A peoples’ history empowers them. When you have history, you have identity. When you have identity, you know that you are a valid presence in this world. You know that you are not deviant, or disturbed, or diseased; you are a person. When you hear the stories of people like you surviving against odds, you believe in your own survival against the odds that you face. When you hear stories of people like you existing long ago, you believe that people like you will still be born far into the future. Invalidating a history means invalidating a people; both their past and their future. As autistics are a people who have been continuously invalidated, our history has been neglected and in many cases destroyed. We do not know where or when the first autistic person was born, because history was written about Great Men; kings, conquerors, philosophers, bishops, scientists, and the financial elite. Rarely do we find written records about what life was like for the average person, and even more rarely do we find records about populations of people that the Great Men tried unsuccessfully to exterminate. Destroying a people’s history is a part of that extermination process.
We know that autism was first diagnosed in the medical sense in the early 20th century, by child psychologists such as Grunya Sukhareva, Hans Asperger, and Leo Kanner. But our written history of neurodivergent people prior to the modern field of psychology is shrouded in speculation. We can look to other traditional ways of knowing beyond science, such as mythology, to speculate the positions that disabled and neurodivergent people held in their communities. These mythologies taught neurotypical people how they should view neurodivergent people, and how these mythologies informed the worldview and perspectives of future so-called unbiased and evidence-based sources.
One more note before we begin: the history I have collected so far is very “Eurocentric”, meaning it centers the mythologies, philosophies, and knowledge of European and Mediterranean peoples, my ancestors. There are knowledges and explanations for disability found all over the world, and even explanations for neurodivergence. But I feel that as Settlers, we must learn that our lack of cultural context shrouds our ability to understand the context of many traditional knowledges and I feel that I would get much of it wrong for that reason. Not that it is “exotic”, or “oriental”, but to say that we must defer to scholars who have the relevant community permission to guide our understandings of these traditional knowledges. Therefore, until a scholar with the relevant community permission writes an academic journal confirming that a traditional knowledge was used to explain neurodivergence, I will not include them in my records of autistic history and neurodivergent history. Until then, I must stick with only that which can be traced through time by how they have directly led to the medical models of autism we observe today. Since the ways that we understand autism are deeply rooted in eurocentrism, colonization, pathologization, and white neurotypical supremacy, unfortunately the history we can confirm as informing our understanding of autism and autistic people is similarly rooted in oppressive systems.
The Changelings: Divergent Minds and Bodies in the Pre-Scientific European and Mediterranean world
“A child must always have someone nearby until it is six weeks old. Otherwise, an old woman from the woods or the mountains could come and exchange a physically and mentally retarded, malformed changeling for the infant… However, if–through negligence–the misfortune does occur, you should take prompt notice of it. Then you need only make a switch from the branches of a weeping birch tree and beat the changeling severely with it.” – Karl Haupt, The Legend Book of Lausitz, 1862
“Self-advocacy was not born with Gunnar Dybwad…it was born the first time a suspected changeling tried to run away before anyone could kill him.” – Mel Baggs, The Meaning of Self Advocacy
In the pre-scientific world, it was believed that children who were born with a developmental disability, whether a physical or neurological developmental disability, were not human children, but the children of fairies, trolls, and other magical beastfolk. The idea was that fairies, hags, and other creatures from fairy-tales were conspiring the downfall of human communities, and one of their tricks to do this was to steal human babies from their cradles, replacing the infant humans with a fairy child, with an illusion spell cast on them to make them appear human (Köhler, 1886, p. 154). The fairy child, called a “changeling”, would then grow up in the human community until a day when it would wreak a terrible storm of vengeance upon the humans; poisoning the water well, throwing the winter’s store of food into a fire, casting spells on the other community members to become sterile, or fall out of love with their spouses, or murder children. The changeling child was a bomb the fairies placed into the cradle of a human family, until the time it would be ready to carry out its mission and destroy the human settlement.
It was believed that as a changeling grew older, the spell would fade away, and a changeling would take on an abnormal appearance, or they would exhibit behaviours inconsistent with normal human activities and behaviour (Simpson, 1972, p. 25). Physical disabilities, such as a hunched back, crooked posture, or paraplegia would be explained as the abnormal appearance of a monster. Neurological disability, in this myth, would cause the changeling child to fail to verbally communicate or understand verbal communication, or fail to interpret social cues. Whole or partial deafness, whole or partial mutism, echolalia, stuttering, tics, and atypical behaviour was blamed on a changeling not being human, and not being able to understand human communication, as if they were not human at all. The differences between an abled person and a disabled person, in the changeling myth, were proof of the child not being of human birth.
In communities that believed in the changeling myth, the penalty for being born physically or mentally disabled was death. According to the stories we have, disabled children and youth were beaten with wooden switches (Haupt, 1862, p. 69), or drowned in rivers, brooks, or cauldrons (Rhys, 1901, p. 62). But what if you do not have the heart to kill your own child? In some changeling myths, the fairies will return your child to you if you tell the changeling, your disabled child, every day that you do not love them and that you wish they would go away (Croker, 1825, p. 65).
