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.





Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Best... panel... ever: gendering classical myth for children, including using Hercules - at FIEC 2019

L-R: Sonya Nevin, Lisa Maurice (organiser), me, Deborah Roberts (chair), Robin Diver
The photo that heads this posting shows myself, fellow speakers and chair at the panel at FIEC that I blogged about last week as I was preparing my paper. 

It was a very happy event - successful too I think - aided by a supportive and engaged audience whose comments and questions - during the session and afterwards - have been perhaps the most helpful and encouraging that I've ever experienced from an panel I've been part of.

As is my usual practice, I didn't take along a script where everything was written out - but I spoke from notes. And I've written these up now for this posting. 

Caroline Lawrence's photo of the relevant page
of the conference programme
The further photos I'm including were taken during the event, and I'll end with some of the comments that went up on social media, one of which has inspired the first part of the title for this posting.

It’s an honour to be here – at FIEC and on this panel – along with colleagues I have been collaborating with for several years now: on classics and children’s culture, and, included with this, on an emerging topic of how receptions for children of classical myth are done/received by girls.

What we’re discovering for instance is a lot of gender stereotyping… but also a lot that can engage the imaging of young girls – while using classical subjects to help socialise them.

What I’m going to talk about are the resources I am developing as part of the Our Mythical Childhood project – for autistic children.Instead of a ppt /tradtitional handout here’s a picture for you to colour in… So that you yourself get to engage with the activities that the children use…

Caroline Bristow holds up her handout
It’s a drawing created by Steve Simons – of an 18th-century chimneypiece panel at Roehampton showing the hero’s choice between two divergent paths in life.
The activities – in progress – centre around two key things. One is: dealing with emotions, including feeling overwhelmed. The image is suitable as there is so much, e.g. fruit bowls, one with fruit that’s overflowing, and a helmet with a snake on top of it. What’s more there are two very distinct halves of the scene, one on each side, which might impact on how you colour in. The other is making choices – something autistic people find it hard to do. 

Caroline Lawrence's colouring in (and colouring round!)
And: what I am considering is another set of activities, for girls, especially as girls, at least on reaching puberty, often have distinct experiences. These don’t have to be hardships – quite the opposite – but they can be experienced as such because of things like peer pressure and the expectations that society has around what a girl is or should be.

So, I am making an intervention into the myth of Hercules – to enable autistic teenage girls think about their relationship with for example expectations around fitting in versus being different and thinking about taking ownership of their difference as opposed to masking –that is pretending to fit in…

Caroline Bristow's colouring in
Hercules is a suitable, even ideal figure for autistic people for the following reasons. I’m not seeking to diagnose Hercules as autistic – but there are traits evident in experiences of Hercules that can speak to an autistic experience. For one thing, he functions well in his own space, the wilds, with success. He does this mostly alone, or with others but on his own terms. He has key skills – exceptional strength and cunning, as well as the ability to stick to a task – which he uses to deal with a particular scenario.

Then, no soon has he completed the task that he has to start all over again, and learn the rules afresh for the next task he encounters. While he functions well in his chosen space, when he gets among lots of people, things can go wrong – and he can carry out acts of violence which might be experienced as emotional overload.

Me and Robin by Caroline Lawrence
On two occasions, when I’ve outlined ‘why Hercules?’ in a way consistent with the way I have here, autistic people have commented: ‘that sounds like being autistic.’

I’m planning to use Hercules in activities for autistic girls then – and despite the less appealing aspects of this myth – unless we use the myth to show girls that the world isn’t always a nice place – including because of what heroes might do to them…

Now to some discussion of how the activities could help deal with the challenges and positives of being an autistic girl. Life can be hard – for any girl but with particular challenges for autistic girls. For example, relationships become more complex and complicated. School – after smaller primary school - will be bigger and seem chaotic – and yet children are expected to develop independent e.g. manage their diary.

Autistic girls might likely feel anxious around people – feeling like they are observing rather than participating. And they might feel lonely, even among people - and find it hard to relate to others especially those of their peer group.

Added to this, social things can be overpowering – for example due to sensitivity to things like smell and touch. They may well develop strong personal interests – which others might share too – but more intensely or obsessively. They might pretend to fit in – when they actually feel isolated.

The activities engage with what is overpowering – with what it is like to come into a new, strange place which doesn’t make sense and to try to make sense of it, and find a way to interact with strangers there.

(Or… Hercules is the stranger: intruding into an autistic person’s space...)

The activities can also speak to the positives of being autistic, including: noticing details others might miss; being able to see, hear, and feel intensively; having good attention to detail; being direct and straightforward.


A final point – this episode isn’t all that well-known – so any user can be at a similar staring point – autistic people aren’t’ excluded.

A selection of tweets - as promised:

Not only a handout from Susan Deacy, she supplies pencils and pens for colouring in!!! ♥️

Lisa Maurice calls out what frankly we're all thinking in the panel on gendering myth in the 21st Century; there's not one man in the room.  



Thoroughly enjoyable discussion and questions at our gendering classical mythology for children panel. Thanks all who attended!

Two of the great speakers at today’s session on Gendering Classical Mythology in the 21st Century! 😊

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Best. Panel. Ever.

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