Recently, a lovely commenter and friend (whose identity I won’t mention here, unless given specific permission to do so) notified me of an article published in Psychology Today, by a certain “Dr” Christopher Badcock, that made the bold claim that “autistics” are “undomesticated humans”. Although I had seen the article when it first appeared and mentally spouted off a hot, snarky retort back then, vowing to write a post about it at some point, time intervened, and the post had gone unwritten.
My amazing friend deserves the all the credit for this post (thank you!!), because they rekindled the fire not only by providing a link to the article, but also encouraging me to write a rebuttal.
And so it is.
Note to the psychology/psychiatry “experts”: we need to get one thing straight, right now: people “with” Asperger’s/autism are not – and I repeat: not – “undomesticated humans”.
I would stop there, “experts”, but you need convincing. Fine. I’ll deliver.
In this post, I’ll flesh out several (ten) semi-separate thoughts.
Thought 1: Domestication Defined – psychology “experts”, do you really want to go there?
First, let’s define the term “domesticated”. Trusty ol’ Oxford Dictionary says:
1 – (of an animal) tame and kept as a pet or on a farm; example: domesticated dogs
1.1 – (of a plant) cultivated for food; naturalized; example: domesticated crops
1.2 – humorous (especially of a man) fond of home life and housework; example: “he is thoroughly domesticated”
The use of the word “undomesticated” the context of Asperger’s/autism is actually rather funny in an ironic, snarky, the-joke’s-on-them sort of way, because it would imply that we’re the wild and pure strains of the human species, while neurotypicals comparatively spend all day wagging their proverbial tails, obeying commands, and licking themselves….yeah–there.
In order to understand what it means to be “undomesticated”, we need to be familiar with what its root word “domesticated” means. Oxford gives several definitions, each within different contexts, so I’ll simply include the relevant version:
“[domestication] (of an animal) tame and kept by humans“
So…if neurotypical psychology “experts” are saying that we, the people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, are “undomesticated”, does that mean that the general neurotypical population (which is thus implied to be “domesticated” by comparison) is “tame and kept by humans”?
Thought 2: “Domestication Syndrome”
It’s interesting that psychology “experts” would dream of associating the word “syndrome” with themselves, because by its very nature, it conveys a pathological connotation. Yet, that’s precisely what they’re doing when they imply that they’re “domesticated” so that they can smugly call us “undomesticated”.
The opposite of “domesticated” is also known as “wild”, which implies the pure, unadulterated, unmanipulated result of natural forces. Notice that there is no “Wild Syndrome”; only a “Domestication Syndrome” has ever been described. Some of its characteristics actually aren’t all that flattering, either; I wouldn’t exactly be proud of possessing them.
Let’s explore those characteristics.
- changes in ear size, shape, and stiffness
- shorter snouts and smaller jaws
- smaller teeth
- reduced brain size (reductions in both total brain size and of particular brain regions)
- specifically, reductions in the amygdala and limbic system
- loss of pigmentation; neoteny (retention of immature features in adults)
- shorter, but more frequent and nonseasonal reproductive cycles
- prolongations in juvenile behavior
- increased docility
Thought 3: “Domestication Syndrome” – Are dogs synonymous with humans?
There are several problems with this. The first is, it’s based primarily on dogs. Dogs are one of the most profoundly domesticated animals in the world, even earning the moniker “man’s best friend”. They’re (obviously) an entirely different species, being acted upon by entirely different natural forces, and thus undergoing entirely different evolutionary trajectory). When it comes to concepts like brains and behavior, not to mention domestication, the characteristics and evolutionary path of dogs diverge significantly, to the point where we’re not even comparing apples to oranges anymore–it’s more like apples to paper clips.
Thought 4: Inaccuracies in “Domestication Syndrome” characteristics:
The second problem can be thought of as an offshoot of the first: these characteristics aren’t even accurate. I’ll give you “prolongations in juvenile behavior” – that seems to describe the world at large quite succinctly. However, the loss of pigmentation, thought to occur in animals who are kept indoors as house-pets as opposed to outside where they would be exposed to more sun, is highly irrelevant to the domestication of humans. Skin pigmentation depends primarily on geographical latitude and its average UV Index, no matter what the living conditions.
