on differences in the brains of males and females. Autism occurs in more males.
    • Jun 6 2012: That's actually the talk that I was hoping to hear. Maybe soon...
      • Jun 9 2012: I propose Dr. Baron Cohen speaks from personal experience. His obsession with an amagladic (fear based ) approach towards those people he hopes to help (he "treats" autistics---his A.Q test for autism greatly increases the number of autistics he helps to self-identify online because of it's poor the 20's. No one else but the "World Autism Expert" could get away with that.

        It's not that I wouldn't take his work seriously, but I would look at it as the desperation it is as his Theory of Mind theory of autism loses prominence on the world stage.
        • Jun 9 2012: Thanks. It's specifically the genetic observation that I'd like to hear more of. I don't find a lot of use for psychology in its present state. It does tickle me a bit that believing that a functioning human being would be lacking ToM and empathy could indicate some deficiency in ToM and empathy.
  • Jun 17 2012: Autism and other syndromes are diagnosed based on a series of conditions so as difficult as it is to specifically define, it is as difficult to give a cause or track an increase.  The 11% increase best measures an increase in diagnosis. It's entirely possible that the incidence of these conditions have not increased but simply went undiagnosed in the past.  That being said I can't imagine that we aren't currently evolving.  Autism alone won't indicate our evolution nor will the insignificant mutations found  in some Olympic athletes or blue eyes. This small genetic difference doesn't make us different enough to fulfill the technical definition of being a different species and although there is such a small genectic deviation between humans and the other great apes, chimps and humans are different in a way a person with blue eyes and a person with brown eyes are not. The most curious detail of the Juan Enriquez TED Talk that brought me to this discussion is that unlike the several co-existing species of other life on this planet and evidence of co-existing multiple human species in the past, why now is there only one?  One originating in Africa that migrated throughout the world? Also currently Africa remains the most genetic diverse population of humans? So if we're evolving, we're evolving there.  Is our evolution like our single species status, a natural anomaly? Is our evolution aided by there being only one species, making us biologically more tenacious to survive? Or did consciousness which brought awareness of differences bring volatile interactions between the multiple human species very like much like current racism and genocide leaving only one species standing?  It would seem that consciousness is a significant cognitive evolution, so yes, the discussion of mental evolution is most motivating.  It must be occurring as the pattern of evolution seems a ceaseless aspect of life. Will the leap of the next evolution of humans result is the gap of communication?
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    Jun 15 2012: Some new findings over the last decade suggest that at least part of those we call autistic have a brain disorder due to some neurotoxins produced by intestinal bacteria.
    During the first three years of life the flora down the intestines are building up to a number of cells that outnumber those of the body of a hundred to one. Their composition in species to over a hundred are balancing each other out by mutual control and cooperate to decompose our food to useful stuff our body needs.
    As a young child is prescribed antibiotics this work in progress can be disrupted as species that are more resilient get dominant while others vanish. One of those kind of survivors produce propionic acid what disturbs the fat building in the brain.

    To my view the word autism is used for disorders of various kind that have some symptoms in common .
    • Jun 15 2012: The website you listed stated the findings are preliminary, so obviously more research is needed. I wonder, if this is the causative mechanism behind a portion of autism cases, why the increase in autism cases wasn't recognized sooner. Antibiotics have been around for decades and they've been used widely by kids for at least 30 years (probably much longer).
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    Jun 15 2012: When he talks about autism the problem is not that the incident of autism has changed they are specious statistics because the definition of autism has been changed since 1943. So yup it is not being measured right. And nope it is not some bizarre "rapid evolution of the brain".
  • Jun 13 2012: Are emotions outdated? The autism spectrum as the mind's exploration of the ways to deal with emotional stimulus and motivation: people with Aspergers would be likely to tell you that emotions are a stupid way to base decisions and behaviour - people with Dyslexia might say emotions are the peak of the human experience.

    With such an increase in the amount of input we receive, a corresponding increase in the changes of emotional states must surely follow. Autism perhaps as the mind evolving to reduce the load?
  • Jun 11 2012: I've had those same thoughts. That so many of our children struggle to cope with the demands of an "old school" approach, may have more to do with new hard-wiring. I see this in my own kids who seem able to make sense of information by arranging it in a very visual way that leaves me scratching my head in an attempt to re-create their process, and leaves them frustrated in an attempt to help me play "catch-up."

    (See blog for example.;postID=5585191525690572555 .)

