Beyond Changlings – some thoughts on autism in folklore

Not really a landscape focus this one, but just something I’ve been musing over for a while.

My eldest, Little Un, is currently awaiting a formal diagnosis of “high functioning” Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As we struggle to fully understand the condition with all the knowledge and support networks, I’ve often wondered how such individuals were explained and understood in the past. I will flag now I’m still learning the correct terminology when talking about autism, so if I don’t get it quite right forgive me.

Ironically, I’ve always called Little Un a changeling due to their inability to sleep as a child (the days I went to work on 1 hours sleep are more numerous than I can mention), and much of identification of autism in the past focuses on Changlings – mostly coming from Leask et al’s short report from 2005 [1].

Julie Leask (who, at the time of writing her paper, was based at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance of Vaccine Preventable Diseases in New South Wales, Australia) was looking into the unfounded allegation of a link between MMR and autism, and was one of the key researchers who linked Changling folklore to the condition.

Changlings are left by fairies who had taken human babies back to their world. Often they are described as made of wood or clay (often associated in modern day medical terms as describing a Sudden Infant Death) or disfigured and unresponsive sickly fairy child. Folklore tells us that the fairies needed human children to maintain their existence; and in some stories, it is said that the fae are unable to have healthy (or even) children of their own.

What is left in the human world is a half child, seemingly uncommunicative and lacking the ability to express emotion, given to unexplained crying, and often unable to speak.

Leask et al describe how the children could seemingly change: “Some of the features of these stories, including the initial health and beauty of the human child, the change after some period of ‘‘normalcy’’, and the specific behaviours of the changeling … are well matched to symptoms in some presentations of autism”.

I find the Changling story fascinating, and long before I had the personal interest thought its association with autism compelling.

However, what is described above only goes a small way in explaining the types of children, who obviously grow up into adults, on the autistic spectrum. What about those, like Little Un, who are seemingly ‘normal’ on casual acquaintance, but can exhibit extreme changes in behaviour?

One story keeps coming back to me, its a piece of English folklore relating to the man who took a fairy wife (I’ve also seen the same story in Scottish folklore told as a mermaid wife, and think it works just as well).

In the story, the man, a respected farmer but long time bachelor, meets a beautiful girl, who turns out to be a fairy. Falling in love with her, he seeks advice on how to claim her as his wife. He was told that if he performs a ritual at midnight she will become human and he can marry her. However, the man is warned not to strike his wife more than three times otherwise she’ll return to her fairy state (sometimes these old stories are hard on our modern standards of what would constitute too many times to hit your wife…. But still).

The farmer laughed and said he could see no reason why he would need to control his wife in such a way and carries out the ritual. Sure enough, the next day the former fairy arrives at his farm and they are swiftly married.

All was okay at first, but soon the farmer noticed his new bride would be distant and unresponsive, she would be prone violent outbursts and foul language, which would come on without warning, and meant that on three occasions he had to strike her to bring her to her senses.

The respected gentleman also found his new wife embarrassing in public, often speaking out of turn to strangers, or ignoring them completely. Things finally came to a head as the couple attended a funeral and the girl laughed uncontrollably. Angered and embarrassed the man struck his wife a forth, and final time. She returned back to her kind and he was alone again.

This story echoes a number of the ‘symptoms’ often associated with conditions on the autistic spectrum like Asperger’s. I’m wondering if such stories that describe such interactions with fairies, merpeople and the like are describing such things.

These are just the muddled thoughts of a tired mum trying to make sense it all, but there could be something in these stories that give clues to how the condition was explained in the past; when the Changling grows up and tries to fit into the world.

[1] Leask, J, Leask, A, Silove, N. 2005 Evidence for autism in folklore? Arch Dis Child; 90: 271.