Another example might include the ear shape mentioned in the list. Although research (referenced in the Psychology Today article ) has described differences in the shape and stiffness of autistic peoples’ ears, the list of possible reasons behind this is practically infinite and largely unknown. To cite a “lack of domestication” in autistic people as an explanation for these ear changes (really–who gets paid to research stuff like this?) is premature at best and reckless and harmful at worst.
Thought 5: We have more of a couple of those characteristics than NTs do!
A third issue I take with this list involves the fact that, in this “domestication syndrome” symptom list, some of the more-flattering characteristics might actually be said to apply more to people on the autism spectrum than they do to the general neurotypical population!
For example, “prolongations in juvenile behavior”, if interpreted in a certain way, could theoretically be associated with us instead, depending on its intended meaning. It’s not that we’re immature; the truth is far from it.
Rather, a youthful appearance is occasionally mentioned; it’s generally understood among the Asperger’s/autistic community that we’re known (at least, among each other) for looking younger. Sometimes, we act a little younger, too, such as engaging in some of the same activities or retaining some of the same tastes/preferences that we developed in our younger years.
Some of us describe a non-derogatory childlike quality, in which we socialize differently, without all the baggage-laden, pompous and circumstantial posturing, contesting, or oneupmanship we’ve often observed in the neurotypically-dominated world at large.
We could also stake a claim on the “increased docility”–again, depending on how the phrase is used. If we’re talking strictly about Introversion vs Extroversion, then, well, we’ve got the upper hand on this one; 98% of us are introverts and introverts are perceived to be more docile.
But it’s all about the intended meanings of the terms…
Thought 6: Docility applied to NTs? Reverse-projection, much?
Speaking of docile, the fourth issue I take with this list is that the “increased docility” part is speculated to result from reduced size and function of the adrenal glands and thus, lower production of the fight-or-flight stress hormones.
Heh. (Begin snarky sarcasm…) Oh yeah–when we observe the “domesticated” neurotypical-dominated world around us, the first words we think of are words like “docile”, “calm”, “low-stress”, “civilized”, “peaceful”, “non-combative”….right? (End snarky sarcasm). Has this “expert” (and his predecessors who dreamed up this nonsense) been living under a boulder? Why on earth are about 60-70% of all doctor visits (at least, in the US) attributable to symptoms related to excess chronic stress, if the world is so “domesticated” and “docile”? Why is violence, aggression, and rage such a thing, if the world, dominated by neurotypicality, is so “domesticated”? (FunFact: Asperger’s/autistic people are even less likely to perpetrate violence and crime.)
Neurotypical “experts” and their projection. (I’m using the term “reverse-projection” to describe the NT “expert”s’ co-option of our positive traits into their self-appropriated profile.) Blech.
Thought 7: Some “experts” need to review basic human pathophysiology (physiology + pathology) (Ouch!)
Let’s talk about that supposed reduction in adrenal-related stress hormones. I’m a doctor and it’s pretty clear to me that this entire model is phooey.
What clinches it? The fact that they’re talking about skin depigmentation in conjunction with “lower” adrenal hormone function.
To explain why this is bullshit, I’ll need you to take a quick peek into My Nerd World. It’ll only take a minute. 🙂
The adrenal-related stress hormone in question here is cortisol; that’s the one that gets all the attention in the medical research of autism.
A condition of excess cortisol begins to produce effects such as:
- Abdominal/central weight gain and “moon face”
- Sweaty palms
- Cravings for sweets
- Difficulty sleeping
- Pale skin
- Muscle weakness
- Short-term memory issues
- Higher incidence of/increased vulnerability to infections
So when the “experts” claim that calmer adrenal glands/lower cortisol and skin depigmentation coexist, that’s kind of an Epic Fail.
Thought 8: Almost everybody (on and off the spectrum) has adrenal stress (unless their adrenal glands are fatigued)
This kind of piggybacks on Thought 6, in that although much of the unaware NT world perceives us as savage beast or caged animals or whatever other ridiculous concept, the truth is, the fight-or-flight response is equal-opportunity.
People on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum are frequently stressed out. Neurotypical people are frequently stressed out. The two population segments might show this in different ways, but the underlying driver is the same in both: the “fight or flight” response.
