Why classical myth and autism?

Why classical myth 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 (2016-22) 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, including to a book of lessons for autistic children focusing on the Choice of Hercules between two very different paths in life. The image above, illustrating the homepage of this blog, is one of the drawings by Steve K. Simons, the book's illustrator, of a chimneypiece panel in a neoclassical villa at Roehampton in South West London. The lessons centre on this panel.

Wednesday, 29 March 2023

Autism Acceptance Week Wednesday - some midweek updates and the link for the talk mentioned in yesterday's posting

 Today, I'm writing a shorter posting a I'll be out for a chunk of the day, computer-less, writing a first draft of a chapter of a book [on women of ancient Athens - a subject perhaps for a future posting, not least as writing this book is giving me a new perspective on what it means to approach classics autistically...].

As the week goes on, I'll share some updates on what's happened since I put out a Call for Members on an email list for classicists on Monday. I'm also going write - I think - about what it means to be in an autism 'acceptance' week rather than an 'awareness' week as previously. And I'm worried that in the post to the classicists list, I wrote 'awareness' - the post is out there, as responses tell me, but hasn't come into my inboxes...

For today, here is the link to the recording of the talk I mentioned yesterday on my autism and classical myth project. The image on the first slide looks like a saucepan I'm thinking:

Here is a screenshot showing the talk in the context of the YouTube channel as it's currently looking:

And here's the link to the recording

More tomorrow!

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

I am not sure whether this is actually true: Autism Acceptance Week – Tuesday… From Richard Burton, to the autism test, to forcefields

I am not sure whether this is actually true, but I remember hearing decades ago that Richard Burton would never watch a performance of himself. I’m not sure why – perhaps it was because otherwise he would be constrained. Perhaps he preferred to be in the moment, like a stage actor.

And so, I’m not sure why, and I’m not even sure whether this memory of something I recall hearing while a child is accurate. But it’s been something I remember, because it resonates, I think, with how I feel about my practice as someone who has been ‘in the moment’ a lot – teaching, delivering papers…

I used to freeze were I recorded, let alone filmed, and I do not feel comfortable speaking to any group if a door is open. Then zoom-teaching came along with Covid, and recording sessions because normalised pretty quickly. When I started teaching remotely and running events that way, pressing the record button – and later watching things back – became part of my practice. And I felt surprisingly okay with it, however much watching an earlier version of me, if only from a short while earlier, seemed strange.

I’ve had the video recording of a remote talk I gave a few months ago on my autism-myth project for a while but could not bring myself to look at it until recently - and it’s okay! - although I do say ‘um’ a lot because I’m never reading a script but talking in the moment – responding to the ‘room’. And one thing that helps me feel a sense of ‘connect’, I find, is the chat facility.

Screenshot from zoom talk - an earlier one (likely in 2021 or early 2022)
from the one mentioned in this posting

I noticed during lockdown that autistic people sometimes like zoom chat. For my part, I tend to be pretty active there during any session I’ve joined – otherwise, I can’t really process what I’m hearing. It’s a substitute for the feeling of ‘presence’ of in-person events, I think.

Anyway, as well as reviewing the video, I have been looking at the saved zoom chat from during the event including from where I asked participants, if they wanted, to introduce themselves. Some participants shared their experiences of autism including as autistic people and one participants said something that resonated when they introduced themselves via the metaphor of being bilingual – that is of speaking autism and speaking like a neurotypical person, coming I think, from having been negotiating a neurotypical world as an autistic person who had no idea that they were autistic – when then had no idea, until, I think, their children’s diagnosis as autistic that they could be autistic when they didn’t fit the images of autistic standardly put out.

I will develop this later. But, writing about how far an autistic person ‘has’ autistic traits has got me thinking about the ‘autism test’ which Simon Baron Cohen devised and which, last time I looked, was available online. You answer a set of questions by ticking four options ranging from ‘very’ one thing to ‘very not’ the same and end up with a score that puts you in a category of very, to potentially, to not autistic.

Has anyone reading this taken this test? If so, how many times? I’ve taken it several times, firstly years back, because I guess I had been buying into a view that autism, as the ‘spectrum’ it was generally then seen as, could be pinned down, as though each person could be found somewhere in a scale from ‘very’ to ‘not’.

