Feral (Wild) Children and Autism

The recent publication of “In a Different Key” by John Donvan and Caren Zucker has revived accounts of historical precedents of autism in feral children. This idea was borne out of Uta Frith’s book “Autism: Explaining the Enigma” where she details the case of Victor of Aveyron. Victor was a young boy found living in the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance at about the age of 12. Although Victor could hear he lacked speech and communication skills. Victor had numerous scars in his body, preferred to eat raw meat, and would frolic nude in the snow all suggesting that he had been in the wild most of his life. Despite vigorous attempts at socialization and education Victor only made rudimentary progress.

Feral (or wild) children are those who live isolated from human contact since an early age. They have been a popular source for myths dating back thousands of years. Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who presumably founded Rome, were raised by a she-wolf. More recently, the fictional character Tarzan (the Viscount of Greystoke) was raised by the Madgani great apes. In these mythical accounts, feral children are romanticized as noble savages often having superior intelligence and morals than children raised under the corrupting or “unnatural” influence of civilization.

The great majority of reported cases of feral children are hoaxes. True accounts of feral children, contrary to myths, describe individuals who have trouble walking upright, prefer to eat raw food, and have great difficulties in acquiring language. It is difficult to decipher the nature for their difficulties in socializing and acquiring language. Without a previous history, some authors have speculated that the children could have been abandoned due to pre-existing mental and/or physical impairments or could have suffered severe abuse or trauma. Victor exhibited a scar in his neck indicating that his throat had been once cut. The wound was not fatal but bore witness to a wretched past. Who knows if the multiple scars in Victor’s body were the consequences of physical abuse rather than living in the wild?

Recent studies suggest that the first few years of life constitute a critical period for learning both language and social skills. Lack of exposure during this sensitive period would make it difficult or impossible to develop these functions later in life. In the case of Victor the only things he was ever able to learn to speak were lait (milk) and Oh Dieu (Oh God).

Victor and other feral children do share some symptoms characteristic of autism. They often fail to socialize, lack attention and spend time rocking themselves back and forth. Stereotypies in feral children are reminiscent of repetitive behaviors observed in caged or otherwise confined animals. Many of these repetitive movements have been used in research as animal models of anxiety and depression in humans.

In autism, stereotipies are many times acquired early in life (bit.ly/21h16pT). They tend to be rigid, invariant, and inappropriate in nature. When stereotypies provide for self-stimulatory behaviors they are difficult to change regardless of environmental manipulations. This does not appear to be the case for caged animals. Rocking, swimming in circles, self-mutilation, and mouthing of cages can many times be treated by environmental enrichment. A similar intervention in autism may be counterproductive.

It is difficult to draw conclusions regarding probable medical diagnoses in feral children when so few of them have been described. These accounts all lack parental reports for developmental milestones during the first few years of life. Fortunately for some cases we have detailed notes after attempts at assimilation by society which allow us to qualify some statements regarding any perceived similarities to autism.

Feral children do seem capable of establishing social reciprocity and empathy with those in their immediate surrounding. Although labeled as severely mentally retarded they must have displayed a great deal of practical intelligence and even theory of mind (e.g., towards other animals), for how else would they have been able to survive in the wild? In autism the skills necessary to understand the emotions of others are sometimes impaired. Many autistic individuals find it difficult to read gestures and body language.

In autism, although some individuals have delays in acquiring language many others do not (Asperger). For those who can’t use spoken language sometimes they can be taught to communicate with written or typed language, American Sign Language, picture cards or digital communication devices. This ability to learn can be made apparent even after many years of being nonverbal. This does not seem to be the case for feral children.

Although feral children do display some signs of autism further speculations and assertions should be carefully considered. For Victor in particular, I found offensive an entry in Wikipedia… “The fact that he could not speak a word at the time of his capture, even though he must have been around humans into early childhood, and never learned to speak thereafter despite Itard’s intensive tutelage, suggests that he was mentally disabled- again, a diagnosis of autism seems to be gaining favor. This could also explain why he was abused, perhaps treated like an animal, in his earliest years.” Not surprisingly the quote given as a reference for this statement comes from Bruno Bettelheim (Feral Children and Autistic Children, The American Journal of Sociology, 64(5):455-467, 1959).

In future blogs I will discuss child abandonment and institutionalization autism.

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