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Autism and the Ancient World - A Meditation

By August 12, 2010

The other night, I was reading a novel set in the middle ages.  In that world -- and in the worlds our ancestors lived in up until the Industrial Revolution and in some cases even later -- communities and expectations were very different from those of the modern world.

Most people lived in one town, and knew almost everyone they met.  Casual conversations with strangers were the exception rather than the norm.

There were few foods available, and the variety was very limited.  No trips to the TexMex restaurant, take-out Chinese, or out-of-season veggies.

There were few bright lights, loud noises or unexpected sensory assaults (except, perhaps, on the nose!).  In most places there were few occasions for coping with crowds, getting lost, or finding oneself among strangers.

Daily routines were, in fact, routine - and transitions were few and easy to remember.   Many people were unlettered, and those who did receive an education were generally tutored either privately or in very small groups.  Most boys (girls are another story) went through apprenticeships rather than lectures.  Jobs tended to be hands-on, and conversation skills were far less of a requirement - particularly on the farm, at the forge, in the field, at the loom, and so forth.

At home, families lived together; no one was expected to just go away, build or buy their own home, and run it entirely on his or her own.  People without money stayed with their parents until and unless they married; people with money hired servants to manage a great many daily routines.  In fact, people with money often hired servants to help them get dressed!

Reading about this very different world, I wondered how a person with autism would fit in.  Granted, a person with profound challenges, lack of spoken language, self-abusive behaviors and the like wouldn't fit in easily anywhere or at any time...  But I suspect that a person with high functioning autism or Aspergers would find such a life much easier -- and find that their differences were far less of a hindrance.

I'm not advocating a return to the pre-industrial, misogynistic, bigoted world of yesteryear!  There's plenty to dislike about the ignorance and illness of the ancient, medieval or even renaissance world.

But I do wonder whether the world we've created is best for us as human beings.  How important is it to be able to manage a constant diet of novel experiences, sensory assaults, verbal barrages and hourly transitions?  How critical is it that we learn to live all alone, handle every aspect of life independently, and interact constantly with strangers whom we'll never see again?

Is it possible that we have created a world in which any sensitivity or difference looks like incompetence or over-reaction?  Have we developed a culture that specifically excludes a very significant proportion of its members?

Just thinking aloud here...  wondering what your thoughts may be?

August 12, 2010 at 11:07 am
(1) Bill says:

I am endowed with Asperger’s.

My vision, though reasonably correctable, without lenses is over 20/400 (i.e. I can’t read the big “E” at half the distance to the eye chart).

I am grateful for today’s technologies, and I have often contemplated how awful my life would have been if I had lived in medieval times. One must also be mindful that you could be hanged for stealing the smallest thing, or have your head lopped off for not bowing to nobility. Not exactly an autism friendly environment!

August 12, 2010 at 11:18 am
(2) ANB says:

Autism is largely a social construct, which is why the terms “high and low functioning” are so problematic.

Grinker writes in Unstrange Minds of literary and historical figures in the distant past whose described behaviors are similar to what we call autism today.

August 12, 2010 at 11:18 am
(3) autism says:

As I said, Bill, I’m not advocating a return to medieval bigotry and ignorance – just wondering whether a simpler, more community-centered life might be more conducive to the human condition overall (and to people with autism in general).

August 12, 2010 at 11:29 am
(4) VMGillen says:

Uta Frith’s review of autism through history is very instructive… if you go beyond the diagnosis and grasp the cultural milieu. For example, that same nobility Bill (1) refers to can also support “extra-ordinary” populations – see Russia and their Holy men (ok, so that gets tangled up with an icky noblesse oblige condescension, then again nobles by definition condescend to everyone…)

As far as a “culture that specifically excludes a very significant proportion of its members” – I think a lot of this is due to the economic considerations our society gives to everything. So while, overall, we espouse universalism and inclusion, we also have paid gate-keepers who decide if a person is different enough to warrant the (cost of) supports to facilitate inclusion. In other words, to be included one must be deemed excluded?

August 12, 2010 at 11:45 am
(5) autism says:

wow, VMGillen, you make my head spin – but in a good way.

YES, I think you’re right: we’ve set it up so that in order to be “accommodated” we must first prove that we NEED accommodation. In most instances, that means we need to actually be professionally evaluated and found “wanting!”

Of course, there are those few who are self-confident and capable enough to simply say out loud “you know, I really have a tough time focusing when there’s a lot of noise, so I would prefer the office in the corner.” But it’s hard to KNOW you need it, to ASK for it, and to advocate for oneself it the request is denied.

