Why mythology and autism?

Why mythology and autism?

The idea for this project started to take shape at a meeting in 2008 with a special needs teacher, who mentioned that, in her experience and those of her colleagues, autistic children often enjoy classical myth. I began to wonder why this might be the case, and whether – as a classicist who researches, and loves, classical myth – there was anything I could contribute. I started this blog to report on my progress which was often sporadic until the launch of the Warsaw-based European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood (2016-21) to trace the role of classics in children’s culture. My key contribution to the project is an exploration of classics in autistic children’s culture, above all by producing myth-themed activities for autistic children. This blog shares my progress, often along Herculean paths.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Mythical Hope 7 - But Hercules is horrible...

Hercules being horrible? Hercules and Lernaean Hydra, 
California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco.
Details here

In the previous posting, I said some things about the hope which classical myth – along with other imaginative things – can offer in relation to autism. This, as I discussed, concerns hope as something that can make a difference for autistic people. I also discussed how hope might apply for those non-autistic people who want to reach into an autistic person’s world. I discussed how, if they succeed into reaching into this autistic world, they might discover something unexpected. For they might find that the autistic loved one has been looking into their world all along: seeing what they see, and also seeing differently – with insights that might take the non-autistic person by surprise.

Here I am going to turn to why, specifically, Hercules is the hope-provider on which I am focusing. I shall start with a discussion of why I have opted for this subject: because not everyone likes Hercules. For example, I was in correspondence with the mother of an autistic girl recently after she wrote to ask whether there were any books on classical myth that might appeal to her daughter. When I mentioned some Hercules-related books, she let me know that her daughter does not like Hercules, because of the way he behaves in classical myths. I get what she means.

One response might be that every mythical figure is potentially awful, including those whom many people regard as empowering. Which ancient deity is not selfish and vindictive, for example? So, let me stress that I am not picking Hercules as an instance of one who is invariably, or even mostly, ‘good’. When I have been in the audience at academic papers where Athena is mentioned by the speaker, and where Athena is going to do something unpleasant, the speaker has sometimes begun by saying something like ‘sorry, Susan’. The reason I’ve been singled out like this is because I have done quite a bit of work on the topic of Athena, and the speaker feels a need to apologise for portraying this deity in an unfavourable light.

But I don’t think that you need to like what you write about... Athena is a lens through which to see much of antiquity and its reception – including patriarchalism, violence and morality based around helping friends and harming enemies. This potential of Athena as a lens is what I like about this deity. I’d say the same about Hercules.

Now I’ve dealt with this issue of how to deal with mythological figures who are, in some way, unpleasant, I shall turn, in the next posting, to how I am using Hercules. I’m expecting to go on a bit of a monster journey in this posting thanks in part to some recent things I’ve been writing about Athena as a monster-sided deity. Also, just this morning I’ve been listening to an interview with Liz Gloyn on the Endless Knot podcast about her new book on classical monsters…

Monday, 4 November 2019

Mythical Hope 6 - Hope: gateway between worlds, from Pandora to Iago...

With this posting, I turn back – explicitly – to Hope. One thing I have been trying to covey so far with these postings is that Hope in relation to autism might not take the form someone – perhaps a non-autistic someone – expects it to take. These postings are not concerned with hope somehow to make an autistic person less ‘autistic’. Plenty of autistic people are already pretty skilled at trying to seem non-autistic as it is – via their skills at masking.[1] Thus, the hopes of those round them for someone divested of autism might seem to have been realised or, so adept might they have become at masking their autism, their autism may never have been discovered in the first place. 

I received a lovely response from one of my Our Mythical Childhood colleagues to my fifth ‘Hope’ posting. He said that previously he had viewed autism as something sad. Now, he said, he sees it differently. I’ll ask him whether he would be okay with me quoting his words.  

Then, last week, another collaborator on the project, Liz Hale, posted on a Hope-themed topic on her Antipodean Odyssey blog: Once there was a boy–and the politics of Pandora . . . (October 28th 2019).

