Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why I'm Not Offended

Recently, I found a book in the library called Changeling, by Delia Sherman. It's at the perspective of Neef, a child stolen by fairies at a young age. I'm not going to reveal too much of the plot, but she ends up meeting the fairy created to replace her, who she nicknames Changeling. Changeling has meltdowns, hates changes in plan, is very literal and rule-bound, hates to be touched, is great with computers, has an excellent memory and has received assistance in social skills from a psychologist.
I looked up the entry for that book on Amazon.com (see above) and read the comments. Many people guessed, probably rightly so, that Changeling's personality is modeled after autistic people. Apparently in the acknowledgements Delia Sherman thanked someone for teaching her about Asperger Syndrome (I rarely read the acknowledgements). It's very likely, therefore, that Changeling was intended to be autistic or autistic-like.
One person on Amazon.com commented:

"I did have a bit of a problem with the book equating Asperger's Syndrome with Changlings. It seemed a risky correlation for Ms. Sherman to make. She's never blatant about it, of course, but a quick examination of Changeling's personality (she says that when she was younger she needed a therapist to help her develop social skills) coupled with the note in the book's Acknowledgment section that reads that someone, "gave me an invaluable education on Asperger's Syndrome", was enough to put my hair on end. We don't really want to equate Asperger's with someone being physically from another world, do we?"

This made me think. Why am I not offended by this comparison, when I'm offended by many other similar portrayals of autistic people?
The reason is the way Delia Sherman portrays Changeling. Changeling is portrayed pretty well. My biggest criticism was that she could've had more self-determination, and portrayed Changeling as being more able to speak for herself and having more ability to make effective choices, though partly it could just be that Neef was more used to the environment they were in than Changeling was. But Changeling's unique qualities turn out to be essential to their success and probably their survival, and Neef and Changeling become good friends.
My favorite part is a section (don't have the book so I can't quote it) in which someone tells Neef that people like Changeling are useless. Their sole purpose is to replace humans stolen away, so the humans don't notice. Fairy folk don't want them because they have little magic, and even the humans don't really like them - they used to abuse or kill them, and now they try to force them to conform. Neef indignantly stands up for Changeling, asserting that she is valuable.
I think this book is one of those admirable books that take a harmful tradition (in this case the portrayal of disabled children as a 'stolen' normal child replaced by an 'empty shell' or as Martin Luther stated, a soulless 'massa carnis') and twists it around to make it positive. And the biggest test is 'how is this likely to affect how autistics are treated?' I think it's likely to be a pretty positive effect, if anything.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Andrea said...

I'm going to try to remember to buy this book sometime.

There's another book out there written from the "changeling's" perspective, I think called "Moor Child" (sorry, I forget the author, I'll see if I can track the book down again) -- not meant to be autistic, but very sympathetically written. The child is half fairy/elf, half human, and has little magic, so the fairies don't want her and dump her with the humans. She grows up feeling different without knowing why. As she grows older, she starts to make discoveries about herself.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

I actually didn't like Moor Child as much, because it ended with her finding her parents' true child and returning the girl to them, and ends up not really belonging anywhere. Whereas, despite the struggles, it's obvious that Changeling belongs with her human parents, and Neef belongs with the fairies. It's implied that it would be a very bad idea for Neef to go and live with her biological parents, because despite being human, Neef thinks like a fairy.

9:03 AM  

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