There are also plenty of aspies and HFA folks who, once the pain of k-12 school is over, just gravitate to more friendly surroundings. I think of people I know who work in the field of systematics, poring over collections of snail shells in cool, dim back rooms in vast museums… and are very happy indeed.

August 12, 2010 at 12:20 pm
(6) Harold L Doherty says:

ANB says autism is largely a social construct. That statement is absurd and meaningless. It reflects nothing more than the idle ideology known as Neurodiversity which blights autism discussions.

“Autism” is a term used today with reference to any of the Pervasive Developmental Disorders in the DSM. Each of the PDD’s by inclusion in the DSM is a mental disorder. The most serious, the most severe is Autistic Disorder. The vast majority of those with Autistic Disorder, by some credible professional estimates as high as 75-80% of persons with Autistic Disorder also have intellectual disabilities. These ID’s can preclude fundamental understanding of life and ability to function independently at the simplest level in daily life.

It is very unfortunate that persons with severe, serious even life threatening functional deficits because of their Autistic Disorder have to have their challenges dismissed because of self centered ideologues who believe that their “autism light” is a social construct and that therefore all cases of autism disorders reflect a social construct.

Lisa your narrative references a time when people stayed with their parents for most of their adult lives. That is the reality faced today by many severely autistic persons. That reality comes with a kicker one that parents of severely autistic children dread … the day when they can no longer through natural decline and death can for their children.

I appreciate your limiting of this particular musing to persons with HFA and Aspergers. If only the ANB’s of the autism world actually understood that their view of autism is narrow, restricted and unrealistic and that they are doing a disservice to those most severely affected by Autism .. as in Autistic Disorder. If anyone visited an institution as I have done more than once where adult severely autistic persons live out their days they would not refer to autism as an “endowment” or a “social construct”.

August 12, 2010 at 12:35 pm
(7) autism says:

I know the idea of autism (or many other disorders) as a “social construct” is very controversial.

I do want to note, though, that developmental, social and neurological disorders are very often diagnosed ONLY through a process of comparing behaviors and abilities to a statistical norm. The fact is that the creation of such a norm MUST be predicated on a whole series of assumptions about WHAT to assess, HOW to assess it, and how to determine a norm.

Again, as Harold notes and I also note in the blog, there are many individuals on the spectrum who are clearly disabled by any set of norms. The ability to use language, manage basic self-care, etc., are normal in any society and at any time in history.

But there are a large group of high functioning individuals who are presently labeled autistic for whom the “social construct” is very significant. Traits such as social isolation, perseveration, sensory sensitivities, etc. may or may not fall outside the “norm” depending upon how the norm is conceived, evaluated and reported.


August 12, 2010 at 1:48 pm
(8) vmgillen says:

The “Autism” that I deal with should not be in the DSM. Period. -that’s the self-injurious, non-verbal, aggressive ASD. It has nothing to do with not getting a little red wagon, or personal anxiety about how society-at-large treats you.

When my son was little, few knew what the term “autism” meant. Sadly, it seems now everyone knows – but they don’t know squat, to put it in the vernacular.

And there you have one of the realities of social definition! So, social constructs are very, very important: they can inform, and be, reality, until challenged.

August 12, 2010 at 9:00 pm
(9) ANB says:

Reading comprehension is also a social construct, if that makes you feel any better, Harold.

August 12, 2010 at 11:18 pm
(10) C. S. Wyatt says:

To call autism a social construct is accurate according to the rhetoric / philosophy of science. “Autism” is observational, phenomenological, as long as it is defined in the DSM by traits and not a set of etiologies.

That does not mean “autism” is not real. It means we define it imprecisely and experientially by committees and standards organizations. We have no “one” definition even within research or clinical practices because some insist on the broadest definitions (the “spectrum” of which I am increasingly leery) and others want a return to Leo Kanner’s rigid definition that excluded “full quadrant” IQs over 100.

If I assign the name “red” to a 650 nm wave, it is measurable and quantifiable. We can argue over the name chosen, but the wave itself is what it is.

Autism is not like “red” because we don’t have measurements that are precise. We have DSM-III, IV, and V definitions that conflict. We have Wang debating Cohen debating Attwood over what should or shouldn’t be Asperger’s Syndrome (or is it “Disorder”).

It’s a label. It’s nothing more than a checklist created by people to define what they themselves admit cannot be located and proved even within their profession. Clinicians argue with researchers constantly over “autism” because researchers are very rigid with the definition; many don’t even accept the DSM-IV-TR vs. the DSM-IV because that alters the subject population for researchers.

The only label I reject that has been assigned to me is “mentally retarded.” That was the ignorance of the 1960s/70s. But, the other labels represented the best of their time and the evolving DSM. If the DSM weren’t socially constructed, my label wouldn’t have changed every X years.

