Repost – The Changeling: a dangerous identity myth

A few centuries ago, it was believed that magical creatures (elves, fairies, goblins and trolls) would often steal a human baby and leave one of their own children in the stolen baby’s place. The magical child was often either very beautiful or very ugly, and when older, behaved in an other-worldly manner. This is known as the Changeling myth. The myth can be explained by conditions such as Cerebral Palsy and Autism, amongst others. Autism researcher Uta Frith believes that autistic children were often thought to be changelings.

Trolls with a human. Painting by John Bauer.

Trolls with a human. Painting by John Bauer.

Some autistic people refer to themselves as changelings for this reason and their own feeling of being in a world where they do not belong and of practically not being the same species as the “normal” people around them. At one time I was indifferent to this meme. I am now openly against it.

The Changeling meme involves viewing autistic people as not quite human. One doesn’t have to support Neurodiversity to realise that this is a really bad idea. Anything that can dehumanise a person or group of people is potentially very dangerous. During the Rwanda genocides, Tutsis were referred to as ‘cockroaches’ as a way to portray them as less than human and a pest to be eradicated. This is even more so in the case of autistics. Autistic child Katie McCarron was killed by her mother. I recently blogged about Stephanie Rochester who, believing her 6-month-old son was autistic, smothered him with blankets. Even more recently, Saiqa Akhter murdered her son and daughter because she also believed they were autistic and she wanted “normal children”. If large numbers of people start viewing autistics as nonhuman, the results could be ugly.

The philosophy of Neurodiversity holds that people of all neurobiological types have a right to exist and to be treated as human. Embracing an identity myth that denies your humanness goes completely against this.


About autismjungle

I am a Software Test Analyst. Shortly before I turned 21 I was officially diagnosed, although I had long suspected I was autistic. Welcome to my blog
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7 Responses to Repost – The Changeling: a dangerous identity myth

  1. Monex says:

    ….Autism Information Library….. Permission has been given to post this essay on under the condition that we preface it with a note that it is a follow-on to the authors 2003 Autreat essay and workshop an expanded version of which has been published as chapter 5 of Ask and Tell. ..In my previous Autreat presentation on allies Building Alliances and in more depth in the chapter on the same topic that I contributed to the forthcoming book Ask and Tell Self-Advocacy and Disclosure for People on the Autism Spectrum Shawnee Mission KS Autism Asperger Publishing Co. 2004 I described how the history of autism since the initial clinical definitions of Kanner and Asperger sixty years ago has been a story of two layers of misconception…The first layer of misconception was the psychoanalytic theory of Bettelheim and others that blamed autism on cold and unloving parenting. In the 1960s and 1970s parents of autistic children in the US the UK and elsewhere organized and promoted research that overthrew those theories and established an organic neurological basis for autism.

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  3. anonymous says:

    i know this is an old post, but it is still a top result on google so i felt like i needed to address it. marginalized people recognizing that we are othered by society, and identifying ourselves as othered beings, is completely different from society continuing to other us. i am not autistic, but i am mentally ill, and i have found it repeatedly useful to recognize both that my thought processes are othered and ridiculed, and that they are perfectly valid and real on an objective level. on a different axis, i know many mogai/lgbt+ people who identify strongly with monsters and consider ourselves monstrous as a way of reclaiming harmful stereotypes forced upon us (especially when we were younger and didn’t know there were alternatives to only seeing this part of ourselves in the villains of the stories we experienced).

    a similar idea is the difference between a marginalized person reclaiming words used as slurs against them, and people not marginalized in that way continuing to use those slurs. of course, even when a marginalized person is reclaiming a slur, they should not use that slur on anyone who is uncomfortable with it, but reclamation as a personal project can be very powerful.

    • autismjungle says:

      marginalized people recognizing that we are othered by society, and identifying ourselves as othered beings, is completely different from society continuing to other us.

      I see your point but I can’t completely agree. Identifying oneself as “not quite human” might encourage dehumanisation. That was my point.

      a similar idea is the difference between a marginalized person reclaiming words used as slurs against them

      A black person using the n-word is mocking the racist meaning of it. That’s why it’s effective. Calling oneself a changeling is not mocking the old meaning.
      You raise valid points, but I’m still not about to stop telling people to reconsider.

      • anonymous says:

        “queer” is a very commonly reclaimed slur, but most people who reclaimed it weren’t mocking the heterosexist meaning behind it. they were reframing the meaning, saying “yes, i am this thing, this is what society thinks of me, and that is society’s fault, not mine.” queer nation, one of the earliest organizations to reclaim the slur in 1990, spread a flier at a pride parade with the text “Ah, do we really have to use that word? It’s trouble. Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious… And for others “queer” conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering… Well, yes, “gay” is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using “queer” is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.”

        and this is consistent to how i’ve seen it used in all the queer communities i’ve been in. queer people, including myself, weren’t mocking the original term, we were changing its context so that it became something powerful, something bigots could no longer use against us with the same strength. i feel the same way in considering myself monstrous – my peers and i rewrite old tales to make the monsters loving and powerful in ways the monster-hunting “heroes” are not. sometimes the monsters are destroyed, as we are, and the stories are an expression of our real pain. sometimes they survive and find ways to live happily, as we sometimes can, a way to remember that there may be hope for the future.

        acknowledging that we are othered does not make us more othered than we were before, and having the autonomy to define ourselves rather than having definitions thrust upon us – even if the definitions we choose express pain & discontent rather than positive or neutral associations – is vital to some who lack or have lacked autonomy in most other aspects of our lives.

        if you still disagree with me on this, i’m fine with agreeing to disagree, i just wanted to give more context to my argument especially considering your final statement.

  4. aubrenblog says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with anonymous. I know that, at least back then, you were worried about “changeling” being a way for neurotypicals to Other us. But no neurotypicals are picking up on it, far as I’m aware of. Some autistic people feel the changeling stories resonate with their experiences. Most neurotypicals who read about changelings see it as a mythological/historical way for people to explain autism and other neurotypes/childhood mental illnesses. Ironically, neurotypicals push for the humanity in the changeling story, while autistics the mythology.

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