The changeling myth is known to have been part of local traditions as far west as Iceland (Simpson, 1972, p. 25) and Ireland (Croker, 1825, p. 65), as far east as Egypt and Arabia (El-Shamy, 1980, p. 179), and myths to explain sickle cell anemia in children similar to the changeling myth are part of traditional stories as far south as Nigeria (Nzewi, 2001, p. 1403).
The changeling myth is very much still a part of our modern reality of autism. Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccination organization, Generation Rescue, which promotes injecting bleach into the bodies of autistic children, directly invokes changeling metaphor when it refers to “rescuing” children who have been “abducted by autism” (Gross, 2012). Autism Speaks directly invoked changeling metaphor in its infamous and extremely ableist “I Am Autism” television promotion, which stated, “I am autism. …I know where you live…I live there too…I speak your language fluently…I derive great pleasure out of your loneliness. I will fight to take away your hope. I plot to rob you of your children and your dreams.” (Autism Speaks, 2009). The barbaric cultural justification for killing suspected changelings abets our current realities around autistic filicide; the killing of autistic children by their caregivers, a too-often occurrence in today’s world and which we mourn along with all disability filicide on the Disability Day of Mourning every March 1st.
Sins of the Parents: Medieval European Explanations for Childhood Disability and Neurodivergence
As Latin Christianity became the dominant ideological force in Europe, traditional explanations for neurodivergence, and disability were replaced with new explanations using canonical justification and the new early medical model of reductivism. A historically significant depiction of the clash between the old heathen myths around changelings, and the new Christian religion attributing a person’s woes to their moral degeneracy, is found in William of Canterbury’s record of the life of the saint Thomas Becket.
In one tale about the miracles he had performed, written sometime between the years of 1172 C.E. and 1179 C.E., William of Canterbury wrote that Thomas Becket visited a child afflicted by a medical condition which impeded his physical development. In William’s account, the folk doctors of the community blame the child’s developmental disability on him being born a changeling. However, the biographer dismisses this heathen worldview, stating that “no-one of sound mind credits the fabulous nonsense of the people, who believe children to be substituted or transformed” (Canterbury, 1172-1179, p. 165). Important to note that in this story, he uses a Latin word for chronic illness causing malnourishment – syntecticus – in his chronicle of Becket’s miracle, despite neither Becket nor the common folk in the tale using such a term. The use of a medical term to describe a disability or chronic illness, syntecticus, denotes the cultural struggle of this time; the term changeling, which is holistic, mystical, and informed by traditional knowledge, and syntecticus, which is reductive, scientific, and has a foundation in the medical perspective of diagnosis and treatment. A changeling is a monster and at no point a human being, and a child with syntecticus is a human being afflicted by a chronic illness.
In the tale of the child believed to be afflicted by syntecticus, William of Canterbury notes that the child’s parents are unwed. Even worse, the father is a priest, and has committed the sin of breaking his clerical vow of celibacy. The fact that William highlights this fact is a clue to the changing views on disability in Europe due to the supremacy of Latin culture; that in the eyes of the Latin Christian world, childhood disability was not caused by fairy tale monsters stealing away a human child and replacing the infant with a changeling, but a punishment from God for breaking holy vows and failing to repent for sin.
“Adultery, masturbation, homosexuality, porn — if you are addicted to these, I say to you in the name of God … when you get married and have children, there is a high possibility of bearing (autistic) children,” – Father Dominic Valanmanal, 2019
Developmental disability being blamed on the sinfulness of parents is also relevant to our current realities in the autism world. In 2019, Father Dominic Valanmanal, an Indian Catholic priest, compared autistic children to animals, and stated of the parents of autistic children that, “They lead an animal-like life. They copulate like animals. They bear children like animals. Therefore those children also, will be like animals.” (ABC News, July 17th, 2019). Father Dominic Valanmanal claims to have “cured” children of their autism through the power of divine intercession, and hosts private church retreats for autistic youth where they are “cured” of autism through the intercession of faith in Jesus Christ (Marian Retreat Center, n.d.).
Blaming parents for their childrens’ autism has even influenced secular and so-called bias-free sources on autism. Leo Kanner, the child psychologist and one of the “founders” of autism, as well as his protégé Bruno Bettelheim, credited the cause of autism to “refrigerator mothers”; mothers who are uninterested in parenting their children. Kanner wrote of autistic children in 1949, “Most of the patients are exposed from the beginning to parental coldness, obsessiveness, and a mechanical type of attention to material needs only. They were the objects of observation and experiment conducted with an eye on fractional performance rather than with genuine warmth and enjoyment.” (Kanner, 1949, p. 425). He writes about autistic meltdowns and abnormal behaviour as if they are pathological attention-seeking behaviours directed towards parents uninterested in their children, “the autistic children, who otherwise have little dealing with the parents, force them with the tyranny of temper outbursts to participate in their sometimes very elaborate obsessive-compulsive schemes” (Kanner, 1949, p. 425). Bettelheim proposed that a potential autism treatment would be milleu therapy, enacted by apprehending autistic children from their parents and placing them in care homes where a theoretically more interested caregiver would give them the parental attention that the lack of was believed to have caused the autism (Bettelheim, 1967, p. 406).