The Hope discussed here is the hope that Pandora enables – here Pandora is expressed via the girl in a children’s book, Once there was a boy, by an Australian author, Dub Leffler. The girl’s curiosity leads her to go where she has been asked not to. I have not read the book yet – I have experienced it only via Liz – and I refer you to her delicate posting. From what I have experienced via Liz, this is Hope for a future when the life – perhaps the whole landscape – of someone has been changed, and with this change, the past, a golden age, might not be recoverable. Or, if it is recoverable, this could be in a new, different way, with a companion rather than by oneself – a companion who needs to change just like the other person needs to. So, out of an inappropriate act, an act coming from curiosity, there is… Hope.

As I said in previously in this, well, I suppose, series, I have been re-reading Ron Suskind’s book on his experiences in the wake of his son Owen’s diagnosis, as a young child, as autistic. Ron’s expresses these experiences on several occasions in relation to hope – from the hopes he had had for the little boy, to losing this hope, to finding a way into Owen’s world and into the discovery that Owen was aware of his, Ron’s, world – indeed, was observing it with acute insight. What started this discovery was Disney. They would communicate – Ron, Owen and their family – via Disney characters, including characters from Disney’s Hercules
Ron Suskind in 2012 delivering the C. Douglas Dillon Lecture: details here

The result on Owen and Ron is charted, in the book, and in a film. And there had been impact on others as well, thanks to support form high-profile people who have helped Ron and Owen convey what it can mean to be autistic, and for a non-autistic people to engage with autistic people, including Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of Iago from Aladdin.[2]

One thing I take from this is that characters from stories can make a difference to autistic people, and to those in their lives. One reason is that they relate to them. Another is that there is something about them that can give a gateway between worlds: the world of an autistic person – the world I write about in posting 5 - and that other world, the world of non-autistic people - ‘neurotypicals’ as they are often designated.

In the next posting, I shall turn to why I am opting for a focus on Hercules - beyond the role played by this character in what Ron Suskind sets out - though what Ron discovered is informing what I am doing...

[1] For instance Alis Rowe – focusing here on masking by autistic girls - outlines various reasons for masking, including to ‘hide they difficulties they’re having’ to ‘fit in’ and ‘avoid standing out,’ to ‘stop family/friends from worrying about the’ and to ‘pretend that they are OK because they think that if they pretend enough…they will actually be okay.’ Asperger’s Syndrome in 12-16 Year Old Girls, London: Lonely Mind, 2nd edn., 2018: 54.
[2] See e.g. “Gilbert Gottfried Did A Scene From Aladdin With A Young Man With Autism And Your Heart Explodedhttps://www.buzzfeed.com/alivelez/gilbert-gottfried-did-a-scene-from-aladdin-with-a-young-man (accessed 4 November 2019).

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

On cripantiquity and becoming an ancientist :)

Hope-themed postings will resume soon - though in a sense everything I write on this blog is hope-fuelled?

I'm sharing something that happened recently - late last week. This was gaining a profile on cripantiquity which, in the words of @cripantiquity, is:

"Amplifying crip voices & building ancientist community among artists, students, activists & academics."

I picked the photo - also included here to the left - because it's of me talking about things linked with the topic of my autism work. This was at a roundtable session for Our Mythical Childhood Survey authors at a conference in Cambridge a couple of years ago. If you're able to read what's on the whiteboard behind me, you'll see both that event's hashtag and the twitter address @OMChildhood.

The cripantiquity profile is here:  Scroll up - and in the future down as well... - to see the others!

One final thought: 'ancientist' in the cripantiquity description. I love it. The more I think of the term, the more I love it. It gets away from elitist associations that 'classicist' calls up. 'Ancientist' rather than 'ancient world' gets away from an implication that the ancients 'owned' their world...

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Mythical Hope 5 - From an autistic place unlike earth, and why there's no need to mourn

I called my previous posting “So: Mourn For Us?” That posting was concerned with the hardships autistic people supposedly face – how they supposedly go through life, like their families, bereft of hope. But note that I included a question mark at the end. This was to signal that it isn’t necessary to mourn for people because they are autistic. 

