Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Olympics and Genetics and Aspergers Syndrome

I had a fascinating conversation with a work colleague yesterday about why we keep breaking records in the Olympics. I said that surely we've reached the pinnacle of our human abilities and that any improvements have more to do with better timing mechanisms, technology and drugs. He disagreed and cited the case of Australian, Jessica Fox whose parents were both medalists at earlier Olympics.  Surely that combination of genes gave her a distinct advantage over her competitors.

He also talked about a hurdlist who due to some difference was able to bend her foot slightly differently to cut off a few centimetres with each jump. Sadly I can't remember who it was.  I joked with my colleague and suggested that maybe there's a gene for all of this and jokingly suggested that his parents might have worked in the same field as him, in this case finance.  Amusingly, he said that they had.

So how does this all tie back to Asperger's Syndrome?
We all carry genes which adapt our bodies for certain situtations and clearly those adaptations make us more suitable for certain types of work, while making us less suitable for others.  The athelete who has a different foot may find that her foot is great for hurdles but not suitable for football.  Nothing is entirely positive, it's simply "more  suitable for a given purpose".

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution gives the impression that these changes occur on a massive scale and affect life going forwards.  The edict, "survival of the fittest" suggests that the weaker species perishes.

This isn't necessarily the case.  What if evolution occurs on a much smaller and faster scale? What if our adaptations are not life-threatening but are career-defining?  What if they could happen over only a small number of generations?

Perhaps this is an important part of understanding the differences which come with Asperger's Syndrome.  It makes us particularly suited for specific types of careers such as Information Technology, Engineering and Writing while making us less suitable for others such as hospitality.

Perhaps we're all evolving independently towards the ideal specialization.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm a new subscriber to your blog. I have only read a few of your previous posts, so don't be offended if I make comments similar to something else you may have posted in the past. I enjoyed this posting's slant on possible new career / evolutionary advantages to Asperger's/autism spectrum. However, I don't think there is a need to explain this as a recent "smaller/faster" evolution as you propose. I think there have always been ecological niches for individuals who are more independent and less restricted by societal norms. They have often been pioneers, trailblazers, etc. who have been willing to break away from the comfort zone of others in their society because they never quite fit there anyway. The recent rise in maladaptive levels of autistic traits (severe autism) could be attributed to population increases resulting in more breeding between individuals with more adaptive levels of autistic traits. There is also much evidence of an increase in "diagnosis" of autism in individuals with very mild and potential adaptive levels of autistic-like traits due to a greater expectation / need for homogeneity within today's child rearing & educational environment as opposed to 50 or 100 years ago. Many children with a few autistic-like traits that don't quite fit our society's current ideal child are now being "diagnosed" with this "disease" because some of their behaviors are inconvenient to their parents & teachers. However, in another environment with different expectations their behaviors would be fine and even adaptive. You may have seen these articles before, but they explore similar themes: &

Anonymous said...

"...Many children with a few autistic-like traits that don't quite fit our society's current ideal child are now being "diagnosed" with this "disease" because some of their behaviors are inconvenient to their parents & teachers. However, in another environment with different expectations their behaviors would be fine and even adaptive..."

Likewise, in some past environments with worse expectations their behaviors were still not fine to the people whose comfort zones they violate...but be fine to the people who made the rules.

Perhaps there's also an increase in some parents of white boys (not all of them! just the ones who make children who are female and/or black suffer from bullying!) saying "he can't help it because he's autistic!!!" and seeking diagnoses of autism...

...due to a greater acceptance of children who are female and/or black in today's child rearing & educational environments... opposed to 50 or 100 years ago when more teachers and school administrators would have accepted those bullies' whiteness and/or maleness as the excuses.

Anonymous said...

Remember, not everyone who claims that an ASD explains his or her mistreating other people even has an ASD in the first place!

Some of the people who both are jerks and don't have ASDs exploit people who do have ASDs by using you as camouflage...

Ericka Aspiegirl said...

would you follow my blog?

aspergers syndrome said...

This post is really informative. I came to know more about aspergers syndrome.

JamalJ said...

Darwin said the weak will perish but the person he got the idea from said that evolution is about the strong striving. Darwin's view of evolution is more negative then I like.
Also, heritability is made up of mostly GxE interactions and neither genes nor enviroment itself.

Jackie McMillan said...

I like that you're touching on ASD brain differences as an adaptive advantage. Research on stress and trauma indicates that autistic/prodigy/genius brains are an adaptation to higher stress in utero or during key developmental stages. Hmm, so stress causes a brain to develop less emphasis on social pursuits (and derive less pleasure from them) and more emphasis on problem-noticing, and problem-solving (and derive more pleasure from this)? How could that possibly NOT be an adaptive response to stress?

Autistic-type brains have been with us throughout written history. Autistic challenges, however, have been much more of a recent phenomena. There are five kinds of health injury which can cause autism challenges like poor sleep, disruptive digestion, and high anxiety. Perhaps by being more vulnerable to stress, we autistics are some of the first to show just how far outside the optimal ranges of tolerance for human health that western "civilization" has moved.

If autistics are human social system bio-indicators, just like amphibians are ecosystem bio-indicators which very clearly show when an ecosystem is failing to thrive, shouldn't we be trying to fix the social system? And repair the autism challenges so that the problem-solving our culture most needs for humans to survive on earth is more likely to happen?