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 (2016-21) 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.

Friday, 15 October 2021

What I've found out today about the gender in the middle with implications for autism and myth...

As I have mentioned previously, each week (or so...) this term, I am planning to do what I'm asking students on a mythology module I'm teaching to do - namely to blog on an aspect of the module, based around our weekly topics, ideally by taking a particular focus, with my focus being autism and myth.

Hula from c. 1915 - image details here.Why I have begun with a
photograph of the hula should come clear further down this posting...

I went into today's class, 'Myth and Gender' which was taught by my wonderful colleague Dr Jose Magalhaes, with particular ideas in mind - where I would look at how autism is very often regarded as associated with boys and men, leaving many girls and women undiagnosed, and at how autistic people can find that myth resonates with a sense of gender that does not fit a male-female binary.

I was gong to bring in the reflections of Alis Rowe in her The Girl with the Curly Hair: Asperger's and Me (p.32) where she discusses 'all the confusion [she] felt about her gender' from the age of around 11. I probably WILL do this further down the road, while also sharing insights from other autistic women, including those diagnosed as adults.

But for now, as the session raised some issues that have taken me aback, I am gong to get some of what came up down - not least as what came up included an examination of cultures where the terms for sexuality and gender in Western vocabulary do not map. Asked how to define 'gender' and 'sexuality' and 'sex' one student, a study-abroad student who usually studies in Hawaii, mentioned a broarder spectrum in Hawaii. 

Fascinated by what he said about the gender, māhū, 'in the middle', I have done a very, very initial dive and learnt about how, across Pacific islands, there is a gender neither male nor female, and both male and female. 

I am also at the very early stages of finding out about where Polynesian gods might come in including the Hawaiian goddess Laka - who perhaps comparable with an Athena who danced the Pyrrike into being with her birth - bore the hula. 

More to follow... on all this I hope.

Friday, 8 October 2021

Myth, community, autism and getting going...

As I mentioned in the previous posting, the blogging I am planning this term is linked with a module I am teaching, on Fridays, on classical myth. Thus the focus will remain in line with 'autism and classical myth', the title of this blog, while being linked in some way with the module.

I explained in class today that I would be blogging including to give the students an example of academic blog writing while they get going with their own blogs for the module. For this week - and to continue a discussion started in class with some of the students around the potential for reflecting on issues linked with how we bring our own identities to what we study - I am going to say some introductory things about how I came to be blogging about autism as a classics academic interested in myth. 

Our focus today, in a session titled, 'Myth and Community', included a look at:

  • the power of historical/cultural contexts to shape mythic representations
  • the use of myths to serve particular social, cultural or political needs

This posting, correspondingly, will look at my autism project in relation to specific communities: the community of scholars I am working with, and the 'autism community' - a community often seen as having particular needs, needs which I am responding to in some cases - while also critiquing what it means to understand autism in relation to meeting needs. As I want to keep the posting relatively short, I'll probably reserve a discussion for this last point - a huge one, and one at the core of what I'm doing - for further down the line.

Our Mythical Childhood Community together in Warsaw (under Hercules) in - from memory - 2017

Again in the presence of Hercules - who is on the chimney piece panel behind - with Drs Katerina Volioti (left) and Sonya Nevin (right), in the Adam Room at Roehampton University at an event sharing our work for the Mythical Childhood Project at an event in 2017 marking 10 years of the European Research Council

This time in 2018, in Warsaw, with mythical childhood colleagues Professors Katarzyna Marciniak (left) and Bettina Kuemmerling-Meibaue 

2018 again, with Sonya Nevin and Steve Simons amid the myth-rich campus of the University of Warsaw

During the time I have been a university academic, ideas for new areas to investigate have sometimes come about unexpectedly, but an especially unexpected departure along a new research direction came in the late 2000s when I was in a meeting with a Special Needs teacher at a secondary school in the UK. The teacher mentioned something to me on finding out that I was a classicist who especially researched classical myth, namely that in her experience, it is classical myth that autistic children often find especially enjoyable in their studies. As I've shared a few times previously in this blog, I wondered why, and I then began to wonder whether – as someone coming from the perspective of a classics practitioner – I could make some kind of contribution to resources available for autistic children. 

Discovering classical myth was a formative moment in my childhood and myth became, from the age of around ten, an interest that took me into a world at once different from, and yet which resonated with, my own. In the wake of the meeting with the teacher, I began to wonder whether I could harness in some way my love of myth as something with many patterns, even rules, and yet as something elusive as well. I reached out to as many people as I could think of including dramatherapists and special needs teachers, and I kept getting encouraging responses. A result of these very initial enquiries was something that transformed various aspects of my practice, including taking on a role that I would not have thought to put myself up for previously, of departmental disability coordinator at by workplace, the University of Roehampton, London.

