Away with the fairies?: The changeling dilemma

(TW: Discussion of ableism, child abuse, and infanticide. Changelings are Not Fun, guys.)

Anyone who’s ever met me in the real world has probably heard at length about my enduring fixation with fairies. They occupy not just the title of my blog the walls of my bedroom, the books on my shelves, both of my dissertations, even the clothes I wear, and almost any conversation with me is at risk of devolving into 6 degrees of fairy talk. In autistic-speak terms, I would definitely describe them as a lifelong “special interest.”

My interest in fairies has always been heavily intertwined with my autism, long before I was diagnosed. My mother took me to get my hearing tested multiple times because my auditory processing was so poor, before concluding that I was “away with the fairies” when I should have been listening.

But fairies and autism have gone hand in hand for far longer than I’ve been around to talk about either. And it’s an easy legacy to romanticise: we’re the dreamy-eyed changeling children, not meant for this world of iron and noise, but for a magical realm where we’ll finally fit. It’s a seductive line of thought, particularly if you’ve never really felt like you fit in in this world.

It’s also an incredibly dangerous one. While it might be nice to call myself the child of another world where the rules that govern my life make sense to everyone, as a historian I can’t ignore the original purpose of changeling stories. On a historical level, these stories were originally created to dehumanise disabled or neurodivergent children – people like me – to the point where we could be killed with impunity.

The earliest changeling story I’ve encountered in my research (though I would love to hear about others) is in a text called On Superstition (De Superstitione) by a 13th century French inquisitor called Étienne or Stephen of Bourbon, who was condemning the unorthodox religious practices of the peasants of Lyons. He mentions villagers leaving babies they thought were changelings left by the “fauns” naked and alone at a shrine in the woods, next to burning candles, or dunked in the nearby river multiple times. Martin Luther, in 16th century Germany, described changeling children as demonic illusions without souls, and recommended drowning them.

Leo Kanner, one of the first researchers into autism as a developmental condition, drew parallels between Luther’s changelings – children who displayed unusual emotional reactions, hated to be touched, and seemed unable to communicate in a way the adults around him could understand – and his own autistic patients. On a similar note, Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes (a book I highly recommend if you’re interested in autistic history) describes the vaccine scare provoked by Andrew Wakefield as convincing parents that their ‘real’ children had been stolen away by doctors, leaving autistic changelings in their place. Modern blogger Erin Collard describes this experience  almost word for word:

My Great-grandnana told me when I had children to ‘Light a candle and keep it by the crib to keep the fairies away.’  Apparently, sometime around 2 and a half years old, I forgot to light it, because in a matter of months, my twin boys disappeared and the Autism fairies took their place.”

I am not going to set myself up as the Feelings Arbiter for Ms Collard. I don’t know her, and that isn’t my job. However, I will say that it’s intrinsically dehumanising to describe people like me and like her sons as “autism fairies”, as if somewhere out there there is a real Charlotte Smith who’s been taken by the fauns or the fae. Whether or not we’re the children our parents wanted is irrelevant to the reality that we’re the children they’ve got, and creating elaborate changeling-based metaphors is a sugary coating of folklore for a toxic message: that we are unwanted, broken, inhuman, and that some level of abuse is an acceptable price to pay for a ‘normal’-seeming child. In the Middle Ages, this was acted out in ritual. Now, it takes the form of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) therapy, which has been loudly criticised as inhumane by autistic adults. (I could write an entirely different blogpost on the history of ABA, so let me know if that’s a thing you’d like to see, because I think this post is dark enough as it is.)

So, why am I beginning what will be probably an endless series of posts on fairies with some very horrible history? First, because changelings have been on my mind all year, but secondly, because my relationship with this topic is a thorny one.  I have a lot of more positive things to say about fairies, but I don’t want this subject to be romanticised. I may be writing about the history of fairies, but this isn’t any kind of fairytale.


Leo KannerA History of the Care and Study of the Mentally Retarded, 1964

Steve Silberman, Neurotribes, 2015




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