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Author’s note: this essay contains references to child abuse, eugenics, torture, anti-Semitism, and the oppression of disabled people. Please go gently.


I don’t know what a human is.

An illustration in the style of an online Captcha box. Text reads: "Select all images of things that contain (an) egg". Grid contains illustrations of a bucket, a chicken, an egg carton, a glass of red wine, a handbag, a ladybird, a fish, a block of chocolate and a wrapped present.

We use the word human like its meaning is common sense. If we make a mistake, we’re ‘only human’; to be cruel is ‘inhumane’; to be degraded or stripped of agency is to be ‘dehumanised’. Sometimes when we say ‘human’ we are differentiating ourselves from other animals; at other times, we use it to distinguish ourselves from robots and other machines.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a human as ‘a bipedal primate mammal (Homo sapiens)’. But what, then, defines Homo sapiens from other species of the Homo genus? And what separates mammals of the Homo genus from other bipedal primate mammals?

As it turns out, scientists don’t all agree on the answers to these questions. Some think that you can tell a human by measuring its ear bones; others think that humanness lies in particular group behaviours, such as mourning rituals.

illustration of two skulls in profile, facing each other. The skull on the left is of a Neanderthal or other primitive, while the skull on the right is of a modern human.

I haven’t been able to find a definition of ‘human’ that isn’t either so broad as to be virtually meaningless, or so narrow that someone is excluded from it—whether that is because of disability, or culture, or some other point of divergence from the ‘norm’. Some explanations of ‘what makes us human’ claim to include all cultures—storytelling, for example, is said to have been recorded in every living ‘human’ culture on the planet—but I was looking for a definition that includes all individual people, regardless of whether they can or choose to participate in the rituals and customs of their culture. I was looking for space in the definition for those who have been pushed to the very margins of ‘humanness’.

A red furry creature with a tail and a human head. Text in speech bubble: "I am a dinkus."

Throughout the early modern period in Europe, persecutors of alleged witches searched suspects’ bodies for a ‘witches’ teat’, or ‘the Devil’s mark’. Some people thought this mark was a sort of demon-hickey; witches were widely believed to have sex with demons, and even with Satan himself. In England, it was believed that the witches’ mark was a teat, from which they fed their familiars.

Matthew Hopkins was a prolific English witch hunter. In 1647, he published the now-famous paper Discovery of Witches, in defence of his brutal witch-finding methods. In it, he identifies three ways to tell whether a mark on a woman’s body was a witches’ teat or a regular human marking:

  1. ‘the unusualnes of the place where he findeth the teats in or on their bodies’;
  2. ‘they are most commonly insensible, and feele neither pin, needle, aule, &c. thrust through them’; and
  3. witches’ marks can change quickly, due to the magical deception of witches—to counteract this, Hopkins advised witch hunters to ‘keepe her 24 houres with a diligent eye’.

Here we can see how the obsessive search for biological proof of Otherness was used to justify (1) invasive searches; (2) torture; and (3) kidnapping and/or detainment. Reading documents like Discovery of Witches and the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) also gives a sense of the fevered, circular logic that witch hunters used to justify the persecution of their victims. For example, the Malleus Maleficarum states that witches cannot cry, even when being tortured. It then adds, ‘although she will assume a tearful aspect and smear her cheeks and eyes with spittle to make it appear that she is weeping’. In other words: whether she cries or not, she’s a witch.

This reminds me of my mother, who used to think I was sociopathic, telling me when I was a child that I was ‘very good at pretending to cry’; I was never pretending.

I’ve been reading a lot of scientific journal articles about autism for the last year or so. Some neuropsych studies are exciting to me—there is some research, for example, on the possible role of microglial cells in neural pruning that suggests autistic people retain more (/prune fewer) of the synapses they have as young children; I’m also very interested in the role of C-afferents in ‘affective touch’, which some researchers have suggested is different for autistic people than for others. I like these pieces of research because they make sense to me as an autistic person—the too-muchness of excessive neurons would fit with the often overwhelming experience of living in my bodymind, as would the fizzing pain of gentle touch associated with an aberrant afferent.

Eventually, though, most scientific research on autism is looking for something specific: a biomarker. That is, a molecule, or a gene, or some other characteristic ‘by which a particular pathological or physiological process, disease, etc. can be identified’. Something on or in the body that definitively sets us apart from other people.

