The changelings: fairy tales about autism?

“So the goblins came. They pushed their way in and pulled baby out, leaving another all made of ice”

Maurice Sendak, Outside over there.

Image: Norse Bestiary Alphabet / Thomas Denmark

Fairy tales are stories, often with an evolution of centuries, that form a mutable and difficult to define genre, with a close relationship to folk tales. The functions of fairy tales are multiple, but many times their authors, besides entertaining, seek to teach useful things to children, warn of dangers, generate practical lessons and explain the variety of the world. Often, the inventors of fairy tales include characters with striking characteristics, which can range from imaginative, to esoteric, to clearly pathological. Some of these writers may have used real cases as inspiration, and they can help us to see how a disorder or disease was interpreted in other times.

Let’s talk about autism. In Celtic folklore, in tales from Scandinavia, the British Isles and Germany, fairies have a weakness for beautiful babies, abducting them and leaving in their place a “changeling”, a substitute, a child who is the exact duplicate of the stolen child, but who, in reality, is merely his reflection and always has some characteristic that gives him away, usually a disability. In this mixture of legends, sometimes the fairies take the mortals to their own country, leaving in their place a sick fairy child, or a wooden log so bewitched that it seems to be a mortal sighing, but just waiting to die and be buried. Sometimes, a changeling is a person, often a woman, who is transported to another world and from which she cannot return without help. Still, in others, it is not the fairies who change the child for another, but the devil, the elves, the xanas of Asturias or a djinn, a supernatural creature of the Arab world.

The changes of the changeling are as much physical, in its appearance, as in its behaviour. They are characterized by their poor response, resistance to physical affection, obstinacy, inability to express emotions, unexplainable crying and some physical changes such as rigidity and deformity 1. Some are unable to speak. Some characteristics of these stories, such as the initial health and beauty of the human child, the change after some period of “normalcy” and the specific behaviors of the changelings correspond to the symptoms in some presentations of autism.

Most stories of changelings contain instructions on how to prevent that evil being from stealing the child, ways to determine if a child is a changeling, and instructions on how to manage the child’s behavior. In Asturias (Northern Spain), there is a legend about the Xana, a sort of nymph who used to live near rivers, fountains and lakes, sometimes helping travellers on their journeys. The Xanas were conceived as little female fairies with supernatural beauty. They could deliver babies, “xaninos,” that were sometimes swapped with human babies– some legends claim this was in order for them to be baptized, while others claim that it is because the Xana cannot produce milk. Scholars of changeling stories have concluded that these fairy tales explained the birth of disabled children in non-scientific cultures. The legends were society’s attempt to make sense of and deal with child disability by providing a coherent explanation for the appearance of a different child in a family.

Some of these tales, created in a particular place and time, are cruel and disturbing in our view today. One recommends taking the child where you first noticed the change and beating him with a stick until he cries intensely “then the Devil brought the stolen child back, saying ‘Hey, there he is’ and took his own child back”. Stories often suggest that the child with a physical or mental disability is not really the offspring of his parents. One problem is that such legends are maintained generation after generation. As folklorist Edwin Sidney Hartland wrote in 1890, “In dealing with these stories [about changelings] we must always remember that we are not simply dealing with sagas or something from the distant past, but with superstitions that are kept alive”. In 1980, almost a century later, Hasan M. El-Shamy wrote, “The belief that the djinn can steal a human baby and put his own child in its place is widespread in many parts of Egypt 2.

There are also arguments about people of authority. The Brothers Grimm identify one of their sources on changelings as “a reliable citizen of Leipzig” but gave another name, which had great prestige and authority in Protestant Germany: Martin Luther. Apparently, although other authors dispute this claim, Luther was a true believer in changelings, he thought that Satan was responsible for those changelings and that such exchanges were often made. In Luther’s theological scheme, a changeling was a child of the devil without a human soul, “just a piece of flesh”. This made it easy to justify any abuse of the poor child that was considered a changeling, including the extreme case of abuse: infanticide. Many fairy tales include an episode that can be a covert form of murder without having to do it with your hands: the abandonment of children in the forest. This is the case of Hansel and Gretel or Tom Thumb but also of children found wandering around abandoned in suspected autism like Victor de Aveyron or Caspar Hauser.

The evidence of cases of autism before the 20th century reinforces the argument that it is not a disorder or condition linked to technological progress, that it has nothing to do with vaccines, wifi networks or the internet, that it is not a product of recent technologies or the environments that these technologies have created. It remains to be resolved whether some changes linked to industrial development, pollution of very diverse types, have increased an existing predisposition in some people.


  1. Leask J, Leask A, Silove N (2005) Evidence for autism in folklore? Arch Dis Child 90: 271.
  2. Ashliman DL (1997) Changelings. (accessed 7 June 2020).

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