For this current posting’s title, I have added a key extra word from Jim Sinclair, the source of the quotation: “don’t.” What Jim Sinclair said, in his address from 1993, was: DON’T MOURN FOR US. Reaching out to non-autistic people, Jim asked that people don’t try to take away someone’s autism – it’s part of who we are: “Autism isn’t something a person has, or a “shell” that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism.”[1]

What Jim sets out here is a pole apart from precisely what many non-autistic people try to do, namely to look for a way to get back a child. Steve Silberman explores such moves in his Neurotribes by looking at some of the organisations that have been set up to try to recover autistic children, or to cure someone of autism. The names of some of the organisations alone are telling: “Defeat Autism Now” is one. Another is “Cure Autism Now.”[2] Occasionally, over the years, comments to my blog have been from organisations akin to some of these telling me about some supplement which, those promoting it tell me, has properties that can cure people of their autism. But, as Jim Sinclair was saying a quarter of a century ago, “Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence.” 

From this perspective, what can it mean to look for a cure? Taking this to a logical extension, from Jim’s perspective, what would you be left with? As Jim continues: “It is not possible to separate the autism from the person – and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with.” Another way to see autism is as a mode of existence: a ‘world’ as one autistic person puts it. This is Sue Rubin, as expressed in the title of her documentary film.
Temple Grandin delivering 
2010 TED Talk. Details here
This is a world where people think, act and behave differently from non-autistic people. What tends to happen is this – the focus is put on how a non-autistic person strives to understand, to reach, the non-autistic person. But Jim, like Sue a decade on, turns it round to the autistic person’s experience. Where an autistic person manages to find a way to communicate with non-autistic people, and to function in non-autistic society, they are, as Jim puts it, “operating in alien territory, making contact with alien beings.” 

Alis Rowe: The Girl with the
Curly Hair. Details

There is an excellent fit here with how Temple Grandin, as an autistic person, seeks to explain what it is like for her to deal with interactions with non-autistic people. As she has put it, she is “an anthropologist on Mars.” [3] Similarly, R. Young, quoted in Alis Rowe’s Asperger’s and Me, writes about “Planet Asperger…where everything seems the same as earth, but nothing actually is.[4] And as Alis herself says: “People with AS often feel like observers. Many feel they are here to simply study the world but never be a part of it.”[5]

In the next posting, I shall look at what implications there can be in all this for my project and what its goals are. Should I be aiming to help autistic children circumvent a strange world?  Or, should the project be about the autistic world and how this world is experienced, and maybe how non-autistic people can discover it? This opens up another question, namely what IS an autistic world like?

More soon…

[1] Jim Sinclair, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” Autism Network International (ANI) website: http://www.autreat.com/dont_mourn.html (accessed July 21, 2019; originally published in Our Voice 1.3, 1993).
[2] On the quest to cure autism, with the launch of organisations including “Defeat Autism Now!” andCure Autism Now”, see Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism, 261–237 (Full details of Steve’s book in previous posting).
[3] See e.g. Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, London: Picador, 1995; Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism; Temple Grandin and Richard Panek, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, Boston–New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013; Thomas G. West, Seeing What Others Cannot See: The Hidden Advantages of Visual Thinkers and Differently Wired Brains, Amherst: Prometheus, 2017, esp. 69–90.
[4] The Girl with the Curly Hair – Asperger’s and Me, London: Lonely Mind 2013: 89, referencing R. Young, Asperger Syndrome Pocketbook. Hampshire Teachers; Pocketbooks, 8.
[5] Asperger’s and Me 117.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Mythical Hope 4 - Life is hard: so mourn for us?

In the decade and a bit that I’ve been blogging on autism and classical myth a lot has changed from the ‘classical’ side, not least due to the rise in interest in classical reception, including, how classics is received for and by children. I mentioned this side of things a couple of postings back. Here I want to switch the focus to developments from the other ‘side’ – not that there really are sides, hence the inverted commas. I want to look at how perceptions of autism have moved on over the past decade. Much of what I’ll look at predates this time, so it’s not that everything I discuss is very recent – it’s more that voices that were once heard in a limited way are increasingly being listened to.

