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.
Another alternate option (which I’m really into right now because it’s the focus of my research): ACTUALLY READ CHANGELING MYTHS. Especially the ones that can be accurately dated to before 1500.
Because I have yet to find one changeling story from any era that depicts parents who are grieving the loss of their “perfect” child to this “other” child, and I cannot find one changeling story that predates 1500 and that involves anyone harming the child in any way. The harm factor appears much later (and is directly responsible for multiple deaths in the British Isles in the late 19th century, including the burning of Bridget Cleary); the grief factor appears to be something we’ve “read into” the idea of changelings, not a thing that’s actually in any of the stories.
If slogging through medieval texts isn’t your thing, I recommend Chinua Achebe’s THINGS FALL APART. Ekwefi absolutely knows that her daughter is an ogbanje (a changeling), but her only grief is over her other ogbanje children who have died young. When it comes to her living daughter, she adores the kid while also fully recognizing and accepting the kid is Not Like Her in a meaningful way.