Why is this search for a biomarker so important? Why does it drive (and, presumably, fund) so much of the research related to autistic people? Perhaps it’s telling that most of the research reports tend to end on a similar note:

…This could pave the way for the identification of novel treatment targets and/or the rational design of probiotics to treat or prevent ASD.

They want to cure us (burn us); they want to eradicate us in the womb.

In the medical field, ‘occult’ means ‘obscure; hard to detect’. Not accompanied by readily discernible signs or symptoms. Occult bleeding is bleeding that is not obvious; an ‘occult primary tumour’ refers to cancer in which the primary tumour cannot be found. I think of all the searches for autistic biomarkers, and I’m pleased that they’ve been fruitless so far. I’m keen to remain in the realm of the occult. To borrow from Édouard Glissant, we have a right to opacity.

‘As far as my identity is concerned,’ Glissant writes, ‘I will take care of it myself.’

A creature with a bearded human face and a rabbit or kangaroo's face at either end of an orange spiral shell. Text in speech bubble: "I am also a dinkus."

The day after my doctor first suggested I might be autistic, I went to the bookshop and bought Clem Bastow’s Late Bloomer. Then I read Dara McAnulty, Joanne Limburg, Remi Yergeau, Anand Prahlad, Madeleine Ryan, Devon Price, Nick Walker. Reading the work of other autistic people made me feel, to borrow from Limburg, that ‘there were some rooms I could enter where my experiences were comprehensible’. I was discovering kin.

Something that often comes up in writing about autistic people is a sense of almost-human-but-not-quite-ness.

This permeates other people’s observations about us—such as the seminal autism texts written by Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner in the 1940s—but it’s also reflected in the way many of us talk and write about ourselves. In some cases, thinking of ourselves as not-quite-human is a comfort; in others, it’s alienating (so to speak).
Text in speech bubble, which extends up to the image of Anand Prahlad: "The feeling that I was from another planet gave life meaning. There was a reason for my suffering. There was a reason why I never really fit in."

Text in speech bubble, pointing towards the image of Joanne Limburg: "I unsettle people. I'm uncanny. Being around me doesn't always feel like being around a fellow human being, and that discomfort rarely brings out the best in people."

(Reference)

Disabilities studies scholar Dan Goodley writes: ‘Disability has a troubled relationship with the category of the human being. Disability is troubled by the human (disability risks being cast off as non-human) and is troubling of the human (disability challenges the ways in which the human category is exclusionary and narrow).’ He identifies three ways that disabled people have historically responded to this troubled/troubling relationship:

  1. Rejecting the category of human and promoting other posthuman communities—eg. The crip community;
  2. Desiring the category of human and developing forms of community recognition—eg. The self-advocacy community;
  3. Occupying both positions simultaneously—to disavow the human (desire and reject together).

Goodley and his colleagues have dubbed the third position a ‘DisHuman positionality’, and it is this approach that interests me the most. It leaves room for acknowledging that being excluded from the category of ‘human’ is a painful and dangerous experience, while also leaving that category open to being (neuro)queered, to being fucked with.

A blue figure with a yellow hairy face and long tongue at the end of a pair of legs, and a second human skull on the end of a long neck. Text in speech bubble: "I am a dinkus."

Some of the earliest written records we have of autistic people (or at least, of allistic people trying to make sense of autistic people) may be European folklore about changelings. Depending on the era and region, changelings were either the Devil’s children or the children of fairies. Either way, they were swapped into human families—demons or fairies stole a human child, and left an almost-human-but-not-quite child in its place.

To give you an idea of the flavour of these tales, here is a story. It is called Wechselkind mit Ruten Gestrichen—‘A Changeling is Beaten with a Switch’—and it was recorded as a folktale by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm in 1816.

The following true story,it begins,
took place in the year 1580:

An illustration of a nobleman in medieval clothing. Text: Near Breslau there lived a distinguished nobleman who had a large crop of hay every summer which his subjects were required harvest for him. One year there was a new mother among his harvest workers, a woman who had barely had a week to recover from the birth of her child.

Illustration of shoulders and arms, holding a swaddled baby. Text reads: When she saw that she could not refuse the nobleman's decree, she took her child with her, placed it on a small clump of grass, and left it alone while she helped with the haymaking. After she had worked a good while, she returned to her child to nurse it.

