The autism “epidemic”

I wonder if the increase in reported cases of autism in children and adults is not a function of anything changing in human biology or neurology. I wonder if it is environmental. Not environmental as in pollution, but environmental as in increasing environmental stimuli over time. What if autistic disabilities are simply a function of neurodiverse people having to live in environments that are ever increasingly assaulting to our senses?

I grew up in very rural places in the 70s-80s. We lived in a log cabin for years, in the woods, with very few people around us. We did not have a television until I was in school, didn’t have a VCR or a microwave until the 90s. We moved to progressively larger towns and I graduated from high school in a class of 180 in a small city of about 16,000 people. But we didn’t have a computer or video games or Netflix or social media or cell phones. When I think back, I don’t think, OMG, how did I survive then… I think OMG, how do people survive growing up now?

Part of this is just nostalgia, like “back when I was your age…” but also, the pace of change is increasing exponentially and human beings, at least those of us who are on the sensitive side, may not be designed to handle things moving so quickly.

Take driving, for instance. Driving used to be an exercise in getting from point A to point B, on a series of roads with others going in various directions. There were always distractions, but there were no bright flashing LED billboards taking your eyes off the road or cell phones chirping in the seat next to you. Now when you drive, you can’t take anything for granted. Even if you are smart enough to put your phone in the console and keep your eyes on the road, can you say the same about the guy in front of you or behind you? Maybe not. You would be smart to assume the worst, which means more defensive driving and more stressful travel, in general.

Most people probably don’t think about these things, but autistic people feel these stimuli deeply. Sounds and bright lights can be painful. Our environment is simply louder and brighter than it ever had been in the past. In the neurotypical human quest for ever more new and extreme forms of stimulation, society has created a less hospitable sensory environment for everyone.

Then there are the human interactions. Pre-coronavirus lockdown, it was becoming more and more difficult to assume good intentions in people when interacting with strangers. Now I’m a pretty easygoing type, will strike up a conversation with most anyone. But people are stressed and don’t necessarily appreciate strangers talking to them with no invitation. So getting snapped at or otherwise treated rudely is routinely common. I get it, people are busy, but y’all could just say, “hi” back sometimes too.

So maybe there is no autism epidemic. Maybe we all the same as we were generations ago, but the world has changed around us in all the stimulating, triggering ways and more and more people’s old coping mechanisms are failing. Things are breaking down for everyone now. So maybe we can get to a new place where we can all take care of each other a little more. You know, when we have to rebuild our next society. So autistic people don’t need to feel so disabled in the future.

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