For people who claim we appeared in the thirties.


I’m reading around in some rather disgusting American eugenics literature for historical purposes. I have found a letter from Mary Dendy to Karl Pearson, dated 1912, that reads partially as follows:

Imbeciles – It is difficult to find a definition of these which does not apply for low-grade Feeble-minded. They may be described as low-grade F.M. who are not able to be taught the proper care of their persons and whose habits require constant attention. They are apt to be excessively restless, to “echo” (i.e. repeat words instead of answering them.) They are occasionally destructive and apparently cruel, though it is probable that their acts of cruelty are due not to an instinct to give pain, but an instinct to destroy. If able-bodied they can be taught to work, i.e. to repeat the same movement over and over again, in a purely mechanical manner. They often use repeated movements of some part of the body quite without purpose, as striking the head rhythmically with the hand. Their articulation is generally very defective and they sometimes have little or no speech.

She describes “low-grades” as “sometimes having special mental gifts, but more commonly low-grade all round”.

Hmm. It always amazes me when I run into this stuff and remember that some people actually believe that autistic people didn’t exist until Leo Kanner. We were — some of us anyway — spread out among a number of classifications of “mental defectives”, which is what they considered a broad range of people back then.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

12 responses »

  1. It depends. I usually find it while looking for something else.

    I’ve long been interested in the history of the eugenics movement, American and worldwide, and I found that particular thing in the eugenics archive.

    I have found at least one description in Kraepelin’s work on “dementia praecox” (the diagnosis that predated the equally nebulous “schizophrenia”, under which autism used to fall and some of the criteria for which I think have been based partly on autistic people, because back then they didn’t separate autistic people from “schizophrenic” or “feeble-minded” people), that sounded like it could have just as easily been a grossly misinterpreted autistic person who started having more trouble with some things at puberty (a relatively common pattern).

    I don’t generally go looking, I just find it when I’m looking for something else. Little reminders that if my family history weren’t enough to convince me, this stuff would be.

  2. There are some people who have speculated that stories of ‘changelings’ are of people with autism. Child is stolen from crib and replaced – child with autism seems ‘normal’ at the age when they’re in the crib, and ‘not normal’ later. Since ‘changelings’ are not human, this could be used as a justification for abuse/infanticide.

  3. I saw a progam on this about a year ago…they tested people and considered those with lower IQ’s to be “imbeciles” and “morons” who were institutionalized and taught the kindergarten curriculum year after year. Some were used to test radioactive oatmeal on. Is this correct? I was appaled, yet empowered to raise my voice for those of us who don’t fit into societies comfortable “norm”.

  4. In terms of Autistic people “appearing” in the 1930’s, likely one factor was probably an appallingly high childhood mortality rate earlier to this time period. First is the potential for malnourishment due to food issues in an era with no knowledge of vitamins (based on my son’s eating habits I am sure he would have rickets or scurvy in an era before vitamins were added to most processed food). Inadequate nutrition would lead to heightened suceptibility to disease. Combine this with a much more dangerous environment for potential accidents and you have a very difficult world for an autisic child to survive in even given the best of intentions from his or her caregivers.

  5. And that many autistics were probably killed or just hidden away. And that the diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia has dramatically reduced in incidence.
    Odd how those eugenicist types assume they’re the best, when in evolutionary terms, the best are the so called “high grades” or “morons” who are having so many kids.

  6. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Blog Archive » For people who think counting autistic people in the past is easy.

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