    I'm not suggesting that I have some special "Indigo Children", but I think we all may be seeing the birth of an "Indigo Generation".
  • Jun 8 2012: I'm really very grateful for your post Ted. Autism or no autism I feel that the point needs to be frequently restated that sex differences should be handled with extreme care if we are to avoid them being used as generalisations which can in turn be used to impose discrimination, as indeed they continue to be used. I feel that the economic realities (women earn on average 1/3 that of men) that continue to affect women are masked from everyday realisation and can be readily used to explain why women continue to be dependent on men's good opinion. The man-free alternative is to work or not work and to bring up children or to remain child free. Not to work and to have children exposes women to the very worst that the neo-liberalist establishment has to offer and the bad opinion of all in this miserly world.
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      Jun 11 2012: This is a tremendous point and Simon Baron-Cohen does stress this about his research in one of the Youtube videos Thank you for underscoring it.
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    Jun 7 2012: I'm pleased by the thoughful response to this question. I have learned a great deal about autism and see that it is our understanding of autism that needs to evolve.

    Another of Baron-Cohen's videos on Youtube that more directly address the topic of autism:

    This interview, and a particular statement in it about how autism is a developmental condition, with faster brain growth, cause me to wonder if we properly understand how to interact with autistic babies. Are we misunderstanding its developmental windows and thereby contributing negatively to the outcomes. Baron-Cohen mentions the development of language in babies with autism being slowed. Are there factors of nurturing that need to be examined? I'm recalling a statement by the mother of Jake, a math prodigy about his near failure to thrive.

    Finally, this very touching video from the TED MED 2012 Conference.
  • Jun 5 2012:

    The link I posted is a presentation by a psychiatrist who is also a professor at Duke. He served on the committee that pieced together dsm-5. I know that Autism is on the rise but it's probably a mix between some undetermined factor and changes in the diagnostic criteria. As far as rapid evolution goes Im really not sure how Autism could be viewed this way mainly due to the fact that we are social animals. Autism which was once referred to as childhood schizophrenia sits on the opposite spectrum of being social. I see how you could tie the information age to some of the savants we see who have a form of higher functioning autism. I just don't see technology demanding so much out of us that people are being born to serve its progress. Great question
    • Jun 6 2012: Children with autism self isolate from frustration, not an inherent tendency away from social interaction. Even non-autistic children tend to stray from peers who consistently have trouble understanding them.
      • Jun 6 2012: So would the problem therefore lie in self expression?
        • Jun 6 2012: In children specifically, the solution lies in exposing them to the tools they need to express themselves. I have no conclusion as to where/what the problem is.
        • Jun 6 2012: It's a two way street: the problem is not only with self expression, but with the ability to interpret the communication cues given by others. Perhaps those are related, in the same way that a deaf person can not easily form spoken words, even with training, though there may be no structural defect preventing them.

          BTW, evolution doesn't come with a directional arrow; if there are selective pressures for a population to lose an ability that it previously had, that's the direction it'll tend to go.
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          Jun 7 2012: See the link to the TED MED talks.
  • Jun 4 2012: or is autism the result of having one glass of wine cooler containing a perservative which has been increasingly in human foods and drink in the first two to three weeks of conception?
    In the early eighties, Bakers switched yeasts to one which raised breads in much less time than previously, a lot of women around this time developed yeast, mold, sensitivities, and overgrowths, In addition the use of antibiotics to treat strep throats and sinus infections increased dramatically, so did the use of acetominophen to avoid the rare deaths from asprin induced Ries (sp)syndrome in children with viral infections.

    In our family we tend towards introversion as a character trait, and to wide ranges of interests from mechanical through to science, to psychology as well as a certain oversensitivety(?) to human atmosphere, and enviromental sensitivities, Having done a little cultural investigation into the family tree on both sides I find that the trees are full of nomads It makes complete sense to me that enviromental sensitivity would lead to nomadic tendencies, and that nomadic life styles would be more suited to introverted, curiosty driven intellegence, whose other factors express a certain mild paranoia and suspicion and a deep sense of privacy. Could autism be the extreme genetic result of introverts marrying introverts down the genetic line? Why not? is it possibly a genetic dead end as well probably.
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    Jun 4 2012: I think our lifestyles and adaptations of technology will have a big impact on how we evolve, and how fast we evolve. Technology is evolving much faster than us, and maybe it will encourage our own biology to keep up, and adapt to the rapid changes happening around us.
  • Jun 9 2012: :) Good man!
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    Jun 5 2012: Very interesting question.