Anyway, each time I have done it, I have got a different score. So what does this mean? Does this say something about the test, or about myself and how I connect with a world I’m in or not in?

I always loved forcefields as a child... they would figure from time to time on tv shows I’d watch – at least this is how I remember it - and I’m increasingly finding the forcefield image a helpful one to convey what it’s like to move in the world while feeling apart from it.

Later, this Autism Acceptance Week, I shall build on the thread that has been running though this posting of being in/not in worlds by writing about a way of conceptualising what it is to be autistic, and non-autistic. This is Double Empathy Theory.

More tomorrow…

Monday, 27 March 2023

Autism Acceptance Week - Monday: ACCLAIM Network update

I said recently on this blog that my plan is to blog like I do gardening as of this spring, namely little and often. 

The garden's coming on quite nicely and in April I'm going to try to plant a meadow. As World Autism Acceptance Week has started, I am going to escalate the blogging. I'll keep it going little and often but I'm aiming for little and often each day until Autism Day on Sunday (April 2nd).

I am going to start by giving a shout out to the ACCLAIM (Autism Connecting CLAssically-Inspired Myth) Network which is growing steadily - I'd try for a gardening metaphor here but it might seem a little forced? 

Acclaim members: as at 27.3.23

So... for Day 1 of Autism Week, here's the link to the page of members to date. The most recent bio, of Robin Diver, was added just last week. We're an impressive range of people I think. Do check us out if you haven't already. We all look a little older than the photos...

And if you'd like to join, contact me via this blog or email at susan.deacy@bristol.ac.uk 

Monday, 13 March 2023

Emancipatory and reflective pedagogies... What I'll be doing to open up a world in Cambridge next month

When I attend any conference I am speaking at I always prefer to be on early - as early as possibly and ideally right at the start to kick things off. That leaves me able not just to enjoy the event but listen to the other speakers. For some reason, however, topics I present on tend to fall late on in conference programmes.

I remember this happening at the last Classical Association conference I attended in person.* That was in Glasgow in 2008, where I took part in a panel on classics and student employability in the final slot, right before lunch on the last day. And it will be happening this year as well - at the Classical Association conference in Cambridge next month. 

Of the 82 panels over several days, I shall be in panel 82, starting after the final lunch and ending after most sessions will have finished and after most people will have left.

But what a panel..! Here it is, on a poster of events of interest to school teachers:

And here is the order or play:

After Evelien Bracke will have spoken about her work pioneering the teaching of ancient languages to primary school students, I will talk about how I am involved in 'opening up a world' - the world being one where classics and autism connect via myth. I shall be talking Hercules, and, hopefully, premiering an animation of Hercules choosing by Steve Simons. 

Once I'm done, I shall be able to enjoy the remaining papers, which include presentations on classics in Nigeria and on work linked, like my own, with the Our Mythical Childhood project.

I'll share the abstract for my talk soon and in upcoming posts I'm aiming to share other things I'm currently up to...

*Not that I've been exactly absent from Classical Association conferences down the years... I've contributed to several panels in absentia, and I coordinated a video for last year's panel at the Swansea CA. What's more I was in London, in person, for the joint CA/FIEC conference in 2019. At both the Swansea and London events my contributions were linked with autism and classical myth. I blogged on what I did at FIEC: hereherehere and here. And I blogged on what I did for the Swansea CA here.

Friday, 3 March 2023

Why this blog is like my garden

Pleasure's garden - detail of Steve Simons' redrawing
of Choice of Hercules panel, Adam Room, Roehampton, London

I've said a few times over the years on this blog that autism isn't about a week in March/April - or indeed a whole month. It's always there - a way of being. But, still, there's something about a particular occasion that gives a focal point - a fixed point - a sense of structure. 