The first of the three themes for the Our Mythical Childhood project – under whose mythical and magical aegis I’m developing myth-themed activities for autistic children - was Hope (followed by History; and next, starting soon, we’ll turn to Nature). Hope was the focus of our conference at Warsaw in 2017. In preparation for this event, I began thinking about what ‘hope’ might mean in relation to autism, and whether a source of hope might be something mythological. I'm current revisiting where I stand in relation to autism and hope.

Our title for the conference in 2017 (Our Mythical Hope in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture... The (In)efficacy of Ancient Myths in Overcoming the Hardships of Life) pointed to how Hope can help children deal with the “hardships of life.” Hope has often been seen as something especially needed where autistic children are concerned, because their experiences of the “hardships of life” might be felt to be especially acute. This sense of autism as involving hardships is often expressed by those seeking to help autistic children – by parents for instance and by teachers and therapists. In this regard, the list of an autistic child is often seen as so painfully difficult, so beset with hardships, that any hope for them is going to be slender. Jim Sinclair put this really well in an address from as long ago as 1993. I find it a bit constricting to give little terms for who people are – ‘the historian such-and-such’ etc. – but I can see that it’s helpful to do this, though it does pin people down to one specific field… I’d describe Jim, I suppose, as the autism rights activist.’[1]

In this 1993 address, Jim sets out how, on learning that their child is autistic, parents often respond with grief - grief at the loss of all their hopes for the child, and regard the only source of hope to be in a possible cure.[2] It’s from this address that I take the ‘Mourn for us’ in the title of this posting. These sentiments bear comparison with those set out in the introduction to a 2014 film about an autistic young woman (here’s me pinning down another person… I hope adequately), Sue Rubin. When she was a child, Sue “did not give her parents much hope. She hit herself. Pulled hair. Bit her own arms and hands. She could not speak.”[3] I’m currently reading Ron Suskind’s Life, Animated where he outlines his quest to be the best parent possible for his autistic son. Here, too, Ron says a lot about hope: the hopes he had before Owen, his son’s, diagnosis and the hopes for a future that might accommodate Owen. Let me finish reading the book – then I’ll reference, and perhaps blog on – this.

As phrased in the literature on autism from diagnostic perspectives, for professionals and parents, autistic children may well find life hard –significantly harder than other children. They may well find it difficult, for example, to know what to say or do in social situations, or to respond to the subtle cues that other children learn more easily. It can be especially hard for an autistic child to do the kind of things that are, or come to be, innate for others, for instance how to initiate or maintain a conversation. Autistic children may find it harder than their peers to read body language or facial expressions, or any form of non-verbal conversation. Interpreting things like tone of voice could prove more difficult too than for other children. Also, developing any rapport with others could be a challenge, let alone to develop friendships.[4] Autistic children might find it hard, too, to gauge what others are thinking or feeling. 

There is more. As often described, difficulties with communication could be compounded by difficulties over processing information. Autistic children might find it hard to think beyond the present and they might well find it hard to understand that the present can turn into the future. They might find it difficult to understand the “bigger picture” in any given scenario, preferring instead to focus on particular details. Autistic children also may well find it hard to deal with changes in routine, preferring instead set and repetitive patterns of behaviour. Added to this, they could experience heightened sensory perceptions such an acute reaction to noise or smell.

These difficulties were articulated in the “triad of impairments” identified by the pioneering British psychiatrist (again I hope this summary is adequate!) Lorna Wing – as involving difficulties and lack: difficulties in social and emotional understanding, difficulties in all aspects of communication, and a lack of flexibility in thinking and behaviour.[5] In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), again the focus is on what is difficult. Here, autism spectrum disorders are categorised in terms of “communication problems,” “difficulty relating to people, things and events,” and “repetitive body movements or behaviors.”[6]

Thus, the life of an autistic child is often seen as one characterised by hardships. And, so, this group of children might be considered to benefit especially from hope – to enable them to develop empathy for instance, or to develop a theory of mind, or to improve their central coherence, or to help them interact with their parents or their peers, or to show that they are able to follow what someone is saying to them.

