Autism and First Borns

Thoughts sometimes emerge here that don’t get fleshed out until they appear on, after they’ve been gone over by an editor. Yesterday, reading Mothers and Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, several poweful thoughts cruised through me.

The more older siblings a child has, engaging (and also perhaps tormenting) her, the better a child does on tests that require her to see the world the way someone else does. On closer examination, however, it turns out that it is not so much the number of siblings that matter as the fact that some are older. (p. 136)

Hrdy discusses the emergence of theory of mind in the context of human evolution driven by compassion with naturally selected communities of hominds displaying females working together to raise the kids. Hydy hypothesizes that far more children survived when caring for them was a community event. Theory of mind resulted from the exercise of compassion.

With her citation of studies that observe that first born children develop a less sophisticated theory of mind, it becomes a possiblity that the reason autistics congregate in the first born and those born to older mothers is because first borns aren’t introduced to a caring environment with multiple principles while later born gestate in higher testosterone wombs.

This feels significant. Autism may be partly a result of children raised in environments not natural to our species, homes with only one principle female. This would suggest that older mothers with only one child should have significantly higher percentages of autism. Recent studies calling attention to wealthier parents having higher percentages of autistic children may acutually be noting the tendency of wealther parents to have only one child when the parents are older.

29 Responses to “Autism and First Borns”

  1. Socrates says:

    288 words that for me generates about a dozen questions.

    I won’t display my profound ignorance here by asking them – just keep on reading until I have a better grasp of the issues.

  2. andreT says:

    Yeah, this is blowing my mind. The implications are numerous. I would predict that wealthier African Americans having one child when the parents are older would be a particularly vulnerable demographic. Bringing into the possible causes of autism are not only mother’s testosterone levels, immigrations from equatorial regions (influencing parent testosterone levels seasonally) and sexual selective selection practices but now birth order when there are fewer older siblings or other humans to engage theory of mind. I’ve talked about diet, rhythm, dance, touch and specific environmental stimuli as being relevant. I’d now add to that list whether the child is in physical contact with the mother through the night. What is astonishing me about Hrdy’s work is the connections between matrilineal social structure and human evolution, implying a number of ways that we are used to be treated as children, that we are not in most current societies.

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