You ought to have known better than to walk out of your house, late at night on Halloween, while dark wisps of cloud were briskly blowing across a moonless sky.
But your street looked quiet enough; the neighborhood children had all collected their candy hours ago, there didn't seem to be any black cats in your path, and you felt too restless to do the sensible thing and go to sleep. Although you heard a faint howl in the distance, you didn't give it much thought. Lightning flashed on the horizon, but you decided that it was too far away to be much of a danger.
By the time you reached the end of the block, the clouds were massing ominously above you, and the corner streetlight—the bad one that you had been meaning to call the power company about—flickered several times before going out altogether.
You looked around warily in the gloom. Something howled again, much closer. A huge bolt of lightning flashed across the sky. Then you saw it, crouching under a nearby tree, an enormous black beast that was far too large to be a real dog. Its yellow eyes gleamed as it leaped toward you, quicker than any living creature. Before you had time to run, or even to scream, it was on you.
Suddenly you found yourself surrounded by a cold, clammy, choking black fog. You felt yourself falling through an abyss into what seemed to be another dimension. Then the fog vanished, almost as suddenly as it had appeared, leaving you standing on the corner of what looked like your street. Everything seemed unchanged when the streetlight blinked back on, and as you ran back to your house and slammed and bolted the door, you tried to tell yourself that it was only your imagination.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, and you went to work, just like always. Nothing seemed different there, either, until you noticed that your co-workers were passing around a magazine, whispering among themselves, and glancing up at you from time to time. You guessed that they were making some sort of dumb joke. After a while, you found the magazine on a table in the break room, open to an article called "Changeling Awareness: How to Spot the Signs."
You took a quick look at the article, which informed you that millions of seemingly normal-looking people worldwide were in fact Changelings, afflicted with a tragic curse in early childhood, and that a Changeling could be identified by a distinctive pattern of differences in speech, body language, and social interaction. Some Changelings had not yet been identified because of a lack of public awareness of the curse. The article somberly declared that there was no known way to cure Changelings and that their existence was a great calamity for their families and for society.
You wondered why your co-workers had been wasting their time reading such a silly tabloid.
Later you went home, sat down at your computer, and checked your personal e-mail. A message from your son's teacher came up on the screen, telling you that your son was in need of a professional evaluation because he appeared to have Changeling traits. There were medications that could make Changelings behave more like normal people, the teacher suggested. You didn't have any clue why she would say something like that about your intelligent, honest, conscientious son, whose personality type had always been very much like yours.
You chewed on the implications of that for a while.
Then you started to do some Internet research. You found that there were thousands of web pages about Changelings, each one more virulently negative than the last. According to various authorities on the subject, Changelings were severely mentally defective and could not be expected to hold jobs, live independently, drive cars, marry, or raise children. You knew that this description certainly didn't apply to you; after all, you had already done all of these things.
You discovered that your government, whose administration often proclaimed support for traditional, moral, pro-life values, was funding genetic research to identify and abort unborn children who had a high likelihood of becoming Changelings.
You learned that some states had a mandatory registry for all Changelings. That made you wonder about the implications for your family, now that your co-workers and your son's teacher were talking about your traits. Perhaps you ought to find another job and move your son to another school, you thought, so that your family could stay hidden; but you soon realized that this wasn't likely to improve your situation. You might not be able to find another job, anyway; there was a strong probability that Changeling-aware hiring managers would disqualify you during the interview. You still couldn't fully understand just what it was about you and your family that was perceived as so dangerous and different.
Walking over to the window, you looked out at a cold, crisp November night in a universe that was not your own, wishing once more that you had been sensible enough not to go out of your house on Halloween.
For most readers, the story ends here, and it's time to go back to your normal, comfortable life, perhaps shaking your head at the author's farfetched imagination.
But for those of us who have been identified in recent years as autistic, based on a new and greatly expanded set of diagnostic criteria, this story reflects the current reality of our existence. Many of us grew up thinking of ourselves as healthy human beings, a little on the geeky side perhaps, but intelligent, capable, and productive. Like our friends, some of us graduated from college and found work. Some of us married and had families.
Now we are facing what has become, for all intents and purposes, a modern-day witchhunt. Our lives and those of our loved ones are routinely described in the media, as well as by many politicians and so-called charitable organizations, as a horrible epidemic and a huge drain on society. In the United States, our tax money is being used for genetic research to develop a prenatal test targeting our children as unworthy to live. Statistics on our numbers—and in some places, mandatory registries—are maintained by agencies for disease control and prevention, although we are known to have a hereditary neurological variation, not an infectious disease. We often face discrimination in the workplace, but we are not protected under the equal employment opportunity laws. School officials, acting in response to autism-awareness campaigns, insist that we allow our children to be drugged into docility and kept segregated from their peers, supposedly for their own good. There is an entire industry selling quack cures for autism, many of which are abusive or even life-threatening, with little or no regulatory oversight.
This is the alternate reality in which we now find ourselves. Like the Changeling of the story, we have no means of escape, no hope of staying hidden. We can only search for ways to move forward, to advocate for social acceptance as a minority group, and to make common cause with others who support human rights and dignity.
An emerging civil rights movement known as neurodiversity holds that the existence of cognitive and personality differences among human beings is healthy and beneficial to the growth of a diverse society, like differences in gender, skin color, religion, and nationality. According to this view, individuals with neurological differences should not automatically be treated as defective or impaired, but should instead be accepted and valued as they are.
Please take the time to learn more about neurodiversity and the autistic civil rights movement. Our future, and that of our children, is in danger.
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