Does autism have meaning in other cultures?

Two years ago I was invited to the island of Hawaii to speak about autism and neurodiversity on behalf of the Department of Education.  Before going there I read what I could find on autism and its culture in Hawaii.  There was not much going on, as far as autism culture.  But there was a great renaissance of native Hawaiian culture.  Autism has been part of humanity for quite a long time, so I realized the two must be intertwined, but how?  One place where I immediately suspected a connection was in the area of navigation.

That set me exploring the possibility that some Polynesian navigators may be/have been autistic.  That has been a fascinating thing to study, and it raised another question that I'd like to discuss – does a western diagnostic label that we associate with disability have relevance when applied to a gifted individual performing a specialized task in the South Pacific?  That question struck me as I watched video of Mau Piailug, an indigenous navigator from the island of Satawal who died in 2010.

Polynesian navigators were for many years the finest navigators in the world.  Using their eyes and their minds – no tools or maps – they successfully steered vessels over vast distances to every corner of the Pacific.  They did this over thousands of years, during a time that western navigators had absolutely no idea how to find a speck in the ocean like Hawaii or Tahiti.

Polynesian navigation is often referred to as wayfinding to distinguish it from the instrument and chart based navigation practiced elsewhere in the world. As soon as I read about the various cognitive requirements of the job I thought it was something autistic people would be ideally suited to.  I wondered if there was any evidence of autism in wayfinders and indeed there were clues in various writings.  The thing that really cinched it for me, though, was watching videos of a master wayfinder from the island of Satawal. 

When I watched the videos I saw many signs of the broad autism phenotype in Piailug’s speech, expressions, and behavior.  He did not look at the person he was speaking to, or the camera.  He looked down almost all the time.  He spoke in a near monotone with a pattern of prosody I’ve learned to associate with autism.  When he spoke, his eyes and upper face were generally devoid of animation and he seldom displayed large expressions.  He also had the flat affect that is common to autistic speakers. To a trained eye, those were all signs of autism.  Yet the films did not depict a disabled man.  They showed an exceptional man telling his story for an appreciative listener.  

Watching Piailug speak, I thought to myself, what would I say to him, if I were there?  Would I focus on the magnitude of his achievements, safely navigating open boats across thousands of miles of trackless ocean? Or would say the tendency to look at the ground when speaking is common in autistic people, and he does that.  I could go on to enumerate fifty points of diagnosis, but in the end I could not help but think, so what?  It’s not his autistic behaviors that matter, it’s his life work.

Mau Piailug was a respected leader in his pacific island community and the west.  He came to the attention of American media when he navigated a Hawaiian voyaging canoe 2,500 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti with nothing more than his eyes and his mind to guide him.  He didn’t use charts or a compass.  In fact, he did not even know how to use them.  He did something we regard as extraordinary, but to him it was ordinary; so much so that according to him the outcome was never in doubt.

He simply did what he’d been trained to do from childhood.  His grandfather started his training when he was a toddler, dipping him in tidal pools so he could feel the sea.  By age 18 he could navigate on his own, and by the time of the Tahiti passage he had been navigating the Pacific for 25 years.

He willingly shared his secrets – how he did it. You start by memorizing the sky, he explained. Stars become the points of your compass.  Wayfinders don’t need to memorize the whole sky, he assures his audience, just a few hundred stars.  By memorizing how the stars move through the sky and how high they climb you can determine latitude.  He makes it sound simple, and it is, if you have a photographic memory and the ability to make accurate measurements and comparisons in your mind.  Luckily some of us autistics have that ability.

Then there are the ocean currents, and the winds, and the evidence of fish and birds.  In America autistic people are disabled by our sensory sensitivity.  For navigators like Piailug our exceptional sensitivity isn’t disabling.  It’s life saving.

When listening to him it’s apparent that he accurately senses things many others cannot see at all, based on many accounts.  Where a typical person merely feels a wave rock the boat he senses the angle of the rocking and realizes when it’s different from the angle he felt a moment ago. From that he knows the boat has wandered from its course.  He has similar abilities to sense changes in the patterns in the sky, and in the winds he feels against his face.

American schools are filled with children who have similarly extreme sensory sensitivity.  Almost to a one, their sensitivity is described as highly disabling.  Watching Mau Piailug after seeing those kids reminds us how much of disability is a function of society and context.  If Mau Piailug were told to read a high school math assignment while ignoring the rocking of the boat or the wind across his brow, he might well have been a failure too. 