Even in this new era of Latin supremacy in Europe after the Roman Empire, the changeling myth, along with other pagan myths, pervaded European society and were continually practiced. The church could not be everywhere at all times, and folk doctors still played a prominent role in village leadership, knowledge-keeping, and medicine. The Catholic church, with mixed success, resisted the idea of disabled and neurodivergent children being the children of fairies, but a new branch of Christianity, beginning in the 16th century CE, would maintain the changeling myth until the modern era.
Return of the Changeling Myth: Protestant Christian Views on Developmental Disability
“If I were the Prince, I should take the child to the Moldau River which flows near Dessau and drown him.” – Martin Luther, 1540, p. 9)
In his book of Table Talks, Martin Luther, the founder and father of Protestant Christianity, wrote of an encounter which he had with a disabled youth:
“Eight years ago, there was one in Dessau whom I, Martinus Luther, saw and grappled with. He was twelve years old, had the use of his eyes and all his senses, so that one might think he was a normal child. But he did nothing but gorge himself as much as four peasants or threshers. He ate, defecated, and drooled and, if anyone tackled him, he screamed. If things didn’t go well, he wept. So I said to the Prince of Anhalt: “If I were the Prince, I should take the child to the Moldau River which flows near Dessau and drown him.” But the Prince of Anhalt and the Prince of Saxony, who happened to be present, refused to follow my advice. Thereupon I said; “Well, then the Christians shall order the Lord’s Prayer to be said in church and pray that the dear Lord take the Devil away.” This was done daily in Dessau and the changeling died in the following year.” (Luther, 1540, p. 9).
Changeling myths persisted from pre-Christianity to Protestant Christian theology, with some notable updates. Fairies, hags, trolls, dwarves, and other creatures that stole infant humans and replaced them with changelings were substituted with The Devil (Heyl, 1897, p. 277). Satan was now the central figure replacing the unbaptized infants of impious parents with devil spawn. Infant baptism then became a protective ward against the Devil and his schemes to replace human infants with devil spawn.
The Malleus Maleficarum, adopted as canon in both Catholicism and Protestantism (Henningson, 1980, p. 15), states that developmentally disabled children were born of witchcraft and covenant with The Devil (Kramer & Sprenger, 1487, p. 45), and that being born outside of a marital covenant blessed by God is the cause of developmental disability.
It is important to note the adoption and adaptation of changeling myths into Protestant and Catholic canon because of colonization. In the Imperial Era, when Catholic and Protestant overseas empires spanned the globe, the evangelical work of missionaries meant the displacement and suppression of local understandings of the causes of developmental disability with these evangelical understandings. Baptism and conversion became marketed as a way to prevent autism, as only consecrated marriages and the extermination of heathen spirituality could cause the end of developmental disability (Ashlimann, 1997). Colonization and evangelism laid the foundation for the modern medical perspectives of Autism Spectrum Disorder being recognized around the world, by enacting cultural and physical genocide towards non-European worldviews and their practitioners.
Extermination, stigma, segregation, and the prevention of autistic birth (essays for another day) throughout our history has led us to our current realities where, as autism rights movement co-founder Jim Sinclair said, “the tragedy is not that we’re here, but that your world has no place for us to be” (Sinclair, 1994). Neo-colonial, settler society was created to meet the needs of neurotypicals, and we will never be neurotypical. And many of us do not want to be. We just want our world and your world to be integrated together.
The first thing we have sought out to do, in order to integrate our worlds, is the creation of an autistic community. Before the Information Age we never had the tools or opportunity to develop community between autistics, and now we have those tools. We are working together to develop an idea of what being an autistic means; through shared language, culture, art, literature, music, identity, and history. As we form this autistic identity, an ongoing process, we can advocate for what our community needs to thrive. Autism advocacy is transforming, and must transform, from a parent advocating for their autistic child, or an autistic person advocating for themself, to a communal action where all autistics advocate for the community. That is how we build a legacy. That is how we ensure a future where autistic people will be born into an integrated world where their needs are met just as easily as the needs of neurotypicals are met.
We have always been here. We will always be here. We have survived thousands of generations of people trying to get rid of us. We will survive any future attempts to cure autism or prevent autistic people from being born. In seeing our past and our future, we need to stop thinking of autism in terms of a single life, and in terms of a very long, and very open-ended story.
ABC News (July 17th, 2019). Indian Catholic priest who claims parents’ sins cause autism in children cancels Australia tour – ABC News.
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