When you’re faced with something (or someone) your brain perceives as a threat, then a bunch of physiological processes kick into action. All of these processes act as support systems to help you achieve one goal: to survive the threat.
When facing said threat, in order to survive, you have two options. You can start running and hope you can outrun the threat before it catches you (flight), or you can stick around and swing like mad, hoping to sufficiently injure or kill it before it injures you too much.
It’s violent. But it’s nature. It’s reality. It’s life. It happens. And whether we like it or not, that’s how all of humanity is wired.
What varies among people is our perception of something or someone as a stressor. What my brain perceives to be a stressor might be totally benign for you, or maybe even a pleasurable, satisfying, or relaxing thing for you, and vice versa. This is a case where everybody’s different.
That being said, there are indeed a few common themes; people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum are more likely to perceive other people as imminent-threats-until-proven-otherwise than neurotypical people are (I’m generalizing). Some neurotypical people, on the other hand, may be more likely to be afraid of (or at least more apprehensive toward or show weaker bonding with) animals than some people on the spectrum. Again, I’ve generalized big-time here; there are almost always exceptions.
But the fact is, we all possess a fight-or-flight response. Just because our list of perceived threats is different, that doesn’t mean we’re “undomesticated”.
Thought 9: Yeah, that “evidence” or “set of characteristics” of “undomesticated” behavior? That’s nothing but a chronically-engaged fight-or-flight response
Let’s take a look at the little info-graphic (sourced from the Psychology Today article)…
The vast majority of the “traits” listed here are actually symptoms of a chronically-activated stress response, and nothing more. This accounts for everything but the characteristics relating to brain size, ears, and the face. ALL of the other traits….:
- Aggressive behavior
- Abnormal response to social cues
- Abnormal response of the HPA axis
- High levels of androgens (testosterone, etc)
- Hypomelanosis (paler skin) (and no, that’s not all that “occasional”; it can be pretty common)
- Adrenal gland hyperfunction
- Generalized overgrowth in infancy (if the mother’s fight-or-flight response has been activated long-term)
- Tooth problems
…are ALL linked to a chronic/ongoing and/or severe stress response…
…whether the person is on the spectrum or not.
It’s equal opportunity. Nobody’s exempt.
Thought 10 – NT “expert” wishful thinking?
As for the last three traits – brain/head size, facial anomalies, and shape of the ears? Its link to the autism spectrum may be supported in the research, but then again, the research is fundamentally flawed in its approach to autism as a pathology characterized solely by what a bunch of NT “experts” write down when observing through their own biased lens.
There might indeed be a correlation between physical abnormalities and the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. Or there might be some other (loosely-related or even unrelated) factor involved that’s driving the physical abnormalities that isn’t necessarily inherent in autism. Or, this may be a separate “syndrome” with an entirely different etiology/pathophysiology altogether, and it’s only being mistaken for autism because, after all, when they’re merely observing and they don’t bother to ask autistic people, and all they do instead is write down what they see through their own lens, well, it “looks like” autism, and so the waters muddy and cloud up even more.
Some of us might be figurative lone wolves.
We might be considered wild and beautiful.
Some of us might even have a spirit animal.
Human beings ourselves are animals.
But we are NOT any less than anyone else. We are NOT to be dehumanized.
(Please note: links are provided for background only. Enter all but the last one at your own risk. The last link to the WordPress blog is the only one I actually endorse)
“Autistics as Undomesticated Humans” – from Psychology Today (a trade publication for the psychology/psychiatry field)
(Content/Trigger Warning: ableism, ASD-as-pathology viewpoint, animal comparison)
“Language Impairments in ASD Resulting From Failed Domestication of the Human Brain” – from Frontiers in Neuroscience (medical research journal)
(the research study “Dr” Badcock bases his Psychology Today article on)
(Content/Trigger Warning: ableism, ASD-as-pathology viewpoint, animal comparison)
“The Domestication Syndrome in Mammals: A Unified Explanation Based On Neural Crest Cell Behavior and Genetics” – from Genetics.org
(about Charles Darwin and domestication of animals)
“Asperger’s and Coming Across as Ageless” – from Spectrum Eye, WordPress blog
(the only related link I actually endorse!!)