And so, I'm going to spend this March and April blogging after a break: a break when I have been seriously active, including:

  • Doing the final things to my book of Hercules-themed lessons for autistic children to lift it out of produce, most recently working on the index. The book will be out this year and I'm...
  • Planning the next mythological phrase, again based around a mythological figure, the identity of whom I'll announce soon, perhaps during Autism Acceptance Week.
  • Reading some wonderful books by autistic and neurodivergent authors including Nick Walker's Neuroqueer Heresies and a Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
  • Drafting quite a few postings for this blog which I'd better start typing up (I always write long-hand first).

There's more: but that'll do for now like when I pause for and from gardening at the moment. The garden had got away from me but, for the last two weeks I've been out there for half an hour to an hour most weekdays and it's becoming mine...

Monday, 12 December 2022

On 'opening up a world' of autism and classical myth at Bristol University on 29 November 2022

I'm still planning to blog further about 'revisiting Arkadia' - though this will have to be extended to 'autumn AND WINTER' rather than just 'autumn' as I'd envisaged back in October before quite a few things came up - all pressing and all linked in some way with autism and classical myth :) 

For now, let me share information about one of these things: a visit to Bristol University - my first in my new role as Honorary Professor. 

I spent an intense hour-plus talking about autism and classical mythology. I'm expecting to be able to send a link to the recording of the event soon, but in the meantime, here is the accompanying image from the booking site:

Choice of Hercules chimneypiece panel in the Adam Room,
Roehampton, London redrawn and coloured by Steve K. Simons

And here is the 'blurb':

Professor Susan Deacy (Roehampton/Bristol): ‘“Opening up a world...”: how and why classical myth resonates with being autistic'

Abstract: Since 2008—and especially over the past six years—I have been making experiential applications of classical myth for autistic children. This paper will share details of the project, including the models of autism I am following and the point I have reached to date. In particular I shall talk about the publication, due later this year, of my book of lessons based around Hercules and the conclusion of the ERC-funded Our Mythical Childhood...The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges, for which I am the Roehampton Principal Investigator. The quotation in this paper’s title will be explained and there will be an opportunity—entirely optional!—to try out some of the activities. I shall also share my plans for future activities, starting with a set based on Medusa before moving to mythologies from other cultures, including Wales.

And here's the link to the booking site.

More soon... I'm hoping that the recording will include the zoom chat which was extremely engaged.

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

In Arkadia: an alien world where Hope feeds a Chimera evoking where Hercules 'went out to a quiet place and sat, pondering' - a second Arcadian posting, this one taking a Stourhead turn via Poussin in ways I didn't anticipate...

I said at the end of my previous posting that I didn’t intend a long gap before publishing a second ‘Arkadian’ posting. A week and a day has passed – not a long delay but longer than I’d anticipated thanks to a few things that delayed me, including trying to get the paper I’m writing in shape, and, then, acting on an idea I had at the end of last week to revive 30th October as the ‘International Day of Medusa’.

I did this, along with several colleagues in the Our Mythical Childhood community, and the results are on twitter at #InternationalDayOfMedusa


One reason for Medusa having being in my thoughts is this: once I have made further progress with activities for autistic young people involving Hercules, I am planning a second set, involving Medusa. But for now… more Hercules – this time a Hercules introduced via Arkadia: an Arkadia I was preparing to visit in May 2020.


‘I will be in Arkadia’?


What a month May 2020 looked set to be for the Our Mythical Childhood community as we prepared to gather in Poland for the last of a series of conferences. This one was to follow in the wake of ‘Our Mythical Hope’ (May 2017) and ‘Our Mythical History’ (May 2019), marking the ‘Our Mythical Nature’ phase of our collaboration. We were to meet in various venues at the University of Warsaw for workshops and panels on, among other topics: 


-       environmental issues in classically-informed works of children’s culture 

-       how nature is expressed variously as escapist and dangerous

-       how nature is represented as somewhere whose otherness can resonate with the experiences of children as they negotiate the world. 


We were also going to be directly experiencing nature as a contradictory, cultivated, seemingly ‘natural’, allusive space where the natural world, the landscaped world and what it is to be human collide. For we were going to go to Arkadia. 


The Arkadia in question was the garden of Helena Radziwiłł (1753-1821), located around an hour’s drive from Warsaw, near Nieborów. The garden was designed at the time of the eighteenth-century thirst for creating and experiencing landscape gardens as spaces for contemplation. 