Text: She looked at it, screamed aloud, hit her hands together above her head, and cried out in despair— Speech bubble: "This is not my child!" Text: It sucked the milk from her so greedily and howled in such an inhuman manner that it was nothing like the child she knew.

An illustration of the head of a crying baby.

Text: As is usual in such cases, she kept the child for several days, but it was so ill-behaved that the good woman nearly collapsed.

Text: She told her story to the nobleman. He said to her:

Text in speech bubbles: "Woman, if you think that this is not your child, then do this one thing. Take it out to the meadow where you left your previous child and beat it hard with a switch. Then you will witness a miracle."

The woman followed the nobleman's advice. She went out and beat the child with a switch until it screamed loudly. Then the Devil brought back her stolen child, saying: "There, you have it!" And with that he took his own child away.

An illustration of the chest and arms of a red-skinned figure holding a swaddled baby.

There are several other tales about changelings in the Grimms’ volumes. They all tend to end in a similar way. In Die Wechselbalge im Wasser (‘Changelings in the Water’), ‘a peasant had a killcrop that sucked its mother and five wet nurses dry, all the while eating voraciously (for they eat more than ten other children). It behaved in such a manner that they grew tired of it.’ The baby’s father throws it in the river.

In Der Wechselberg (‘The Changeling’), a baby ‘failed to grow and gain weight. It cried day and night, always demanding to be fed.’ It, too, is believed to be a changeling and is drowned—this time in a brook, by its mother.

The Grimm Brothers were influenced by the thinking of German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), who believed in the power of certain types of literature to ignite patriotism and unify the ‘Volk’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Grimms’ collected tales were a favourite of the Nazi Party when it came into power. According to folklorist Linda Dégh, the Party decreed that there should be a copy of Kinder- und Hausmarchen in every German home. Many of the Grimms’ tales are deeply anti-Semitic—spreading the myth of blood libel, among other stereotypes about Jewish people—and several others pre-empt the eugenics of the Nazi era when it came to disabled people.

In the tales of ‘killcrop’ babies, there is nothing to suggest that the changeling infants were autistic. However, getting through infancy without being subjected to an exorcism was no guarantee you wouldn’t be suspected of being a changeling later on. There were other signs to watch for in your children as they grew. For example—

Warning Sign of a Changeling #1: The child is ‘too intelligent’ for its age

In an article from the Belfast News-Letter, 17 April 1840, we find the true story of John Mahony. In April 1840, John was six or seven years old. He lived with his father, James Mahony, in County Tipperary, Ireland.

John had been bedridden for a couple of years due to curvature of the spine. He was also a ‘suspiciously intellectual child’—‘accustomed to make the most shrewd remarks about every thing he saw and heard passing around him’. For these two reasons, James was able to be convinced by his neighbours that his son John was actually a fairy changeling. James threatened to burn John with a hot shovel and to drown him under a water pump unless the child told him where his ‘real’ son was. Terrified, John said that he was a fairy, and would send the real John Mahony back overnight. John died in his sleep that night—it is thought that he died of terror.

Warning Sign #2: The child ‘disappears’ for periods of time

Anthropologist Andrew Lang (1844 – 1912) was told by an Irish clergyman of a woman who had lived to be more than a hundred years old. She died in 1894, he said, and—

‘There had been a fairy in her family. He came to the house one night, looking like a poor wandering boy. He was taken in, and lived with the household. Every night he went into a dusky corner, and vanished.’

Writing about this story in his book Fairies: A Dangerous History (2018), Richard Sugg observes:

Assuming that this was neither pure fiction nor pure folklore (and that ‘vanished’ meant something like ‘kept to himself’), we seem here to meet one more example of a culture where anything or anyone strange instantly becomes part of fairyland.

Warning Sign #3: They are not the child you knew

In many instances where children were thought to be changelings, significant weight seems to have been given to parents’ testimony that, as Sugg puts it, ‘you had known your own baby, and this was not him.’

As a mother with a chronically ill child, there is a small part of me that yearns for a culture where parents’ knowledge of their own children is taken seriously. However, as in these cases, this can go too far the other way—as parents, we can be so confident in our own perspective of our kids that we refuse to accept things about them that might fall outside our own views.

