Autism/Aspergers as alleged next step/stage of human evolution?

Mona_PerethMona_Pereth Citizen
edited February 2021 in Advocacy
I've run into a lot of gripes about alleged claims that autism, or at least what used to be called "Asperger's syndrome" is the "next step" or "next stage" of human evolution.  It is commonly alleged that neurodiversity proponents make this claim.

I have NOT yet run into any actual autistic rights activists or autistic community leaders who have made that particular claim, although I've run into a lot of complaints about the idea, which is commonly equated with an alleged advocacy of "Aspie supremacy."

So I decided to do a little digging to see who, exactly, is claiming that autism/Aspergers is the next step/stage of human evolution.  What I've discovered, so far, is not very many people who appear to be seriously making that claim.  But there are at least several people who appear to be  saying it as either a joke or a rhetorical flourish.  I've also run into a couple of fictional treatments of the idea, including a play and a movie.

I did find one very high-profile person in the autism world who sometimes speaks of Asperger's syndrome being the "next stage of human evolution" -- Tony Attwood, an internationally renowned clinical psychologist who, along with Lorna Wing, was one of the main codifiers and popularizers (in the English-speaking world) of the very idea of "Asperger's Syndrome."   But he's one of the people for whom the idea of a "next stage of human evolution" appears to be just a rhetorical fluorish, not a serious hypothesis.

One of the places he says it  is in his book The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, originally published in 2007.  A mention of Asperger's syndrome as "perhaps ... the next stage of human evolution" appears at the bottom of page 32 of the 2005 paper back edition, of which a PDF copy can be found here.  The immediate context is:

Having a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome could limit the expectations of others, who may assume that the person will never be able to achieve as well as his or her peer swith regard to social, academic and personal success. The diagnosis should facilitate realistic expectations but not dictate the upper limits of ability. I have known adults with Asperger’s syndrome whose successful careers have ranged from professor of mathematics to social worker; and those whose ability in the area of relationships ranges from enjoying a fulfilling but celibate life, to having a life-long partner and being a much-loved parent.

As a society, we need to recognize the value of having people with Asperger’s syndrome in our multi-cultural and diverse community. In summary, maybe we should consider the comment from an adult with Asperger’s syndrome who suggested to me that perhaps Asperger’s syndrome is the next stage of human evolution.

The larger context is a section about the advantages and disadvantages of getting a diagnosis.

Given the context of the book as a whole, it is clear to me that Tony Attwood isn't  seriously promoting the idea of Aspies as some forthcoming race of supermen.  He is well aware of the disadvantages of Asperger's syndrome, as well as the advantages many Aspies may have too.  Obviously, there wouldn't have been any point in making "Asperger's syndrome" a diagnostic category in the first place if Aspies were not disabled.  But he also wanted to de-stigmatise Asperger's Syndrome and to point out that most Aspies do have strengths as well as weaknesses.  His aim was to give hope, both to Aspies themselves and to their parents.

More later.


  • I don't think anyone  has suggested  it's a prevalent POV. However to describe it as 'alleged' is inaccurate. There are those,admittedly a small minority, who do hold such a POV.
  • Statest16Statest16 Citizen, Mentor
    I don't 
  • verityverity Administrator, Citizen
    I have heard people say such things, but I don't associate them with neurodiversity movements, I associate them with supremacy  or separatist movements. Or no particular movement at all.

    "next stage in evolution" usually misunderstanding evolution as a concept.

    The point about modern understanding of evolution, is it more than just Darwinian evolution.  Human evolved to cooperate on some level, societies formed out of complex and different abilities. So our current and predominant survival "strategy" depends on variation in neurologies. That is not the only way but our main adaptation is the ability to adapt without nessiarily having the physical traits individually

    There are people who say we there is a genetic link to Neanderthals, and this is not some derogatory slur. There is one person on the spectrum that has dedicated a many years to this, but and believe their statistical method confirm their hypnotists. I personally think they are simply trying to prove themselves right becuase they have an idea in their head about Neanderthal behviour, and their are interested in speculating on that.
  • verity said:
    I have heard people say such things, but I don't associate them with neurodiversity movements, I associate them with supremacy  or separatist movements. Or no particular movement at all.

