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Half a millennium ago, a Russian shoemaker named Basil, born around 1469, was spotted walking about naked in winter, spouting incomprehensible utterances, while remaining inattentive to his own needs, even for food. The populace did not see this as madness. They thought, rather, that they were witnessing extreme holiness. The Russians called this "foolishness for Christ" and regarded Basil's self-abnegation as a courageous, difficult, and pious path, which Basil took in order to allow Christ to speak through him. Even the tsar - Ivan the Terrible - who was known to have waiters executed for serving the wrong drink at dinner, let Basil criticize him in public. He believed Basil could read his thoughts, and he took it to heart when the wandering shoemaker scolded him for letting his mind wander in church. It was said that Basil was the only man Ivan truly feared. cheap modest wedding dresses

In 1974, a pair of Russian-speaking scholars at the University of Michigan suggested that something other than pure foolishness or holiness might have been at work in Basil, and in a few others with similar stories. Natalia Challis and Horace Dewey dove deeply into the available accounts of Basil's life and some thirty-five other "Holy Fools" of bygone days, all recognized as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church. Challis's and Dewey's academic specialty was Russian: history and culture, not autism. But Dewey had a son, born in the 1950s, who had been diagnosed with autism, and that gave him insights into the behaviors of the ancient wanderers. He came to believe that autism, not insanity or divinity, might explain the Holy Fools' behavior.

This set of individuals, he and Challis wrote, was "unhampered by society's preconceptions" and content to live in a state of social isolation. Certain of them were wedded to rituals. They noted that Basil's tolerance of extreme cold - which let him "walk barefoot on the frozen Volga" - was reminiscent of how some people with autism appear indifferent to extremes of cold, heat, or pain. The Holy Fools were also observed to get by on limited sleep and food - again, similar to some people with autism.

While some remained mute, several were known to echo the words of others, and still others spoke in riddles. And legend has it that some blurted out whatever they were thinking into the faces of the powerful. That tendency, Challis and Dewey wrote, was a major part of what endeared the Fools to the Russian public. In a culture where few dared to question authority, their impertinence was reminiscent of the great prophets of the Old Testament.

Paradoxically, a diagnosis of autism, had it existed five hundred years ago, would have undermined the Fools' credibility as pious citizens. Awe and respect accrued to the Fools only because it was assumed that they had deliberately chosen this harsh and isolating way of life. In later centuries, some self-appointed Fools fell under suspicion of faking their piety, adopting certain behaviors only to advance their careers as beggars and con men. The resulting mistrust helped bring an end to the phenomenon of the Holy Fool. Gradually, the worship of and tolerance for such strange behaviors abated, and those who displayed such behaviors were once more neglected, if not treated with outright cruelty.

But not always.

Hugh Blair of Borgue was fussy about wigs - an accoutrement that, as a member of the landed class in 1740s Scotland, he was expected to wear whenever he ventured out in public. He did this, but not without a great deal of bother. He was always taking his wig off, plunging it into water, and trying to wash it. There it would hang, on a tree branch outside the family manse in southwest Scotland, drying in the wind while he waited. And yet, for all that, when Hugh finally did plunk the thing on his head, often as not he put it on backward, and went out in public that way. He was either unaware of the faux pas or indifferent to it.

Hugh was in his late thirties, a loner who lived with his aged mother in the stone house his grandfather had built, where his attic bedroom was cluttered with the twigs, feathers, and scraps of cloth he picked up off the ground every day. He dressed in bizarre outfits, worn and torn and mended all over with mismatched colored patches he sewed on himself. Once a piece of clothing became his favorite, he would refuse to wear anything else. Some of these were garments he came across abandoned by the road or "found" in the closets of nearby houses. Dropping in on neighbors unexpectedly, wandering through their rooms, whether they were at home or not, he tended to carry off whatever struck his fancy. He also made a habit of attending every funeral held in the community, even when he was not particularly well acquainted with the deceased.