However, there is another way of looking at what it is to be autistic, and to have (a chance of) hope. I plan in the next posting to I ask how far it should be the role of someone working with autistic people to attempt to deal with the supposed hardships of their lives. I’ll ask what it even means to think of an autistic person’s life as a hard one.


[1] On Jim Sinclair, see the website for Autism Network International: http://www.autreat.com/ (accessed October 14, 2019)/ See further Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People Who Think Differently, London: Allen and Unwin, 2015, 432–441, 445–449.
[2] Jim Sinclair, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” Autism Network International (ANI) website: http://www.autreat.com/dont_mourn.html (accessed July 21, 2019; originally published in Our Voice 1.3, 1993). On the quest to cure autism, see Silbermam, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism, 261–237.
[3] Sue Rubin and Julianna Margulies, Autism is a World, San Francisco: Kanopy Streaming, 2014.
[4] See e.g. Alis Rowe’s description of finding friendships in The Girl with the Curly Hair – Asperger’s and Me, London: Lonely Mind 2013: 25-28, 45-48.
[5] See, esp., Lorna Wing, “Autistic Spectrum Disorders,”  312.7027,  The Autistic Spectrum: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, London: Robinson 2002 (updated edition – first edition: 1996).
[6] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) 2013, online at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/autism/what-is-autism-spectrum-disorder (accessed July 21, 2019).

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Mythical Hope 3 - Embrace the Unexpected

When I sketched out a plan for this third hope-themed posting, I had an idea of starting with a picture of Perseus. The posting is going to start what I’d promised in the previous posting, namely to set out how I came to develop an interest in autism – and in classical myth in relation to autism. Perseus seemed an apt choice because, before I started on a Herculean focus, I had envisaged that, were I to concentrate on any one mythological figure, it would likely be Perseus.

But I have decided to start instead with a different kind of mythical phenomena, Sammy and Niki Albon: bloggers, YouTubers, tv presenters, and Roehampton Classics/History graduates. They came back to class to talk with the students on a module on classical myth that I’m convening – including because the students will be assessed via blogs or videos.

One thing that really resonated for me with what Sammy and Niki said was that it is to be expected that a blogger’s voice will develop over time – as they move on, make unexpected discoveries etc. They also stressed that blogging can  be, indeed should be, very different from presenting polished, final products like essays or articles. Blogging can be more raw, reflective and unfinished.

Many times as I have been blogging, I have gone in directions that I didn’t anticipate, sometimes in response to some new discovery on my part. This current posting is going to look different from what I’d envisaged when I ended the previous on. I said there that I would be: "explaining how this venture came about and its role as a “wing” of the Our Mythical Childhood project and where it sits in relation to the exploration of the overcoming of hardship and the quest for Hope. I shall then move on to explore the potential for classical myth in general, and of Hercules in particular, for use with autistic children – to help deal with hardships, but also as gateway to an understanding of autistic experiences."

All this will happen, but not all in this specific posting. Individual blog postings can grow in length – it’s the way with more reflective writing – and for this one, I am going to focus one just one of the envisaged things, namely how I got started with this blog, and the turns it took for the first few years.

The starting point came after a meeting with a special needs teacher in a British secondary school in 2008. At the meeting, the teacher had mentioned one thing she and her colleagues had noticed over the years: that autistic children often enjoy learning about classical mythology. I was intrigued to find out why this might be the case, and I began to wonder whether, as classicist specialising in mythology, I might have something specific to contribute towards using myth with autistic children. I contacted academics in disciplines including Psychology and Education and professionals working in various ways with autistic children, and I kept being encouraged to push forward. Some of the Special Needs teachers and Dramatherapists I spoke with consistently said that they were repeatedly looking for new resources. Another thing that came up was that stories of various kinds provide valuable sources for materials.

