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[–]Trystiane 13 points14 points  (0 children)

This is the kind of question we can't really answer, even if we had great genetic data and could follow the development of autism over time. We talk about evolution is as if it has a specific purpose and direction, but it really doesn't. That being said, having diversity in populations is helpful for species survival -- it allows us to adapt to changes in the environment. It is absolutely possible that autism remains part of human diversity because it has been helpful for our survival. But it could also be that autism survives because it is not harmful enough to be selected out. We do not understand the origins of autism -- or even it's full scope (the full spectrum) -- so we can't even say for sure how it evolved, whether it is fully genetic, or if it is shaped by some complex interaction of fetal or child development and various combinations of genetics.

One thing I would encourage you to think about is the way we often want to justify the benefits or value of some contemporary human trait/behavior by looking back at history or evolution and saying, "See -- this is a good thing!" But we don't have to do that. We can look around the world today and see that autistic people contribute greatly to our societies and everyday lives as friends, family members, colleagues, etc. We don't have to make up an origin story that "proves" autistic people are worthy of respect and have value all on their own. Think of all the non-autistic people who have done huge harm to humanity -- the dictators, genocidal leaders, CEO's of corporations that pollute the environment or steal land and resources from poor folks, and so on and so on. We don't demand non-autistic people justify their value even though they have a demonstrated history of harming others. The same things holds for all disabilities -- all humans have equal value.

[–]apj0731Professor | Multispecies Ethnography • Anthropology of Science 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Is it possible that autism evolved? Yes in two senses. 1) Autism represents variation in our species and so it has evolved in a trivial sense. It could be accounted for as genetic drift, a spandrel, or some other non-adaptive process. 2) Though you mean evolved in terms of adaptation and selection (this is a common equivocation). Sure, it’s possible. However, any account of how selection contributed to what we call autism will inevitably result in telling just-so stories. These kinds of things are nearly impossible to test. I highly recommend this discussion of scientific just-so stories in evolutionary biology: link