File:Arkadia staw panorama 80 16595-600.jpg
Helena Radziwiłł's garden Arkadia in Poland.
Photo by TenKobuz, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

A few years previously, I had read Michael Moran’s reminiscences of his visit in the early 1990s in his A Country in the Moon: Studies in Search of the Heart of Poland. Here, Moran recalls ‘[l]ying on the grass in the sun’ amid ‘[a] world of intense impressions, melancholy, poignancy and reflective thoughts’ (pp. 284-5). More recently, I had read James Stevens Curl’s study of Arkadia as a ‘Garden of Allusions’ where visitors could become ‘actors’ in a landscape dividing into ‘scenes’ against a backdrop where ‘activities could take place […] triggering a response’ as they were invited to ‘decode the meaning enshrined in the scenes’ (p. 93). As I put it myself, around the time I had been due to visit Arkadia, ‘Gardens, like theatres, are curious spaces where though encounters with other possibilities and other – alien - worlds we confront or contemplate our own.’

File:Arkadia Dom Arcykapłana 3.jpg
Sanctuary of the High Priest, Arkadia
Photo by Seacale, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

Looking ahead to my own time in such an alien, yet not unfamiliar, world, I intended to pause particularly at the possible place where, close to the Temple of Allusions – a monument to the memory of Radziwiłł’s daughters, who died young – there was once a sarcophagus inscribed with the allusive phrase: ‘et in Arcadia ego’, suggestive of time once spent amid a bucolic landscape now lost. This inscription suggests too Nicolas Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego (1637-38).

File:Nicolas Poussin - Et in Arcadia ego (deuxième version) (cropped).jpg
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego (1637-38), the Louvre. 
Photo by The York Project, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here 

The allusions are all the more evocative inscribed in a garden literally called Arkadia: 


-       'Et in Arcadia ego' might as evoking memories of a lost paradise: ‘even I was in Arcadia’ 

-       As there is no verb, 'Et in Arcadia ego' could suggest ‘even I am currently in Arcadia’. 

-       Alternatively, suggesting future rather than past or present time amid the landscape, the phrase could evoke the time when ‘even I will be in Arcadia’. 


I planned to contemplate another inscription, too, where Nature is related to Antiquity to reflect on life and, possibly, death. The inscription, in French this time is beneath a bas relief in the High Priest’s Sanctuary where Hope feeding a Chimera. It reads ‘L’espérance nourrit une Chimère et la Vie S’ecoule’ ‘Hope nourishes a Chimera [a Dream? an Impossibility? a delusion?] while Life flows [or ‘flows away’, or ‘ebbs’]’.

Inscription beneath bas relief in the High Priest's Sanctuary, Arkadia. 
Detail of photo by Jolanta Dyr, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here.

Remembering Stourhead 

My anticipation at the prospect of experiencing such a place for reflection and contemplation was heightened due to connections between Arkadia and one of its models –– a garden closer to home for me – Henry Hoare’s Stourhead in Wiltshire, around two hours’ drive from where I live in Surrey. 

Stourhead Gardens viewed from the Grotto.
Photo by Eugene Birchill, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

Stourhead epitomises the eighteenth-century engagement with Antiquity and Nature, and where, as would come to the case for Arkadia, each visitor might find their own meanings in a landscape of grottos, intriguing inscriptions, temples and statues. Some, notably Kenneth Woodbridge, have argued for a singular meaning behind the design of the garden. But, as others, such as Oliver Cox, have responded, it is more likely that the design is intended to let each visitor respond on their own terms, aided by certain pro(m)p(t)s and encoded messages. In a paper I delivered at Stourhead itself (that was in November 2015 – approaching 7 years ago…), I unpicked one of the possible sets of messages. This set begins, as I traced it – building from Michael Charlesworth’s study of Hercules at Stourhead, in the Pantheon (1754-57) with the temple’s showpiece statue, John Rysbrack’s version of the Farnese Hercules.