These experiences led to an unexpected turn in my career towards becoming interested in autism and, then, in disability more broadly. I started this blog in 2009 to report on my progress. I decided to do this because I had many other projects on the go, but by blogging as and when I thought I had something to share, I could at least report sporadically on my progress. And in first few years after 2009 – indeed, until the Mythical Childhood ERC-funded project began in 2016 – I did indeed blog sporadically, often with pretty long gaps between postings. At this time, I wrote about various aspects of autism, myth, and disability studies, including  the possibility of viewing stories associated with Perseus through an autistic lens, the potential for Aristotle’s theory of catharsis as used in dramatherapy to inform my project, and on how a hero-monster metaphor might inform the quest for disruptive pedagogies in Higher Education.

During this time, my interest in autism and classical myth led to some unexpected interfaces between my various roles in my institution. For instance, I became the Disability Co-ordinator for my department, and this enabled me to work with the colleagues across the university, not least the Disabilities team. This blog provided a forum for reporting on this new direction in my practice, including a role in organising training for colleagues in how to support autistic students.

The period from 2008 onwards proved an exciting time to starting to have an interest in autism and in the potential of using classical myth with autistic children – because of several developments that were happening in relation to autism, and also in Classics. I’ll look at what was going on in Classics for now or else this posting will get too long – it’s already on the long-side for a blog posting.

A key development took place in Classics that has opened up new, “democratic” horizons for classical research, namely Classical Reception Studies.[1] One product of this development of Reception Studies has been a growing interest in how classical motifs and myths have been reused for, and to an extent, by successive generations of children.[2] 

This takes me to an answer that I have been formulating to the question I asked back in 2008, namely: What is it about classical myth that might appeal to autistic children? Classical myths on the one hand look fixed: each character has specific traits and each story seems to have a fixed structure. Yet, on the other hand, classical myths are flexible and fluid – they were so in antiquity and they have been ever since.[3] This offers a route into understanding what it is about classical myth that makes it appealing to any child, but also, it offers a route into understand the experiences of an autistic child. My particular interest is in how to draw on this combination of structure on the one hand and flexibility on the other into resources for autistic children.

Over the next few weeks, I'll set out how I am engaging with these two features, plus some others. For the next posting – this is the plan at least – I shall do one further introductory thing, namely to discuss why I’m opting for Hope as the theme for these postings.

[1] On elitism and classics see, notably, Paul Cartledge, “Classics: From Discipline in Crisis to (Multi-) Cultural Capital,” in Yun Lee Too and Niall Livingstone, eds., Pedagogy and Power: Rhetorics of Classical Learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 16–28; Frances Foster, “Classics, or What’s in a Name?,” Bulletin of the Council of University Classics Departments 43, 2014, online at https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/classics/cucd/Foster14.pdf. On Classical Reception Studies and the move towards a more “democratic” Classics, see, notably, Lorna Hardwick and Stephen Harrison, eds., Classics in the Modern World: A Democratic Turn?, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2013; Luke Richardson, “Teaching the Classical Reception ‘Revolution’,” Bulletin of the Council of University Classics Departments 46, 2017, online at https://cucd.blogs.sas.ac.uk/files/2015/01/RICHARDSON-Revolutions-Reception-Revolution.pdf
[2] See, here, esp. Katarzyna Marciniak, “What Is a Classic... for Children and Young Adults?,” in Katarzyna Marciniak, ed., Our Mythical Childhood... The Classics and Literature for Children and Young Adults (Leiden–Boston: Brill, 2016), 1–26. The growing body of literature on this topic includes chapters in the aforementioned collection by Marciniak; Helen Lovatt and Owen Hodkinson, eds., Classical Reception and Children’s Literature: Greece, Rome and Childhood Transformation, London: I.B. Tauris, 2018.
[3] On mythological flexibility, see, notably, Helen Morales, Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007; Roger Woodard, ed., Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.