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It has been suggested by some authors that stories of changelings in Scandinavia and western Europe are an attempt by ancient peoples used to try and explain developmental abnormalities in children, particularly autism spectrum disorder. The latter has been suggested in particular because a lot of traits of changelings in folklore are very reminiscent of those of autism spectrum disorder:

  • The first sign of a changeling is often said to be when an otherwise healthy child begins behaving strangely or fails to develop along normal developmental milestones. Like autism.
  • Changelings are often depicted as being behaviorally abnormal and lack typical social behavior. Changeling children were variably said to sometimes cry incessantly, spurn physical affection, be non-vocal, etc. Unusual behavior, socially inappropriate responses, and a seeming inability to grasp human social graces or exhibit normal human social behavior was said to be a hallmark of a changeling. Which is very similar to people with autism.
  • Sometimes changelings were described as being prodigies at particular tasks despite their lack of social knowledge. Which, again, happens a lot in autism.
  • Changelings and faeries in general are infamous for their inability to lie, and often get around this by lying by omission. Autistic people are also really, really bad liars, to the point that some autistic individuals have reported physical discomfort when lying.
  • Changelings and faeries in general are often depicted as self-centered and amoral. Neurotypical people oftentimes mistake autistic people as being amoral due to their behavior, to the point that it was a prominent medical theory for the better part of a century.
  • Changelings often either never grow up or are immortal. Autism spectrum disorder is associated with rounded facial features that produce a "baby-faced" or "elfin" appearance that often makes autistic individuals appear childlike. Autistic people often appear to age slower because they emote less extensively and wrinkle and stretch the skin often.
  • Changelings were sometimes said to prefer being in nature to the company of people, which was depicted as them returning to commune with the faeries or something along that line. A lot of autistic people have expressed a preference for being around animals or nature to being around people (e.g., Temple Grandin).
  • Changelings and faeries in general are often depicted as having strange, seemingly nonsensical weaknesses such as aversions to certain foods, not liking certain fabrics, etc. Autistic individuals are often hypersensitive to certain stimuli such as certain noises, smells, tastes, or even the texture of certain food items or fabric, and what the individual is sensitive to is not easily predictable.
  • Changelings are often depicted as having adult mindsets and personalities despite having the bodies of children. Autistic children, particularly high-functioning ones, are often described as exhibiting un-child-like behaviors and having a demeanor more like adults.
  • The behavior of how modern parents of autistic children react to their child is often very similar to how people in the past are depicted as having reacted to changelings. I.e., many parents of children with autism have described their situation as "it's like something took my baby away and left something else in its place". It is unclear if this is subconscious cultural osmosis from exposure to changeling-inspired folklore or parallel ways in which people have tried to explain their experiences.

However, I was wondering if there are any folktales in non-Western European/Scandinavian cultures that have been suggested to possible represent mythologized depictions of individuals with autism spectrum disorder similar to what has been suggested for changelings? Studies of autism indicate that it's present in all populations around the globe; autism rates are higher in industralized countries but this is thought to be entirely due to diagnosis rates, greater access to medical care in industralized nations, and under-reporting in developing nations. Autism doesn't appear to be either confined to industralized cultures or a culture-specific psychosis unique to western and northern European populations akin to kitsune-tsuki or wendigo psychosis. As a result ancient people would have encountered autistic individuals in their daily lives and it seems plausible that at least some other cultures would have tried to explain it.

I know that many cultures with shamanistic traditions often treated autistic symptoms as signs that individuals were spirit-touched, marked to be shamans, etc., but such a judgement could be based on a wide range of behaviors and signs and was not unique to autism. Similar judgements have been made in cultures that don't have animistic beliefs, but again the "symptoms" are very generic compared to how closely changeling myths hew to modern diagnoses of autism. There are changeling-analogous myths in Poland and Africa, but neither of these mythical beings exhibit traits similar to autism spectrum disorder. Similarly, other cultural disorders (for lack of a better term) attributed to being possessed by a spirit or demon like wendigo psychosis or kitsune-tsuki don't resemble autism spectrum disorder in their etiology at all. I have been unable to find any other depictions in folklore that seem like they could be attributed to a mythologized or distorted version of people with autism.

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    Wait, are changeling myths being understood as autism explanations A Thing? I mean, it makes sense, but this is the first I'm hearing of it.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 8 at 20:22
  • @T.E.D. It's a really, really common explanation from what I've seen. Searching "autism changeling" in Google Scholar, for example, produces a wealth of results. Also changelings/autism are some of the first things that come up whenever I've tried to look up the other in my own research on the subjects. Honestly it's not just changelings, but depictions of faeries in general, though faerie myths are often broader in their depictions.
    – user2352714
    Mar 8 at 20:37
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    I think this question presupposes the existence of an "autistic" stereotype in pre-modern society. It's also not clear why telling the truth or keeping your word would be seen generally as traits that need to be "explained" in a civilised society, or why a preference for animals and nature would be perceived as dysfunctional in agrarian society.
    – Steve
    Mar 8 at 21:15
  • @Steve From what I've read in the folklore, the issue was that "changeling" children often preferred to be by themselves in the woods rather than play with other children, and this was perceived as practicing witchcraft or communing with other faeries. With lying, autistic people are often very uncomfortable lying even about very small details to the point of physical discomfort, which comes off as odd when they have trouble telling even the white lies that allow for social cooperation and conformity.
    – user2352714
    Mar 8 at 22:39
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    The chart at the beginning of the link "Studies of autism indicate that it's present" shows a wild variation depending on culture, with Hong Kong having 100x the rate of Poland. That calls into question whether there even was a significant instance of autism in the time periods discussed, especially since all the countries on that chart are all modern industrialized nations.
    – Gort the Robot
    Mar 9 at 1:48

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