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Could Autism Be an Evolutionary Response?

Futurist Juan Enriquez sparked a pretty lively discussion this past week in response to his theory that humans may be in a period of rapid evolutionary change in response to the exponential increase in information in our environment—changes that may be showing themselves in rising rates of autism, synesthesia and attention disorders.

Enriquez, the founding director of the Harvard Business School Life Sciences Project, argues in a short book Homo Evolutis that humans are still an evolving species, and modern life exerts exactly the sort of pressure that can alter a population: "When you think of how much data is coming into our brains, we're trying to take in as much data in a day as people used to take in, in a lifetime," he says.

He points to the skyrocketing rates of American students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders—from 6.7 per 1,000 children in 2000 to 11.4 per 1,000 children in 2008—as a potential adaptive response to an increasingly data-intensive environment. He bases this in part on the "intense world" theory of autism introduced in 2007, which posited that autism may be caused by "hyper-perception, hyper-attention, and hyper-memory" which "may render the world painfully intense."

I'm not sure how much I buy that the expansions of autism or attention deficit disorders are caused by actual increases in the number of children who have those disorders as opposed to, say, better diagnostic tools and broader definitions for identifying students. But Enriquez is one voice in a growing chorus of calls for a different kind of research into special education, that goes beyond how to identify and integrate students with disabilities to really think about how to leverage their strengths in the classroom and beyond. (For example, check out this speech on research priorities on special education by Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development; the relevant portion is in the second half.)

If future generations are adapting to a new environment, what do you think we will see 10 generations from now? Kids with hyper-attention, able to process a multitude of information in half the time we do now? (Granted, that hasn't seemed to happen so far.) Perhaps children with more efficient lungs to process higher indoor air pollution instead of getting asthma? What do you think?

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