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.





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).

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