Trigger warning: This post mentions child rape and discusses some of the long-term emotional complications for me.
Trigger Warning: This post discusses historic and modern examples of abuse and murder of disabled children, and the justifications used for those crimes.
Changeling legends exist all over the world, as elves or trolls or fairies. These stories, from the parents’ perspective, explained the existence of disabled or sickly children, absolved the parents of responsibility for the child’s impairment, and justified abuse and murder of the child.
Infanticide and child murder have long been publicly proposed as reasonable solutions to the problem of disabled people. From Plato’s Republic to the decrees of Hitler to Pete Singer suggesting infanticide of disabled children ought to be a parent’s choice to make.
Whether it is Martin Luther recommending a 12 year old boy suspected of being a changeling be drowned, or Bruno Bettleheim blaming the milestone regression of autistic children on cold, unfeeling “refrigerator mothers“, or US Congressional candidate Bob Marshall saying just earlier this year that disabled children are God’s punishment for abortion, there has always been a chorus of men blaming women for the existence of disabled children, and calling on those mothers to solve the “problem”.
It makes sense in this context, that then and now many parents, and especially mothers, would be attracted to the changeling narrative as a form of defense against accusations and judgements. It is far easier to think of yourself as a noble hero trying to save your lost child, a narrative still used in the context of disability today. In Autism Speaks’ new “documentary” Sounding the Alarm: Battling the Autism Epidemic, co-founder Bob Wright said of his autistic grandson “He was a real little person.” That sure sounds like a changeling legend to me!
Of course the risks of thinking of disabled children as changelings are numerous and horrible. It is inherently dehumanizing. It isn’t simply saying “This isn’t my child” but going further to say “This isn’t a human child.” Accordingly, anything is justified to force the changeling or their otherworldly parents to return the stolen, human child. In the old stories the parents would beat the changelings or put them in the oven or throw them into the fire. In the new stories, parents beat the changeling, or starve them, or stab them, or poison them, or try to. Changeling stories exist to justify the murders of disabled people.
Today’s narrative speaks of a child who was perfect before autism or another developmental disability came and stole that child away. Sometimes the “fairies” responsible are vaccines and sometimes they are toxins, but the story stays largely the same. “Perfect child gone. All means justified to get them back.” And it seems anything will be justified if it’s done against disabled children. Just this year the FDA heard testimony about electroshock-as-punishment and other torture committed against disabled children at the highly controversial Judge Rotenberg Center. The FDA representatives proceeded to debate amongst themselves whether or not disabled people could feel pain, as if we were inhuman.
So what is the alternative? What narrative can we present to parents still learning how to live with the news that their child is autistic or disabled? Acceptance and accommodation. It will probably be similar to the more affirming narratives parents have for their gay children. Not so long ago, it was probably more necessary for mothers of left-handed children to affirm their love, because of superstitions as baseless and silly (and deadly) as superstitions about disabled people.
The best way parents can combat the changeling narrative is to present another one. Our children are amazing and it’s okay to let people know that! We can help them through their struggles while celebrating their differences. Point parents toward autistic-led forums and communities (like Parenting Autistic Children with Love and Acceptance on Facebook) and point their kids toward autistic kid-friendly resources like Landon Bryce’s book “I Love Being My Own Autistic Self”.
Don’t obsess over the possible causes of autism. Keep therapy commitments age-appropriate and reasonable (ie, 5 year olds shouldn’t be working on Applied Behavior Analysis for 40 hours a week). Play with your child. Read to your child. Do things your child likes to do. Love your child and let people know you love them. Let your child and other parents know that you think “happily ever after” is the right story for them.
The word “stupid” exists to justify discounting and disenfranchising individuals and groups. The idea behind it is “Some people are inherently inferior, so I don’t have to treat them with basic human respect.” The supposed mental inferiority of women, black people, people with disabilities ranging from cognitive to physical to emotional, fat people, and convicts has always been a primary argument and justification for their mistreatment.
Now, I know people are going to object to this. They’re very attached to their “right” to use the word stupid without critique. They will defend their use of the word and what they “really mean” when they say it. But if what you really mean is “willfully ignorant”, then say “willfully ignorant.” If what you really mean is “what you say is hateful and hurts people”, then say “what you say is hurtful and hurts people.” If you mean “that makes no sense”, say “that makes no sense.” If you mean “that’s factually incorrect”, say “that’s factually incorrect.” “Stupid” is not a precise label. The reason you want to use it is the exact reason you shouldn’t: Because it has power. And that very real power has been used to hurt very real people.
