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.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Hercules: Why I'm making him the subject of activities for autistic girls

Hercules choosing - drawing by
Steve Simons
Nothing is ever straightforward when it comes to Heracles/Hercules who, as it has often been noted, has a foot in more than one category. For instance, he is at once hero and god – and a perpetrator as well as a victim. As Nicole Loraux most famously discussed, he is ‘super-male’ yet feminine and even, potentially, a woman. In many ways, as I discussed in my previous posting of Monday (today is Wednesday), Hercules could be seen as inappropriate as the subject of resources that are seeking to engage the interest and hopefully enthusiasm of autistic girls.

But, because Heracles is always never one thing, his richness as a tool for classical reception can include being made relevant to anyone. At least I think so – I’m aware that, with Heracles, there is invariably an underside. Then, again, there is something comparably the case with pretty-well any figure from classical myth: it is just that, with Hercules, the situation is generally more extreme.

As I said in the previous posting, in my paper for the upcoming FIEC conference, I am going to be discussing activities for autistic girls. I am thinking teenage girls – so girls of an age which could make certain aspects of Hercules inappropriate – inappropriate if Hercules is to be used as an inspirational figure.

However, what I am struck by is as follows – Hercules has vast potential to ‘speak’ to autistic people. Twice now, when I have outlined to autistic people why I have opted for Hercules, the responded has been: that sounds like being autistic. There is, for example, Hercules as one who is a loner, who functions really well when he is isolated, but who can get overwhelmed and mess things up when he’s among people.

Also, Hercules is good at sticking to a particular task, and at finding creative solutions to that task. But he is ever needing to learn ways to deal with a particular situation. Each time, he comes up with the way to succeed in a given scenario. But, each time, a new challenge follows and he needs to start working out the rules all over again.

Why this might resonate especially with autistic girls is as follows. If we pick certain things from the ancient evidence, what we can find is a hero who can speak to some of the things that teenage autistic girls might experience. I shall discuss in my paper at FIEC how the Choice of Hercules activities I am developing could help deal with the challenges, and the potential positives, of being an autistic teenaged girl.

For example, life can be hard – for any girl, but with particular challenges for an autistic girl. For instance, relationships become more complex and more complicated. Autistic girls are more likely to feel anxious around people – feeling like they are observing rather than participating. They might feel lonely, even – perhaps especially – around people. They might find it hard to relate to others, especially those of their peer group. Added to this, social situations might be overwhelming – and this can be compounded by a sensitivity to things like smell and touch.

They may well have developed strong personal interests – which others might share too, but more intensely and obsessively than their peers. Alis Rowe’s Asperger's Syndrome in 12-16 Year Old Girls is really good on this. Autistic girls may pretend to fit in, when really they feel isolated.

The activities deal with what it can be like to find things overpowering, and with what it can be like to come into a new, strange place: one which, at first at least, does not make sense – and to try to make sense of it, and to find a way to interact with the strangers there (or: Hercules could be the stranger! This is a possibility that I want to think through).

The activities point to the ‘positives’ of being autistic, including: seeing and feeling intensely; having good attention to detail; being direct and straightforward; and noticing details that others might miss - including those illustrated here, from among Steve Simons' drawings of the Choice of Hercules chimneypiece panel.

One final point I plan to raise is as follows. The episode is not all that well known. So any user can be at a comparable starting point to any other. No one – autistic or otherwise – need be advantaged or disadvantaged.

If anyone reading this is coming to FIEC, if you’d like, let me know (s.deacy@roehampton.ac.uk)!


No comments: