Some time ago, I read a fascinating text in “Psychology Today” about autism in other cultures. Specifically, the reader is about Polynesian seafarers who cover several thousand miles without maps and can steer ships precisely to the desired destination. The author of the article (John Elder Robison, himself autistic and a well-known author on autism) assumes that these navigators are highly functional autists.
Originally, John Elder Robison’s goal was to seek information about autism in Hawaii due to an upcoming trip to Hawaii. He came across videos of a living navigator named Piailug. The man who steered a small canoe 2,500 miles from Haiti to Hawaii without any other equipment is a respected member of his local community and is not “retarded” or “disabled”. He learned this job from his grandfather and used this technique to steer ships for more than 25 years.
[…]When I watched the videos, I saw many signs of the broad autism phenotype in Piailug’s speech, expressions, and behaviour. 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. His eyes and upper face were generally devoid of animation when he spoke, and he seldom displayed large expressions. He also had a 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. […]
When you think of the great achievements of Pailug, of course, some questions arise: (At least that is how I feel.) I wonder if autism has a rare but vital function in ancient societies. Robinson describes Pailug as fully integrated, confident, and active. No trace of a “handicap”. The original Polynesians were always dependent on people with special qualifications. So why should he be considered to be “disabled”?
The problem with why autistic people are more likely to be perceived as problem cases today (and this is also briefly discussed in the article) is rather our school or education systems. They do not make it possible for people with these special qualities to develop their abilities according to their possibilities. Much more often, they are viewed as “disabled”.
A cactus is somehow “handicapped” in a swamp because it is not in the environment it needs. He is not “sick” because he is knee-deep in the water. He’s simply in the wrong place.
Whoever wants to read the full article: Here is is: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/my-life-aspergers/201702/autism-in-the-south-pacific-different-way-seeing