The concept of stupidity was used to justify keeping the right to vote from black men and women and from all women. Around the world disabled people are denied the right to vote, based on their presumed mental incompetence. The idea that cis women and trans men are too inherently “stupid” to make their own reproductive choices in regards to birth control and abortion is alive and well today. The idea that cognitively impaired adults are “stupid” and therefore worth less helps enable the subminimum wages paid to those same adults.
Calling someone “stupid” is no better or different from calling someone “crazy.” It has the capacity to do tremendous splash damage and it is not a word devoid of baggage. The word and the concept behind the word are both ableist and they have both been used to subjugate real horrors on real people. Horrors like institutionalization and incarceration, forced sterilization, political disenfranchisement, job discrimination, wage discrimination, and higher rates of bullying victimization.
“Stupid” people, whether that means people with a low IQ, women, fat people, racial minorities, or people who couldn’t afford to go to college in this economic reality, are more likely to be unemployed or under employed, more likely to be politically disenfranchised – yes, here in the US too – and are more likely to be bullied.
Lay the fuck off “stupid” people. “Stupid” has been used as a weapon and as a tool of oppression long enough. Let it go.
Comment policy for this post: I don’t wanna hear it. There will be no comments on this post.
What are microaggressions? They are small acts of non-physical aggression, which combine to create a hostile environment. “Small” is a key feature and it is this feature which enables plausible deniability, which I would argue is another feature of microaggressions.
Sexist microaggressions include talking over women, interrupting women, telling women to “smile” or instructing women on how to be more pleasing. Each of these acts is small in and of itself, but combined with all the other small acts of countless other men, constitutes a pervasive problem.
“But everyone interrupts” you may object, or else “Men interrupt other men, too!” While these are both true, they obscure the facts. The facts show that men interrupt more often than women, and they interrupt women more often than they interrupt other men. And women who do interrupt are more likely to interrupt other women than they are to interrupt men. All this adds up to a world where men and women interrupt women, but not really men. Women’s voices are silenced while men’s voices are amplified. (Look here and here for more information on interruption and gender.)
Over the next week, I’m going to be counting the number of microaggressions I encounter, online and off. I’d like to challenge you to do the same. Notice who you interrupt and how often, as well as who interrupts you. I’ll be interested in comparing notes in a Facebook discussion next Monday.
Trigger warning for sexual abuse, child abuse, incest, rape
I was a sexual assault survivor by age seven. I didn’t start hearing the litany of Things Women Shouldn’t Do Unless They Want To Get Themselves Raped until I was twelve, right around the same time adult men decided to yell their opinions about my body from their moving cars.
Since about 1 in 5 US girls, and 1 in 20 US boys are victims/survivors of sexual assault before adulthood, and since incest is the most common form of child sexual abuse, I think we really need to ask ourselves how useful or harmful our “Don’t Get Raped” advice might be.
Women are told to arm ourselves, preferably with less effective weapons like pepper spray. I hope I don’t have to explain why this advice is useless for children, who are not allowed to purchase or carry weapons and are most likely to be abused by their parents or other family member.
Women are told not to drink, or to keep a close eye on our alcoholic beverages. Since children are already likely to be non-drinkers, this clearly isn’t helping.
Women are told to walk in groups or drive ourselves or avoid bad parts of town. Children do not have freedom of movement, particularly from their rapist parents.
Women are told not to wear sexually enticing clothing (and simultaneously sold little else.) Children have little to no choice in what they wear.
Women are told to have short hair or avoid hairstyles that are easy for attackers to grab. Children in homes with abusive parents may be entirely unable to choose their own hairstyle.
Women are told to fight back, scream, and bite. Children being abused by their own family may be terrified of the consequences of resisting. They may have good reason to be terrified.
Women are told to avoid rape more often than men are told not to commit it, even though men, women and children are all victims of primarily adult men rapistrs. The people who are the problem are largely adult men. The people who are not being asked to do anything about the problem are largely adult men. This strategy is failing. Do better.
Content note for flashbacks, child sex abuse
I remembered today the very first time I experienced a trigger. It would be more than twenty years before I’d have a word for the phenomenon.
I have spoken before about the lack of cultural and financial support for people choosing to terminate their pregnancies, but what about people who choose to continue them? And how much do we present abortion as the solution to other people’s pregnancies, like when we discuss teen pregnancy, or pregnancy that results from assault, or pregnancy of a fetus diagnosed with a disability like Down’s Syndrome? How much or how little do as a culture support the right to keep a pregnancy?