There is no evidence that anyone perceived Mau Piailug as disabled in his lifetime.  To apply a disability diagnosis now from afar would strike many people as disrespectful and wrong.  In the west we apply diagnostic labels when they serve a purpose.  Most of the time, that purpose helps the person being diagnosed.  When a person learns they are autistic they may understand why they were challenged in school, or making friends.  Knowledge of autism may help them succeed better.  But that’s here, in America.   America is not an atoll in the Southwest Pacific.  What purpose would be served by making a person like Mau Piailug aware of autism?

When I discussed the idea with anthropologists who study Polynesian navigation the idea that some navigators may have been autistic was rejected out of hand, because of their preconceived notions of autism as disability.  In an American or European public school it is a disability, but it’s not so much in these island communities.

Thinking more about autism, one anthropologist suggested that autism may be less disabling in tightly knit Polynesian communities. Community may also have helped turn autism into more of a gift.  In America autistic people are judged to “act strange” by strangers, and that’s said to be a disability.  But on a small atoll like Satawal, there are few strangers, so people are just people.  At the same time, if a person was particularly sensitive to the stars, winds, or waves, he would stand out as a future wayfinder.  In America, all those things would just stand in the way of getting through public school.

It’s worth noting that autistic kids fail in many or most common educational or social situations in the western world.  Do children who are different experience similar beginning-of-childhood failure in Polynesian society?  That would be an interesting question to study, but it could be tough because autism does not appear widely recognized and the kids are therefore “just kids.”  However that observation alone suggest less failure and greater integration.

Based on the evidence of the videos Mau Piailug seems like a great example of a successful respected person of the broad autism phenotype in Polynesian society.  The career path he followed was chosen for him at an early age, and we can speculate that the choosers saw those abilities in him from the beginning, which suggests others of the broad autism phenotype were chosen similarly.  The fit between the cognitive demands of wayfinding and autism seems purpose-made, and perhaps it was.

Given that, we can speculate that a significant number of Polynesian wayfinders may have been autistic throughout the years.  We have no way to know. The fact is, autism per se had nothing to do with their finding their profession. They were chosen for their ancestry or their behaviors – both of which might suggest “autistic” to us but suggested “navigator material” to the Polynesians.  It’s worth pondering which worldview is more personally empowering.

The place autism diagnosis has meaning is in our hi-tech western world.  It’s here that autistics are disabled, and seeking explanation and insight.  For an autistic teen in a modern-day Hawaiian school, the idea that a great wayfinder like Piailug may be “autistic like me” is very empowering.  What it shows is that a class of people who are mostly disabled and less capable in our society can be exceptional in other circumstances and cultures.

Hawaiian culture is enjoying a well-deserved revival.  It’s time for autistic people to find their place in that movement.

What do you think about that?

What about the idea of autism in history?

John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences.  He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  

The opinions expressed here are his own.  There is no warranty expressed or implied.  While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick. 


Forsythia said…
Interesting question.
Joel King said…
Hilarious disclaimer (at the end). Made me endeavor to learn more of the autism enigma, especially since I am focused on living the island life!
A.O.P.D. said…
This is very interesting and moving. Also makes me wonder; even though autism is not a disability, if the diagnosis of autism is disabling, in some ways. Is it better for a child to grow up with that information, and understand some of the challenges he/she faces in the world, or is it disempowering, because of how the child himself and those around him will perceive his abilities and challenges and in what ways those will evolve -into unique strengths or strange quirks or worse, into actual 'inabilities'.
Granny Franny said…
I believe that in my grandson' case the diagnosis forced us (his family) to learn how to best interact successfully with him, to learn about Autism and to learn what we can do to help him do well and be happy in his life. I think it has been nothing but positive so far. He' almost 9, so we'll see what unfolds. My crystal ball seems to be broken, but I really believe he will be just fine!

He is in a community with many other autistic or developmentally disabled kids and there is little stigma associated with Autism where he lives. He's a pretty happy little boy and is mainly treated as part of the community. It's my opinion based on direct or vicarious experience that he has a strong chance of being of benefit to the community just as he is and as he will become.

Oh and he's a beautiful, smart boy and grandma loves him! Yeah yeah I might be a little prejudiced.
giulia said…
Interesting bit of information: in Australian Aboriginal culture it is extremely rude to look someone in the eye. Direct eye contact is considered to be too intense for proper interaction, it is better to look down or to the side while addressing others. I learned this before learning I am Aspie. No wonder I felt so comfortable there! I have heard that ideas regarding eye contact are the same or similar in the Philippines. But these are also cultures where bluntness is not considered appropriate either -- lucky for me because watching how Australian Aboriginals talked helped me learn how to communicate better in social settings.

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