Autism and Aboriginal Society

hopiBouncing around Pub Med looking for patterns connecting handedness, ethnicity, disease, conditions characterized by maturational delay such as autism and social structure, it seems pretty clear that many cultures offer poor information on the details of their structure and conditions.  Benjamin Whorf explored Hopi language, forming conclusions that have since become controversial.  There have been brain studies.  Little seems available regarding the prevalence of diseases and conditions.  So far, I find nothing on handedness distributions.  There is high quality information on social structure.

“The Hopi thought-world had no imaginary space.  The corollary to this is that it may not locate thought dealing with real space anywhere but in real space, nor insulate real space from the effects of thought.  A Hopi would naturally suppose that his thought (or he himself) traffics with the actual rosebush—or more likely, corn plant—that he is thinking about.  The thought then should leave some trace of itself with the plant in the field.  If it is a good thought, one about health and growth, it is good for the plant; if a bad thought, the reverse.” (Whorf, B. L. (1956) Language, Thought & Reality.  MIT Press: Cambridge p. 150)

I wonder first if these conclusions are still true or are the close ties between imagination and reality growing in a conventional direction with newer generations. If the experience of space is this unique, I would expect time to be influenced…

“The Hopi conceive time and motion in the objective realm in a purely operational sense—a matter of the complexity and magnitude of operations connecting events—so that the element of time is not separated from whatever element of space enters into the operations.” (Whorf, B. L. (1956) Language, Thought & Reality.  MIT Press: Cambridge p. 63)

Which suggests anomalous lateralization…

“There is some very limited evidence that lateralization for language in the Native American Hopi differs more dramatically than would be expected {13}.  Using an analysis of EEG ratios, these investigators found a significant right cerebral hemisphere specialization for language processing in Hopi Indian children.” (Scott, S., Hynd, G. W., Hunt, L. & Weed, W. (1979) Cerebral speech lateralization in the American Navajo.  Neuropsychologia 17: 89)

The study below suggests that the Hopi language is itself closely tied to the unique experiences of time and space…

“Electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings were obtained from electrode placements over the left and right frontal and parietal lobes of the brain in sixteen Hopi Indian children listening to tape recorded children’s stories in the Hopi and English languages.  Spectral analysis of the EEG data revealed that, for the parietal leads, alpha desynchronization was relatively greater over the right hemisphere for listening to Hopi than for listening to English, which indicates a greater right hemisphere participation in the processing of the Hopi speech.  The results of the experiment are directionally consistent with our hypothesis, and imply that linguistic relativity may exist on a neurolinguistic level, such that languages can differ in the relative degree to which they serve as instruments of thought in a propositional, left hemisphere mode, or in an appositional, right hemisphere mode.” (Rogers, L., TenHouten, W., Kaplan, C. D., Gardiner, M. (1977) Hemispheric specialization of language: an EEG study of bilingual Hopi Indian children.  Int J. Neuroscience 8(1): 1-6

Gregory Bateson discusses primary process as the way that very small children, animals and the adult unconscious think.  This might also be the case among the autistic.  Features include one time, one space and no negatives.  In primary process, you can’t image what a thing is not, only the thing itself.

There is a suggestion in Whorf’s work above of Hopi waking consciousness featuring aspects of primary process.  The Scott study above might suggest that right hemisphere specialization for language, which is characteristic of many left-handers, might also display increased aspects of primary process.  A question emerges on whether primary process is close to an autistic experience with those embedded in primary process exhibiting low degrees of a theory of mind, having difficulty identifying with another person.

This begs the question of whether there are higher rates of autism in the Hopi community.  With what we’ve noted so far, we’d expect this to be the case.  We’d also expect that the Hopi would exhibit features of a matrifocal society…

“The Western Pueblo, including the Hano, Zuñi, Acoma, Laguna, and, the best known, the Hopi, have exogamous clans with a matrilineal emphasis and matrilocal residence, and the houses and gardens are owned by women” (

Also, Social Organization of the Western Pueblos (1950) describes in detail the matrifocal foundations of Hopi society.  So, we note unique attitudes toward time and space, a right hemisphere emphasis on language and a matrifocal society.  We’d expect to see a higher number of left-handers than is the convention and perhaps an increase in conditions characterized by maturational delay such as autism and Asperger’s.  We’d also predict females with high testosterone and estrogen, males with low testosterone and estrogen.  Information is spotty.  Studies are few and far between.  Still, I would predict that in the Hopi society there are higher rates of autism and left-handedness unless the ways that children are raised deeply influence the how likely a child will become attached to primary process consciousness.

Consider that if indeed in Hopi society there are no elevated rates of autism, then maybe there are unique ways that the Hopi are raising children that engage them in ways that they don’t veer off into an unconventional condition.  If there are normal rates of autism among the Hopi, perhaps diet, touch, dance, performance and rhythm are being applied in a fashion that we in the West could learn from.

Proceed to author’s FREE book download on this subject (The book is called Evolution, Autism and Social Change). 10 minute introductory video here.

on 01/5/10 in featured, Society | 1 Comment | Read More

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