August 13, 2010 at 8:30 am
(11) ANB says:

Thank you for clearing up some confusion of how “social construct” can be used in a sentence.

August 13, 2010 at 8:40 am
(12) Joseph says:

I don’t believe Harold understands what a “social construct” is, probably doesn’t care, and just finds the term threatening. Nor is it the case that neurodiversity and social constructionism are necessarily linked, except that people with academic mindsets might often discuss both.

Let me try to explain with an example. The concept of “planet” is a social construct. Even though planets clearly exist and planet Earth is necessary for our existence, there’s no question that the idea of “planet” is a social construct. This is evident if you look at the demotion of Pluto. The idea of “planet” is at the whim of humans, defined as we see fit.

Similarly, if they can just remove Asperger’s from the DSM-V, change the definition, introduce new types of autism, then autism is a social construct, without question.

The usefulness of understanding autism as a social construct is a different matter altogether.

August 13, 2010 at 10:27 am
(13) christin says:

My son has Asperger’s syndrome and I can see it running back through the family and don’t know just how far back it goes. I’ve often wondered how a simpler (low tech) lifestyle such as an Amish community might be for someone like my son. Having a much smaller amount outside stimuli might “hide” a few of his struggles. Small close-knit communities would possibly just read him as quirky and he would be able to find HIS place within it. He would probably have had to be born into it to find acceptance however, as we have tried the modern day small town experience. As I wonder about past generations of my family, living in small rural communities, I suppose they might have been viewed as very inventive/ geniuses with overly strong opinions (argumentative) and perhaps not very empathetic. Overall, I think they would have fit in much better with the slower pace of life much better.

August 13, 2010 at 12:04 pm
(14) Sarah Seymour says:

I think that to say that autism is a social construct is a little odd. This is just my opinion as an educator. I think that all children need special help in the classroom, we just seem to only point out certain diagnosis more than other. The concept of normal is the illusion. To be honest I find it more challenging to teach a gifted child in a class of average children than any child who needs modifications. I work with all types of different labels…and I think if we tried hard enough we could label everyone however…this does not make real medical conditions cease to exist. Nor does it negate the need for appropriate educational and medical responses to be taken. I personally disagree with 40 hour intensive programs for 3 year olds….but ABA is often prescribed as THE treatment in North America. The concept of training children like dogs to respond to stimuli…while it works will not teach them to learn. I think a more well rounded approach is necessary…and yes some ABA is required, because dont we teach even “normal” children some things by route….but we need to look at the whole picture and what each child has a strength. It takes a community to raise a child…it takes a community to hold together a family when a child has severe needs. There is a greater moral responisibility at hand than just education.

August 13, 2010 at 4:08 pm
(15) Jill Mays says:

There is a lot in the 21st century that is killing our children…plastics, “food,” no more outside activity and limited movement. Eye contact with parents is key-have you seen the Moms on their I-pods lately?! This plug in world is killing us!
Thoughts on gadgets and eye contact: http://tinyurl.com/2csuz5r

August 13, 2010 at 9:17 pm
(16) John M says:

If I might be allowed to address the actual article, that’s a very interesting idea. I’ve been thinking that autistic people probably had an easier time once civilization got going (because it opened up more niches and modes of existing), but the idea that industrialization then made it harder, presumably because there arose fresh pressures to conform, is intriguing.

I would encourage continued historical studies into this. The biography of Fabre d’Olivet (1767 – 1825), for example, might prove fruitful. Not only are his adventures with authorities in a class with poor Zach Ciprian, but he left a whole pile of his own writings to study. Also, unlike Père Joseph (1577 – 1638), d’Olivet’s trail of perseverations at least didn’t end up particularly hurting anyone.

November 27, 2010 at 2:47 am
(17) ndt says:

As a person with Aspergers who works in the tech industry, my opinion may be slanted.

It’s no secret that people with Aspergers are overrepresented in certain careers. I would go so far as to say that their numbers are so concentrated in some industries that, for example, the crazy professor or the stereotypical nerdy programmer with all his social ineptitude, clumsiness, mood swings and panoply of quirks, is in indeed an unconscious recognition of that fact.

A modern society with sufficient social mobility and an economy that rewards the abilities afforded by a literal mechanistic view of the world, as engineering and the hard sciences in general do, is a much better fit for those on the more functional end of the spectrum. It is a place where our tendencies are abilities, not liabilities.

The ancient world lacked the social mobility and opportunity to allow those with a natural gift for for the mechanical to often find themselves in a position where their skills could really shine.

January 8, 2011 at 11:33 pm
(18) Vijay S Mane says:

such a sad commentary on meditation

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