In the small, connected world of southwest Scotland, the neighbors were aware of his odd behaviors and apparently quite understanding of them. They knew, when he came by, that it was never for a chat. People appeared to hold no interest for him, especially not in comparison with animals. With cats, for example, he was on close terms. When he sat down for supper, they draped themselves about him to share the meal, plunging paws into his spoon even as he lifted it to his mouth. Hugh didn't push them away. Instead, he pulled their paws to his lips and licked them clean.

This portrait of Hugh Blair of Borgue was pieced together in the 1990s by the two-person team of Rab Houston, a Scottish social historian, and Uta Frith, a London-based psychologist. It was Houston and Frith's contention that Hugh Blair of eighteenth-century Scotland was a clear case of what Leo Kanner learned to see only after he'd met Donald in the twentieth century. Frith put it this way: "The available evidence is rich enough and unambiguous enough to demonstrate that Hugh Blair would be given an unequivocal diagnosis of autism today."

The best evidence the eighteenth century could offer was a documented legal inquiry into Hugh's mental competence, presided over by a judge, officially transcribed, and informed by the testimony of twenty-nine witnesses, as well as that of Hugh himself. The proceedings, which lasted over several days in 1747, arose from a family dispute over inheritance. Hugh's father, a landowner, had died many years earlier, leaving a sizable estate to be divided between his two sons. Hugh's half remained under his mother's guardianship; his younger brother, John, controlled the other half. Hugh had no heirs, while John had two sons. This meant that upon Hugh's death, the entire estate would pass back to John and his progeny. John was counting on that, since he had been running up debts and had already been forced to borrow money from his mother.

Their mother, however, had gone and arranged a marriage for her odd older son. Somehow, she had persuaded a local surgeon to give his daughter's hand to a man who licked cats' paws at the dinner table. The exact inducements offered to the young woman were unknown, but likely involved a transfer of money. As for the mother's motives, she was probably worried about her son's future. Well into her sixties, she could imagine that soon Hugh might lose his primary protector in the world, the one person who had been keeping him out of trouble for his entire life. A wife could fill this role.

The wedding that took place in 1746 immediately put younger brother John's financial plans at risk. If Hugh and his new wife produced sons in wedlock, those boys would become the rightful heirs to Hugh's portion of the estate, ending any claim on it by John or John's sons. In 1747, John initiated proceedings to have the marriage annulled, on the grounds that his brother was not mentally competent enough to have entered into it in the first place.

Against this background, a hearing was called to look into Hugh's mental competence. It helped Houston and Frith in the 1990s that the court in the 1700s was gathering the same kinds of facts about Hugh that a psychologist interested in diagnosing autism would look for today. Everything contributed by the twenty-nine witnesses - clergymen, neighbors, craftsmen, laborers, and others who had contact with Hugh - pointed to his atypical behaviors.

It all fell into place: Hugh's various obsessions, his attachment to objects, his lack of connection to people, his indifference to social norms. There is striking evidence that Hugh exhibited echolalia, a frequently seen autistic trait in which a person only echoes what he has heard said by others.

Having considered the evidence, the Scottish court ruled that Hugh Blair was a "natural fool," incapable of entering into a contract, including a marriage contract. John Blair had won. The marriage was annulled. The prospect of a helpless, aging Hugh Blair, 'alone in me world once his mother passed on, must now have seemed a near certainty.

Yet the record shows that was not what happened. Hugh's mother must have chosen wisely, because the woman who was married to her son for a year did not leave his side once the court declared them, once again, unmarried. Hugh and his former wife remained a couple, not only living together outside the law but raising two sons as well. Hugh lived into his sixties in a family setting, where the neighbors knew who he was, and where he could collect twigs, wash out his wigs, and drop in on funerals for as long as he wished to.

John Donvan & Caren Zucker "In A Different Key The Story Of Autism" (2016)