The Farnese Hercules, Archaeological Museum, Naples.
Photo by Paul Stevenson, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

John Michael Rysbrack, Hercules (between 1745 and 1752), Yale Center for British Art.
Photo: Yale Center for British Art, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

 This contemplative Hercules is positioned between statues of two female figures – also by Rysbrack – denoting Flora and Ceres. I explored how this placement might have evoked a mythological episode that, ‘Englished’ by the time of the design of Stourhead, concerns Hercules as he enters a new place, one that is peaceful and strange. As I set out, it is a place where, according to the earliest ancient version, in Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates (2.1.21), the hero ‘sat, pondering, about his future’. This was a time when how he would live his life was not fixed and when there is more than one possibility. The possibilities are framed in extreme terms: 


-       Would he lead a life of struggle? 

-       Would he lead a life of pleasure? 


In this place, Hercules meets the personifications of the values named Arete (‘Virtue’) and Kakia (‘Vice’) in Xenophon, and who by the eighteenth century had come to be connected with competing claims of Hard Work and Pleasure. I rehearsed how, choose one path and his will be a life of constant hard work, but which leads to eventual rewards of a famous name and an afterlife among the gods. Choose the other path, meanwhile, and, as I outlined, his will be a life of constant pleasure.  


I set out that this aspect that any allusions to the Hercules’ encounter with the two personified virtues might connect with one of the paintings in Stourhead House – another painting by Poussin evoking various layers of Antiquity and Nature. This is his Choice of Hercules (c. 1636 or 1637), painted around the same time as Et in Arcadia Ego, perhaps a little earlier.

Nicolas Poussin, The Choice of Hercules (c.1626-1637),
Stourhead House, National Trust. Photo by artuk.org,
sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

Above all, I considered how, on leaving the Pantheon, visitors might have been being invited to enact their own version of Hercules’ Choice by needing to choose between two paths: 


-       a harder path up a hillside to the temple of Apollo (1765) which commands a striking view over the Park. 

-       an easier one leading to Stourton village, with its amenities including the inn.


Either choice, then, can result in a welcome outcome. There is no right path, and no wrong path. As for Hercules, what – I asked - did he choose? Again, as I said, there is no right or wrong answer: 


-       His path in life is one of hard work – of labour after labour. 

-       His life is one of pleasure as well. 


He is the great sufferer and doer of deeds. He is also the great lover of food and drink and partying. I considered how, between the Herculean extremes, space is provided for reflection on how to find a balance between the demands of Hard Work and the temptations of Pleasure. Thanks to my fellow speaker at the conference in Stourhead, Dr John Harrison, who was also the organizer of the event, another option was opened to me – namely that the identities of the women on either side of the Rysbrack’s Hercules suggest not just Nature but different types of Nature that correspond to Hard Work and Pleasure. Here is how John puts it in a poster that, by coincidence, appeared in my email feed yesterday, just when I was trying to tease various meanings suggested by Herculean depictions and allusions at Stourhead: ‘Flora and Ceres are deities of natural and cultivated foods respectively and may thereby represent indolence and industry’.

I am now wondering whether Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego might itself be offering two women who are in keeping with those that Hercules experiences. Like his Virtue, the woman on the painting of 1637-38 is fully clothed. But there was also an earlier, 1627, painting of the same name where, like Vice, there is a partially nude woman. As in the Choice of Hercules, the two women stand on opposite sides.

Nicolas Poussin, The Choice of Hercules (1627), version in Chatsworth House.
Photo sourced from Wikimedia Common here 

As in the Choice of Hercules, the two women stand on opposite sides from one another. I'm going to think though the significance of all this...

Nicolas Poussin, The Choice of Hercules
earlier (l.) version with woman on left; later (r.) version with woman on right

Looking ahead to Hercules indoors


What I was saying about Stourhead and its Herculean allusions was building from existing work. Where any key originality came in was in the case I made for another instance where the viewer is invited to contemplate Nature and contrasting values though by enacting the Choice. I’ll get there in my next posting – for now I’ll say that:


-       the Choice in question is found on a chimneypiece panel in an eighteenth-century villa at Roehampton. 

-       I have discussed that depiction more than once on this blog

-       There is a redrawing of this depiction, with colour added, in the drawing by Steve Simons that heads this blog. 

More soon...