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Autism and human evolutionary success

Posted on 15 November 2016

York lecturer publishes new research suggesting people with autism were highly valued in past societies

Human evolution - the story of just one mind and one type of person? (Source: wikimedia commons


A subtle evolutionary change 100,000 years ago may have allowed indivduals who thought and behaved differently to be integrated into society, according to new research by a York archaeologist.

The research, published in Time and Mind, suggests that the emergence of collaborative morality—an investment in the well-being of everyone in a particular group—meant that people who dispalyed autistic traits would not only have been accepted but possibly respected for their unique skills. It is likely individuals in the past would have had autism, with genetics suggesting the condition has a long evolutionary history. Many people with autism display exceptional memory skills and heightened sensory perception. The incorporation of some of these skills into past communities may have played a vital role in the development of specialists, the paper suggests.


Skills and talents associated with autism (image: Penny Spikins)


Dr Penny Spikins, senior lecturer in the Department of Archaeology, says that "diversity, variation between people, was probably more significant in human evolutionary success than the characteristics of one person. It was diversity between people which led to human success and it is particularly important as it gives you different specialised roles.

“We are arguing that it is the rise of collaborative morality that led to the possibility for widening the diversity of the human personality.”

Finding tangible evidence of autism in archaeological records has always been challenging for academics.

Dr Spikins said “The archaeological record doesn’t give us a skeletal record for autism, but what it does do is give us a record for other people who have various differences and how they have been integrated.”

Other clues can be found in cave art and other artefacts.


The authors are asking the public to help them with an online survey of cognition and art perception. To fill out this survey click on this link:


Read the full artcle in Time and Mind here:

For more information, visit the porject website:

Some of the themes in this article are explored further in an ebook, The Prehistory of Autism