emmapretzel at Lemon Peel and I have been kicking around the concept of developmental narratives lately. Or, to be more specific, the linked post made me realize that I have a developmental narrative question of my own to answer.
Google “autism and changelings,” and nearly everything that turns up – including this actual entire article from the Archives of Disease in Childhood – begins and ends its analysis with “once upon a time, changeling stories were probably told about people who had autism.” Implied, but only stated about half the time, is the second half of that story: “but we don’t anymore, because we discovered science and left behind our silly superstitious forebears in ye Dark Ages.”
Naturally, I think the question is a bit more complicated, or I wouldn’t be trying to write a thesis about it.
In fact, we haven’t left this “superstition” behind at all. Not only are charities and popular media still selling a conception of autism that involves mysterious, malevolent forces replacing children with changelings, but much of the “science” surrounding autism still deals in this storyline as well – from the persistent “theory of mind” theory to the “weak central coherence” or “lack of empathy” arguments.
In Autism and The Myth of the Person Alone, Doug Biklen notes that perhaps theory of mind and similar ideas worked once as useful metaphors, but we have largely forgotten they’re metaphors, with largely negative results for autistic people as well as for scientific inquiry. Meanwhile, in The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers dwell at length on the fact that we currently live in a society that is moving too quickly for a mythological structure to take hold – but that, as myth-performing and myth-performative beings, we really can’t live without one. Our myths, Campbell explains, orient us in our society and our society in the world. Julius Heuscher, in A Psychiatric Study of Myths and Fairy Tales, makes a similar argument from the point of view of psychology: our brains need mythological structures, and in the absence of a recognizable structure, the brain will attempt to impose one.
If this is the case – that we cannot, in fact, “science” everything and that it may be futile to try – several implications suggest themselves. At this point, the most pertinent one to me seems to be that if we can’t keep myth out of our science writing, then we need to be aware that we’re using it, and take greater steps to identify our metaphors. So far, science writing on autism seems largely to have skipped this step.