    I agree. It's more visible online as it seems to pop up at regular intervals, but often in a trollish and over the top way. It seems to come in waves.

    I've seen a few people who seemed more serious about such beliefs, but they toned it down or disappeared after being warned by moderators.

    I have also seen individuals who seemed to have developed a superiority complex to defend themselves - since they had predominantly bad experiences with NTs, they adopt the belief that all NTs are evil and autistic people are better or "superior".

    But it's definitely not prevalent.

    "next stage in evolution" usually misunderstanding evolution as a concept.

    By now (at least online), whenever someone politicises evolution, I expect the concept to be grossly misunderstood or misrepresented 🤷‍♂️

  • Save_FerrisSave_Ferris Citizen, Member
    I am still waiting to go super saiyan 💪

  • HylianHylian Citizen, Mentor
    I have only really seen people online say this seriously, and a few family members who have an affinity for denying any negatives associated with autism.

    I don't know about these people, but ignoring the blatant misunderstanding of evolution, I don't think the fact that I can't spend 5 minutes outside without getting overwhelmed from sunlight and background noise, and barely am able to tie my shoes, is "the next stage in evolution". lol
  • KaramazovKaramazov Citizen
    edited February 2021
    (Spoiler things are an accident: was looking for a way to make a section in smaller type, hit spoil by accident, don’t know how to get rid of it)

    Don’t think I’ve come across supremacist type argumentation, so can’t comment on that...

    But must say I agree with verity that there seems to be a conflation of evolutionary change with progress ... hence the notion of “next stage”: implies a deterministic purpose driven narrative of existence at work behind the scenes of material reality, a crypto-religious notion to my mind.

    (I ’m pretty sure the concept of successive higher stages of human evolution has a racist history... but that’s a by the by). So, as I’ve understood it, for a given gene or complex of genes to be passed down successive generations all that is required is for there to be a lack of serious selective pressure against... there is no need for them to confer an “advantage”, or lead to any kind of “improvement” or “progress”, simply to not disadvantage the carriers (whether phenotypically partial/dormant or complete/active) sufficiently to prevent reproduction.

    Yeah: long-winded way of saying anyone who claims any heritable trait within any population of organisms represents a “next evolutionary stage” has, to my mind, failed to grasp the concept of evolution. High-tech civilisation by removing certain environmental selective pressures may, given sufficient time (millenia), lead to a higher prevalence of non-NT individuals: but even if such becomes true (and it contains the assumption that our species had a future measurable in millenia: room for scepticism there) it would simply be a shift in proportional neurodiversity within the species, probably for better and worse simultaneously if it came to pass.

    (Edited to remove unwanted spoilers-Amity)
  • Mona_PerethMona_Pereth Citizen
    edited February 2021
    One of the very few public figures on the web who appear to be seriously (or at least semi-seriously?) advocating the idea of Aspies prefiguring a forthcoming "Human 2.0" is Frank Gaskill.  See video here (uploaded to YouTube on Oct 4, 2013) and article here.  According to  his website:

    Dr. Frank Gaskill is an American psychologist and author who specializes in Asperger Syndrome, effective parenting, and how technology and children can interface safely and successfully.

    Gaskill is the co-author of a graphic novel about the Autism Spectrum. In addition to having a comic based on Asperger's, he is also the host of an online video series dedicated to promoting the idea that Asperger's is a more highly evolved brain.

  • SlyFoxSlyFox Citizen, Member
    I think its more a random mutation maybe due to inbreeding long ago.if it didn't happen randomly austitics would likely been removed from gene pool due to how undesirable we are.
  • kraftiekortiekraftiekortie Citizen
    edited February 2021
    The idea that Neanderthals had “the autistic gene,” somehow, is patently ridiculous, I feel.

    Survival required cooperation with others in such activities as hunting and toolmaking. It required people being “social” with each other.  How could a Neanderthal with sensory issues successfully hunt large game?  

