Rewriting history from a neurodiversity perspective

Not all people may be happy about the positive image of autism the neurodiversity movement has brought about. We now are aware that autism can be a superpower and that many people on the autism spectrum feel like mutant X-men, admired for their special abilities, shunned for their otherness.

Without doubt much of history was written by neurodiverse people. Scientists and genius engineers, who are infamous for their poor social skills, are just the tip of the iceberg: Isaac Newton, Henry Cavendish, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Elon Musk (who has a child diagnosed with autism himself). Then there are leagues of artists and poets: Mozart, van Gogh, Kafka and Hans Christian Andersen, whose neurodiversity was different because they were more “people” oriented and better at cognitive empathy, but I have no doubt they would be diagnosed if they were alive.

It is estimated that up to 20–25% of people are neurodiverse, with the ones who are diagnosed only being the tip of the iceberg. Often parents of neurodiverse children only find out about their neurodiversity through the diagnosis of their own children. I am taking an evolutionary perspective and actually claiming that neurodiversity was higher in the past. I know this sounds somewhat paradoxically with rising numbers of people being diagnosed. Some of the symptoms of neurodiversity may indeed be getting worse, but neurodiversity has always been here. Applying evolutionary thinking we can assume that the numbers of neurodiverse people has been declining over the millennia as neurodiverse people tend it harder to find a mate and have offspring. This assumption is borne out by the fact that neurodiverse children often have much older than average fathers. The same is true for a different form of neurodiversity: giftedness. This is one of the contant findings in studies of historical geniuses.

If neurodiversity has always been here, where did it come from? In my model of human evolution neurodiverse people have more ancient hunter-gatherer mindsets, which manifest in them being more egalitarian, direct (honest communication) and less conformist.

So, where in history can we find all those neurodiverse people who never achieved any fame? The truth might be somewhat ugly. To begin with, hunter-gatherer people may have found it very hard to integrate into farmer-herder societies and may have been at the margin of society. They were most likely the lowest class in farmer societies, being outcasts (very much like the Dalit of India), poor people or slaves. It is likely that the three-class system we often find in early civilisations was exactly made up by these three “tribes”: farmers (rulers, landowners), herders (artisans, merchants) and hunter-gatherers as the lowest class.

We can assume most of the outcasts in history were neurodiverse people, including beggars and witches. The latter had probably many autistic traits:

  • Most likely socially awkward and misunderstood

The connection of the last point with neurodiversity is not an obvious one. However, when one considers how frequently austistic people suffer from gastrointestinal problems it may become more apparent. If neurodiverse people have inherited hunter-gatherer minds, they may also to some extent have inherited hunter-gatherer bodies, who are less able to cope with wheat and dairy. These problems in autistic children are often so prevalent that there are even theories that gluten and casein cause autism. This is highly unlikely but a “farmer” diet may certainly worsen the symptoms.

Another outlet for neurodiverse people may have been monasteries, not only in Europe, but also in Asia. Once again the connection is less than obvious. However, considering how difficult it is for neurodiverse people to find a partner, monasteries may have been a good alternative to becoming an outcast. It can be expected that many founders of monasteries were neurodiverse themselves. Saint Francis, founder of several emphasised altruism, anti-materialism and idealism, typical traits of gatherer types. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits , on the other hand, was a “hunter type”, and the order appeals more to intellectual hunter types.

Convents also absorbed many disabled and unmarried women. Rings a bell? France deemed convents as an alternative to prisons for unmarried rebellious women. Rebellious women? Yes, not all women dreamed of being married off to Prince Charming and be their loyally wedded wife. Sounds familiar? Yes, feminists have always existed in hunter-gatherer women who would suffer in a relationship if not being treated in the egalitarian way hunter-gatherers treat women. In fact feminism goes as far back as our hunter-gatherer past:

Gender roles are distinct, but for women there is none of the forced subservience knit into many other cultures. A significant number of Hadza women who marry out of the group soon return, unwilling to accept bullying treatment. Among the Hadza, women are frequently the ones who initiate a breakup-woe to the man who proves himself an incompetent hunter or treats his wife poorly.

In fact, Hadza women who get married to Datoga pastoralists often return within a year to their hunter-gatherer tribe. Datoga pastoralists often beat up their wives and children, in contrast to the Hadza. Hunter-gatherers and farmer-herders operate on different wavelengths or channels. It is well-known that women on the spectrum do not only have difficulties with traditional feminie identity, but also tranditonal gender roles in releationships. This phenomenon probably has kept them from interbreeding too often and led to what is known as assortative mating.

I am confident that the more we know about neurodiversity, the more patterns in history we will find. History doesn’t happen randomly, the underlying patterns are determined by the people who make history. Feminism, democracy (egalitarianism), universal human rights and reformist religious movements are only a few of the historical phenomena that can be understood in the light of neurodiversity.

Originally published at on January 28, 2021.