“FERNAND DELIGNY found many ways of describing himself: primordial communist, nonviolent guerrilla, weaver of networks, cartographer of wandering lines. A visionary but marginalized figure often associated with the alternative and anti-psychiatry movements that emerged in the decades after World War II, Deligny (1913–1996) remains difficult to categorize — an enigmatic sage. Beginning in the 1950s, Deligny conducted a series of collectively run residential programs — he called them “attempts” (or tentatives, in French) — for children and adolescents with autism and other disabilities who would have otherwise spent their lives institutionalized in state-run psychiatric asylums. After settling outside of Monoblet in the shadow of the Cévennes Mountains in southern France, Deligny and his collaborators developed novel methods for living and working with young people determined to be “outside of speech” (hors de parole).
Militantly opposed to institutions of every kind — he occasionally referred to his small group as living like a band of nonlethal guerillas — Deligny was critical of the dominant psychiatric, psychoanalytic, and positivist educational doctrines of the time. He rejected the view that autism and cognitive disability were pathological deviations from a preexisting norm. He did not try to force the mostly nonspeaking autistics who came to live with them to conform to standards of speech. Instead, Deligny and his collaborators were “in search of a mode of being that allowed them to exist even if that meant changing our own mode.” They sought to develop “a practice that would exclude from the outset interpretations referring to some code” — anticipating, by several decades, some of the central tenets of the neurodiversity and autistic self-advocacy movements: “We did not take the children’s ways of being as scrambled, coded messages addressed to us.”