    I guess it’s possible that shamans and artists and that ilk might have had “unusual” characteristics that could be construed as being “autistic.”  Perhaps people who fixated on improving the extant tool kit.

    As stated above, there are occasional rumblings from troll-like folks on the Internet as to autistic folks representing “the next step in human evolution.”
  • kraftiekortiekraftiekortie Citizen
    edited February 2021
    There are times when people of an autistic mindset could have such singular and all-encompassing focus—that they could have, and most certainly did, created innovations on past inventions, new inventions, and new ways of thinking.  The autistic mindset doesn’t have to be always negative.

    Something like the creation of quantum theory, in my view, required such an all-encompassing focus.  Such focus that socialization with others and “small talk” would seem trivial to such people.

    This does not mean that autistic folks are “superior” to others.

  • I am really very impressed by "hyper- focusing," especially because even hypo- focusing is a challenge for me with my ADD. It prevents me from researching anything in depth. I have learned to live with being superficial in certain things.
  • Hyper-focus has advantages for sure, but it also means I need someone to keep an eye on me lol. Otherwise, I go "I'll just take a quick look at this" and 8 hours later I realise I'm starving and have to go to the bathroom 😁
  • Mona_PerethMona_Pereth Citizen
    edited February 2021
    A while back I came across the following video:

    ABC News In-depth
    uploaded to YouTube Sep 25, 2017
    (but I suspect the video may actually have been made much earlier)

    The title of this video is misleading.  It is NOT, primary, devoted to any hypothesis about Asperger's syndrome being "the next stage of human evolution."  The video is primarily just a general documentary about Asperger's syndrome and about the career of Tony Attwood, one of the psychotherapists who first popularized the concept of "Asperger's syndrome."   Near the beginning of the video, Dr. Attwood makes various attempts to de-stigmatize Asperger's syndrome, and, at one point during the video, he makes an offhand remark about Asperger's syndrome being "perhaps ... the next stage of human evolution." but the latter idea is never elaborated upon, if I recall correctly, and it comes across to me as a rhetorical flourish rather than an actual serious claim.

  • verityverity Administrator, Citizen
    Yep typical sensational headline form a media outlet.
  • Looking at this video again....

    In it, Attwood is credited with being "the first clinical psychologist in the world" to advocate looking for and cultivating whatever strengths or talents an autistic person might have.  I don't think this is accurate.  If I'm not mistaken, Hans Asperger himself advocated this.

  • verityverity Administrator, Citizen
    edited February 7
    Such claim typically rely on  other false claims becuase it is more about wanting something to be true than actually being true. It is a fantasy.

    I think clearly human evolution involved many different types of individuals. This 'next stage' is a misunderstanding of evolution itself.
  • AmityAmity Administrator, Citizen
    I consider this idea from a broader perspective... Any child raised in a supportive environment, one suited and tailored to the individual childs way of being is going to encourage their strengths to blossom.

    Early childhood is underrecognised as the most significant stage of human development, it lays the foundation for everything that follows at a time of incredible brain development. Early intervention is to my mind a recognition of this for children with disabilities, but really every child needs this support to varying degrees to assist the developments of their strengths.

    Some Autistic adults will have been fortunate to be raised in supportive environments(/other) and as such excell in specific areas of their life with minimal impact on their long term health due to not being over exposed to cortisol. Its rare though, imo.
  • It took 46 years after first seeing a pdoc to be officially recognised as being on the spectrum.I had no friends as a child. Massively underachieved when it came to educational performance. Was socially gauche. Clumsy and badly coordinated . My 1st school flagged that I had difficulties that needed looking into . Possible CP. When the result was negative my parents let the matter drop although it was fairly obvious something was a bit off track.

    As a psych patient failure to be anywhere near as good at x as  I was at y was treated hypercritically by MH pros who saw it as a character defect.

    It's only through moving here and my daughter's  input that it's been recognised  that I have genuine difficulties. It's great to be treated better , but the 'What could/should've  beens' can send me into a state of intense sadness if and when  something breeches the emotional barriers I've put up. It might be a tv scene, a song, an event etc that triggers me into that state.
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