By profession he was an illustrator, but he was also an historian, philosopher, Egyptologist, star-gazer, and student of the human race. He absorbed the world until the day he died. And he was fascinated by my autistic son.
They had a strange connection, those two. Somehow I don’t think Ian was ever afraid to look his granddad in the eye and meet his gaze directly. Something intrigued him about that bearded face and that twinkling, interested look.
One day my Dad said to me “Cookie, I’ve been thinking about this. This autism thing. What if autism is a new branch of the evolutionary tree?”
At first I was a bit taken aback. My child, evolved? How – ?
My Dad died over many years ago, and the ‘autism as a branch of human evolution’ argument roared into being around the same time, as I recall. Some clever minds have explored the idea better than I ever could, and a couple of snippets of their thoughts are included below.
However, my personal thoughts on the subject are these:
What does autism give us? A different human. A human who lacks the very worst traits of human nature. A human without greed, or avarice, or jealousy, or spite, or rampant dishonesty. A human without the need to ‘beget’, without the desire to add to an already groaningly over-populated planet. It is mind-expanding to consider that evolution isn’t always ‘up’, but sideways, too …
In fact, if it weren’t for their general inability to communicate in the way we have come to expect from our fellow man, and their general lack of interest in taking appropriate care of themselves (and here I am obviously referencing Ian, whose autism is profound), it might be easy to think of autistic people as a better version of ourselves.
Stasia Bliss put it rather well in her article “Autism – a leap in the evolution of consciousness?” –
“If you have ever known or interacted with an ‘autistic’ person, you know there is something special about them, you can feel it. They draw you into the present moment in a way no one else can and lure you away from the troubles of your mind into a space of joyful freedom. …. However, if you relinquish attachment to ‘how things ought to be’ and simply allow the moment to happen as it wishes to unfold, these beautiful beings will lead you into a space far greater than the one you currently reside in.
Is autism merely a difficult and disruptive disorder that we must seek to ‘cure’ or is it the signal of an evolutionary leap in consciousness here to show us the way?”
Beautifully put and thought-provoking, and I love that phrase ‘draw you into the present moment’ because with autism there is nowhere else to be but the now. But then you get this anonymous comment, which was posted at the bottom of Stasia Bliss’s article –
“As a student of Biology, I would LOVE to believe that this is a result of evolution. I am, however, not fully convinced due to the fact that many older generations are just now realizing that they have the diagnosis. It was simply not recognized years ago. Compare it to the “Earth is round” theory… for hundreds of years people believed that the Earth was flat. Finding out that it was round was simply an advancement in scientific knowledge. The Earth was ALWAYS round. Begs the question… Has Autism ALWAYS existed??”
He (or she) makes a valid point, don’t you think? ‘Special’ people have always existed. To be crude about it, every village had its idiot. Oh, I know, today’s sensibilities make that sentence abhorrent! But it’s true, isn’t it? No matter what age you are, you knew one, wherever you grew up – someone who was ‘slow’ or excessively introverted or had no friends, the one who was teased because they were different – and I’m fairly sure that must go back through human existence, all the way to the cave.
Is my son an ‘evolved’ human being? Well, I am inclined to believe he quite possibly is, simply because he doesn’t have the worst of me.
However, theories like the autism/evolution idea are rather cold comfort to those of us who have to deal with our child’s autism every single day, aren’t they? One might be tempted to say “Here, theorist, attend to my child for 24 hours, and then you tell me how ‘evolved’ you think he is.”
Getting back to my Dad, though, I suspect he understood that Ian could lead him ‘into a space far greater’ (as Stasia Bliss put it) than the one we live in, and he took every opportunity to spend time in Ian’s company.
When Ian was young, my Dad would sit with him for hours watching Walt Disney films
If Ian was on the swing in our field (which borders onto my parents’ house), my Dad would always pop out his back door and come to the fence to greet Ian, and then stand watching him. Just … watching.
They had some connection, those two.
Ian would mention his granddad, sometimes every day. Until the day my father died.
Without needing to be told, Ian has never asked for him again.