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Having A Disability In Prehistoric Times Was Sometimes Better Than It Is Today

I get down on myself a lot for having Asperger’s. I feel like I’m sluggish and useless. But I know that’s not actually true. I know I have people who love me and who are happy I’m here.

We think people are just becoming enlightened about disability. But new research says that’s not true. Humanity actually has a long, long history of helping people who need it. In fact, even some hominids protected vulnerable members of their tribe and treated them as valuable assets to their community.

Scientists found a forty-ish Neanderthal man with severe spinal and other bone deformities in a carefully dug grave. People used to think prehistoric societies just exposed people like that to the elements. Like the Spartans. But his advanced (for that time) age and apparent funereal rites showed that the Neanderthal clan clearly saw him as an important member of their society and worth the trouble it took to keep him around.

In older, more spiritual societies, a disabled person might have been seen the same way an elderly person was. As having enough emotional wisdom from experience and hardship to guide others on their way. I’d like to think I could have been seen as a wise woman or even some kind of a mystic if this were 2,000 years ago.

Now, I’m no anthropologist. But there could be a good explanation of how autism was accounted for in those days. Charisma didn’t used to be as important as keeping your head down and doing your work. Especially in farming communities and such where people worked with their families. I’m not saying that would have fixed all the non-social problems autistic people have to deal with. But it could be one explanation of why autism is still in the genepool.

I’ve even read that in collectivist cultures, schizophrenic voices are not always negative. Sometimes they’re positive voices: perceived as from ancestors or God.

The point of the disability rights movement is to encourage society to accommodate our weak points so we can make use of our strengths. A┬ádisabled person is not JUST a disabled person. We can be wise and a lot of fun if we don’t become too bitter. A lot of us are smarter than average. Emotional problems and energy issues aside, there is no reason an autistic person can’t be a great artist or scientist or friend or partner. Or parent in some situations, although that’s much trickier.

People on these support blogs also point out that we have inherent value just by being human and that we shouldn’t have to prove ourselves worthy of existence. Which I know is true, but for me that’s still pretty hard to grasp. I’ve always been more of an objective than subjective type of thinker. I think that if I didn’t have Asperger’s I’d be a real shit. Like Ayn Rand. But I do, and I’m still trying to reconcile that with the rest of my philosophy and personality.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. As people with disabilities it can be hard not to see ourselves that way first. But we are not just some walking disorder. We need to develop our interests and talents and friendships so we can define ourselves by our good points first.


*Image: Neanderthals from HuffPost Science.

Having A Disability In Prehistoric Times Was Sometimes Better Than It Is Today

Gwendolyn Kansen

Gwen Kansen is a mental health writer in New York. She likes food, karaoke, and smart-but-campy books & TV. She's hoping to capture a little sliver of life on here that might not be the first thing you'd see.

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APA Reference
Kansen, G. (2016). Having A Disability In Prehistoric Times Was Sometimes Better Than It Is Today. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 9 Mar 2016
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