A chilling example of this can be found in Jenny McCarthy’s infamous memoir Louder Than Words (2007), in which she describes her experience as the mother of an autistic child. She depicts her son’s autism diagnosis as a moment that effectively took her child from her. The doctor, responding to her distress at the diagnosis, tells McCarthy that her son ‘is still the same boy you came in here with’. ‘No,’ McCarthy writes, ‘in my eyes he wasn’t.’ Her panic recalls that of James Mahony in 1840, demanding that the fairy impostor tell him the whereabouts of his ‘real’ son. ‘Where was my son,’ writes McCarthy, ‘and how the hell did I get him out?’

Warning Sign #4: There is something uncanny about them

Sugg writes that fairies are ‘uncannily similar, yet fundamentally different from humankind.’ Author and scholar Morgan Daimler describes the aos sidhe, a type of Irish fairy, as ‘seeming human’ but having ‘an aura, an otherworldliness’; they add that the motives of the sidhe are often difficult for humans to understand.

‘Something uncanny’ is vague enough to be a dangerous catch-all (I don’t like your vibe, and therefore you are not human). But it also echoes autistic writing, and writing about autistic people.

A green creature with two yellow legs and a human head in a blue medieval hat. Text in speech bubble: "I'm a dinkus"

In his 1943 paper ‘Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact’, child psychologist Leo Kanner writes detailed case studies of eleven autistic children. (This and Hans Asperger’s 1944 ‘”Autistic Psychopathy” in Childhood’ are considered the foundational texts in defining what psychiatry now calls Autism Spectrum Disorder.) One of the children he describes is referred to as Elaine C. Even Kanner’s pathologising observational style cannot quash the magic that is Elaine’s way of being in the world.

From when she was two years old, ‘she independently went her way, not doing what the others did. She, for example, drank the water and ate the plant when they were being taught to handle flowers.’

‘She affirms by repeating a question literally, and she negates by not complying.’

‘She had an excellent vocabulary, knew especially the names and “classifications” of animals.’

Kanner devotes a significant amount of space to recording Elaine’s ‘ejaculated stereotyped phrases’:

Lines of text surrounded by multicoloured lines and squiggles. Text reads: "Dinosaurs don't cry"; 'Seals and salamanders', "Needle head", "Crayfish, sharks, fish, and rocks", "Tigers and cats", "There is war in the sky", "Gargoyles bite children and drink oil", "Bears and foxes".

Of Donald C., another of the children in his study, Kanner writes:

He seemed to have much pleasure in ejaculating words or phrases, such as ‘Chysanthemum’; ‘Dahlia, dahlia, dahlia’; ‘Business’; ‘Trumpet vine’; ‘The right one is on, the left one is off’; ‘Through the dark clouds shining.’ Irrelevant utterances such as these were his ordinary mode of speech.

Irrelevant to whom? Kanner’s conclusion is that Elaine and Donald, like the nine other children described in his paper, are disturbed and disordered. I am biased, of course—I share much with Elaine in particular, right down to her fear of vacuum cleaners and a hatred of the noises that toilets sometimes make—but I don’t think either of these kids sounds disturbed or disordered. While I can understand how being ‘different’ might cause them distress, that’s a problem with society more than it is a problem with Elaine or Donald. To me, based on Kanner’s own descriptions, both children sound inventive, playful, and driven to be in relationship with the world around them by curiosity and emotion.

Illustrations of two pink flowers on either side of a yellow flower.

In Discovery of Witches, Hopkins writes of finding a group of women who were definitely witches—he could tell this, he claimed, because of the names they had given their ‘Imps’, or familiars.

Text in speech bubble, pointing towards the image of Matthew Hopkins: "Imps names, as Elemanzer, Pyewacket, Peckin the crown, Grizzel, Greedigut, &c, which no mortall could invent!"

The punishment for being a witch at this time was, of course, death. Fascinating that a man who thought up so many ridiculous reasons to kill women should baulk at a pet called ‘Pyewacket’, but I guess some uses of the imagination are more acceptable than others.

A creature with green and red legs protruding out of a human head with a goatee beard, tongue poking out, two long yellow antennae and wearing a yellow crown. Text in speech bubble: "DINKUS!"

I believe in the radical potential of an autistic affinity with the almost-human-but-not-quite. I’m chasing a way of being that is not supernatural (‘outside of nature’), but is para-normal—outside of, but necessarily existing alongside, normalcy.

