How neurodiverse people are like hunter-gatherers: part IV: social struggles

I have previously argued that neurodiverse people have egalitarian hunter-gatherer minds. These include people on the autism spectrum, people with ADHD but also most gifted people. In general, these egalitarian hunter-gatherer minds may roughly be equivalent to what Jung called “intuitives”. The differences with evolutionary farmer-herder types include cognition (e.g. “radar minds” with higher distractibility and higher physical sensitivity and excitability), social psychology (egalitarian, anti-authoritarian), as well as psychological differences, in particular in difficulties digesting farmer-herder foods (grains and dairy).

All these differences may lead to various social struggles with negative life outcomes. In the following paragraphs, I will show how similar these life outcomes are between neurodiverse people and Native Americans. While these two groups couldn’t seem to be more different, the outcomes are alarmingly similar. The link between neurodiversity and hunter-gatherer minds is probably most evident in ADHD and Thom Hartman’s hypothesis that ADHD isn’t a disease but signs of a mind adapted to hunting.

It isn’t a big secret that neurodiverse children (ASD, ADHD) struggle in school, academically, socially (bullying) and mentally (depression and anxiety). Native American students aren’t faring much better.

[…] no group of students in America fails to graduate or achieve proficiency at such disproportionate rates [as Native Americans]. ()

Only 67% of Native American students graduate from high school compared to the national average of 80%. Not only is the dropout rate higher, as it is typically for children with undiagnosed ADHD, but also suspension rates are extremely high, just like for their ADHD counterparts. How much intelligence does it take to understand that egalitarian minds don’t take well to hierarchical structures and coercion? Sometimes Native American students get suspended for overreacting to what we consider “harmless teasing”. However, there may be no such thing as harmless teasing for hunter-gatherers. As a teacher, I have first-hand experience of how neurodiverse children can literally explode when being teased. In almost all such cases the neurodiverse children are being punished for overreacting. They are being punished for how evolution has programmed them. They are being punished for being themselves. This makes the situation twice as bad for the neurodiverse child.

Next are learning difficulties due to different cognitive prerequisites:

Statistics from the National Indian Child Welfare Association and the CDC show at least 170,000, nearly 11 percent, of the 1.6 million American Indian and Alaska Native children under age 18 are labeled with ADHD, including an estimated 115,000 Native boys. The rate of ADHD diagnosis for Native children has consistently tracked as the highest of any ethnic category, climbing steadily since 1997, and only in the last few years have rates for children from other backgrounds caught up. ()

Mental health problems

Neurodiverse people typically suffer from a wide range of comorbidities. Anxiety disorders and depression are two of the most common ones.

Native Americans represent less than two percent of the US population but they make up eight percent of those who are homeless and according to mental health statistics in Native Americans, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of this population will suffer some sort of mental health disorder during their lifetimes. ()

Native American adolescents have higher rates of general anxiety as well as substance abuse and suicide. PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is also very common among Native Americans. This doesn’t correspond to the image of fearless warriors we get from old Hollywood movies. However, it’s an image that is all too familiar from our experience with neurodiverse people.

Alcoholism and substance use

Alcoholism and substance use can be regarded as self-medication for both neurodiverse people and foragers living at the edge of society. Generally speaking, people with ASD are at a lower risk for developing alcoholism, especially when compared to other psychological conditions. However, if a person with ASD drinks, they are at an increased risk of becoming alcohol-dependent. The situation gets far worse for people with ADHD. Several studies have shown a strong connection between ADHD, drug abuse, and alcoholism. ADHD is five to 10 times more common among adult alcoholics than it is in people without the condition. Among adults being treated for alcohol and substance abuse, the rate of ADHD is about 25%. Among ethnic groups in the US:

Native Americans have the highest prevalence (12.1 percent) of heavy drinking (i.e., five or more drinks on the same occasion for 5 or more of the past 30 days; followed by Whites (8.3 percent) and Hispanics (6.1 percent) ()


Native Americans face the highest poverty rates and the lowest employment rates of any ethnic group in the United States. Needless to say that employability prospects for many neurodiverse people aren’t exactly rosy either (unless it’s for one of the Silicon tech companies).

Many people may think that homeless people are just lazy people who don’t want to work. In reality, it is much more likely that the majority of homeless people are neurodiverse people, many of whom are undiagnosed.

Twelve percent of Welsh Autistic adults reported experiencing homelessness and 65% of homeless people sleeping in the streets in Devon, England, had been diagnosed with autism. ()

When it comes to Native Americans, the picture is very similar again:

American Indians are overrepresented among persons who are homeless: though they represent less than 1.5 percent of the population in the United States, it is estimated that they make up eight percent of those who are homeless.

Suicide rates are generally the highest among foragers who are bereft of their traditional way of life all over the world. The US and Native Americans are sadly no exception:

The U.S. suicide rate is up 33 percent since 1999, but for American Indian and Alaska Native women and men, the increase is even greater: 139 percent and 71 percent, respectively […] Native communities experience higher rates of suicide compared to all other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., with suicide being the eighth leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives across all ages. For Native youth ages 10 to 24, suicide is the second leading cause of death; and the Native youth suicide rate is 2.5 times higher than the overall national average, making these rates the highest across all ethnic and racial groups. (source)

Being born with an egalitarian mind not programmed by evolution for 9–5 routine “farmer jobs” creates a huge disadvantage for foragers who try to adapt to our “civilized” Western World. They are bound to struggle and fail in schools and their domestic and professional lives. Substance use and homelessness are often the resulting consequences. However, the ultimate cause for suicide is probably a deep sense of failure and worthlessness. This is also ultimately the cause for suicide among most neurodiverse people: not finding a place in the world where they are appreciated for who they are and the particular strengths they have been endowed with by evolution.

The suicide rates are three times higher in people with autism and up to five times higher among those with ADHD. And the rates rise to a staggering 10–30 times higher among people with bipolar disorder.

When I started out my research I was often ridiculed for suggesting that neurodiverse people have hunter-gatherer minds. However, everywhere I have looked the similarities were striking. There is a huge crisis for forager (type) people all over the world going on. We can do something about it. And the first step is creating schools that work for the way their minds are adapted, socially and cognitively.

Originally published at on July 7, 2021.