More or less about 1995 I finally caught on to what psychologists were investigating and reporting under the category of autism, and first realized that it appeared to be acutely relevant to myself. I’ve been reading about autism ever since, but there is no author who seems to understand it quite as well as Hans Asperger. I have a collection of quotes from him that never fail to inspire me. Here is one of my favorites:
They all have one thing in common: the language feels unnatural.
That appeared to say something profound, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I thought about it for years, until I was able to explain it in my novel The Birdcatcher. Then I continued to talk about it in The Shyness Guide, and my second novel Skol.
What happened was this – one day I asked myself this question – Why in the billions of people on Earth, speaking so many different languages, should there be some who find language unnatural? Who struggle with listening and speaking to other people?
The answer came to me almost immediately – though homo sapiens is supposed to be at least 200,000 years old, and hominids maybe 4 milllion years, (unless you want to start with our split with chimpanzees about 7 million years ago), most linguists seem to agree that we have probably had complex language for only about 50,000 years.
Think about that. Why should it be that all those members of humanity who lived without complex speech for hundreds of thousands/millions of years be all gone now? Evolution is not so neat. For example, the experts insisted for a long time that all other hominids were entirely gone, displaced by homo sapiens, but when we were finally able to read the DNA in their fossils, we discovered that significant amounts of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA are present in 90% of humans today. They have not disappeared – they joined us.
On the island of Flores in the south Pacific, Australian scientists turned up fossils of a small race who were still around only 30,000 yrs ago (homo florensius, now popularly called the ‘hobbitt’), yet they appear to be from the homo erectus species who were thought to have disappeared at least a hundred thousand years ago. If we ever get DNA from these little people we may find that we share some of their DNA too. Humanity is probably going to turn out to be an amalgam of species or races (American anthropologist Milford Wolpoff has argued for a long time that homo erectus and homo sapiens are one species).
Do you see what I’m getting at. If there are people living today whose DNA doesn’t fit well with they greater population, that doesn’t mean they are suffering from some genetic disease or accident. They may simply be people from the past. Others, like those diagnosed as retarded, may be people from even farther back when humanity’s average IQ was lower, yet well suited to the environment of their time.
Because I had this idea over twenty years ago, I’m more than a little surprised that I can find no evidence of research along these lines today. British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s proposal that Asperger syndrome represents the basic form of the autistic mind, seemed to me a step in that direction, but the American Psychiatric Association, in their wisdom, then decided to delete Asperger syndrome from their 2013 DSM5 manual, diminishing, I think, the attention his idea deserves.
Anyway, if Hans Asperger were alive today I think he would be interested in this idea that autism and other problematic versions of the human mind may represent hold-out survivors from the distant past.