Text in speech bubble, pointing to image of Amanda Leduc: "To reclaim disability narrative in storytelling, we need to understand why stories like fairy tales have been fascinated with it right from the very beginning, and how the stories we tell have maligned difference - and disability - in order to make seale of it in the world."

(Reference)

I don’t want to rewrite fairytales, repositioning marginalised characters in the benevolent centre. Partly because this has already been done—many writers have reimagined old fairytales, from a feminist perspective in particular. I want to find a practice that stays in the margins, that queers and crips norms from a para-normal place.

One practice I’m currently trying to conjure along these lines is the idea of autistic poetics. In her 2018 book Autistic Disturbances, Julia Miele Rodas builds a theory of autistic poetics, arguing that several highly-valued mainstream literary texts—among them, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Charlotte Bronte’s Vilette, poetry by Walt Whitman and life writing by Andy Warhol—make use of autistic ways of communicating. Part of her argument is that autistic poetics (‘the particular ways in which autism is expressed in language’) is valued by society in some contexts, while being dismissed and devalued in others.

Rodas identifies autistic poetics as: ricochet (echolalia), apostrophe (‘info-dumping’), ejaculation (sudden exclamations of seemingly random things), discretion (list-making and taxonomy), silence (silence), and invention (neologism).

Necessarily for Rodas’ project, Autistic Disturbances focuses on texts where autistic poetics is valued. This tends to mean texts not written by autistic people themselves. What I want to know is what an autistic poetics might look like coming from the bodyminds of actually autistic people. Can a dinkus be an ejaculation? Can a speech bubble ricochet? Does a Dis-Human/paranormal positionality make a rich space for autistic art-making?

Is this magic?

Contemporary practitioners of witchcraft have expanded definitions of magic to emphasise the role of a witch’s mind, including sensory-based intuition.

An illustration of Starhawk, a white person with long grey hair, wearing a black top and pink scarf. Text in speech bubble: "Learning to work magic is a process of neurological repatterning of changing the way we use our brains."

(Reference)

Illustration of Margot Adler, a white person with long dark hair, wearing a black top. Text in speech bubble: "Interestingly, traditional occult definitions of magic have rarely included the supernatural... Most of these definitions link magic to an understanding of the workings of the mind."

(Reference)

While I’m reluctant to venture too far into Wicca and its many pagan cousins—I agree with Johanna Hedva when they say that ‘a witch is always someone without institutional power’, and Wicca as an institution doesn’t interest me much—I’m enticed by this potential link between magic and neurodivergence.

An illustration of a creature with a pink face with a red beard, with short backward-facing legs and a green spiky tail protruding from the back of the head. Text in speech bubble: "I am your final dinkus."

One of my favourite texts about magic—and about witches—is the 2020 film Akelarre (dir. Pablo Agüero). It follows the story of a small group of young women, all friends, who live in the Basque Country in 1609. They are accused of being witches, and are imprisoned and interrogated by a judge who has been given the task of ‘purifying’ the region. The women find themselves trapped in the Malleus Maleficarum-esque circular logic of witch persecutors: it is not in their power to prove they’re not witches, but they are told they will not be set free unless they tell the judge about the magical ritual of the witches’ sabbath—whereby they will be admitting their status as witches, and will be burned. The strategy that the women eventually develop is to take their actual experiences, as women and as friends, and use them to occupy the othered status that has been forced upon them, weaving the details of their everyday lives into the story of a sabbath ritual. In doing so, they truly become witches—they exercise agency over their version of magic, and destabilise the distribution of power. At the end of the film, they leap together off a cliff—the question of whether they can actually fly, or whether they fall to their deaths, is left unresolved.

Text in speech bubble, pointing to image of So Mayer: "Poetry, or magic, takes charge of intention: of how our name is said, how our bones are held, how we breathe, how we see. It means believing in ourselves: confusing the belief that our intentions, our actions, matter - not because we are special or gifted, but because here we are, in the world and part of it."

(Reference)

Here, then, is a statement of intention—a para-normal manifesto of autistic poetics:

  1. Dahlia, dahlia, dahlia.
  2. Drink the water and eat the plant.
  3. Tigers and cats, fairies and witches.
  4. I don’t know what a human is.
  5. Through the dark clouds shining—
  6. Dinkus!

At the end of the film, I think they fly.


This essay was the winner of the 2022 KYD Creative Non-Fiction Essay Prize.