Where it started for me at around 10: with the world of Greek myth evoked in Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of the Greek Heroes. The current edition is introduced by Rick Riordan, whose Percy Jackson mythical world has been discussed several times already in class

After a few months, spurred on by the support I was receiving I decided to start a blog on the topic in order to share my progress, making it clear that such progress might well be sporadic, and that I was starting the blog to set out my unfolding ideas, although at the time I was not sure quite what direction the research would take. But one advantage of blogging is the self-critique that it can foster, along with the opportunities to present research as it ongoing rather than solely presenting the final product.

 After several years of gradually developing my thinking and contemplating possible directions, my progress towards the current book came after I saw a notice about a project coordinated by an academic I did not yet know, Professor Katarzyna Marciniak of the University of Warsaw, on classical themes in post-Second World War Polish children’s literature. After I emailed Katarzyna to tell her how exciting the project looked, we began an exchange that grew into an idea to draw on work she was already doing breaking new ground into a research area she was helping pioneer, namely classical reception studies of children’s and Young Adult culture.

The result was an application, along with a team of academics at universities in Australia, Cameroon, Israel and Poland interested in particular areas of mythology, and culture at both ‘regional’ and ‘global’ levels – and what happens when children experience something ancient. My particular area for the proposed project – Our Mythical Childhood... The Reception of Classical Antiquity inChildren’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and GlobalChallenges – was to be specifically what can happen when autistic children experience classical myth. When we received the news from the funder we had applied to, the European Research Council, that our bid had been successful, the dream I had been nurturing of creating resources for autistic children turned into something I was now tasked to develop. 

I am currently finishing a book which marks the culmination of work I have been undertaking under the aegis of the Our Mythical Childhood: a book which presents a set of lessons involving Hercules, a figure who resonates with the topic of next week's Myth class - and thus, I anticipate, with the next blog posting. This topic is.... gender.


Monday, 4 October 2021

Myths, rainbow, nature, Hercules...

On Friday I taught the first class for Myths and Mythology, a module that has been at the heart of the classical syllabus at Roehampton during the 20 years that there has been classics at Roehampton, and which I've been convening for several years. The module is assessed via an academic blog, and as I like to practice what I preach, I'll be linking blog postings with that module over the next few weeks, always - I aim - with an autism focus.

Ideally, I'll be setting aside time to do this on Friday after class, but just like after last Friday, I might not always manage that. On Friday I didn't manage it for a good reason, namely a meeting with a teacher at a primary school in London to discuss a class at the school on one of the Hercules lessons I've developed. This session would take place during the spring term when the focus in the class in question is Ancient Greece. More to follow on what I'll be doing there, but in short, I'm excited!

For now let me get started with the Myths-related blogging with an appearance looking like Iris, a prism, which I couldn't stop my screen showing during a recent zoom session - thanks to the bright light which started flooding though my office window. A photo from one of the participants, Prof. Katarzyna Marciniak - who has been mentioned many times on this blog! - is at the top of this posting followed by another photo - a meta one - of this blog, which I showed during the session.

Let me continue with the abstract of a paper I recorded ahead of a conference which took place last week: 'Our Mythical Nature'. I'll share the recording of my paper soon, but for now... a taster:

Once, according to a story told by Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Herakles reached a curious place at a crossroads where he sat, pondering which path – one of struggle or one of pleasure – to take in life. This paper explores how, via a focus on how nature – both in respect to the natural world and human nature – the episode can resonate with autistic children’s experiences including around entering new spaces, making choices and conceptualising causality. I discuss a set of lessons I have developed for the Our Mythical Childhood project, each focused around an aspect of the episode, each relating to a particular aspect of autistic children’s experiences, and each - like Hercules’s choice - connecting hard-work and fun.

More soon...

Monday, 9 August 2021

'Sounds like being autistic': how the 'classical tradition', especially myths of Hercules, resonates with autism - next month at King's College London, via zoom...

 I've just noted that the previous posting I made is dated exactly a month ago - I didn't plan such a gap, but have been caught up with a mixture of annual leave and article writing since then. Here is some news: I've this morning had the notification that I'll be giving a short pitch of a paper at a "Healing Classics" event next month. The event will be online and will consist of short presentations ahead of a longer, in-person, event at King's College London next year.

Details of the event are available here (as at 09.08.21)

And here is my title and abstract

'Sounds like being autistic': how the 'classical tradition', especially myths of Hercules, resonates with autism

This paper will look - though an autism lens - at a key commitment of 'Healing Classics' as set out in the Call For Papers, namely with 'the continuing creativity and vitality inherent in the classical tradition'. The focus will be around how - and why - classical myth can 'speak' to an autistic 'world' while helping autistic people make sense of the other, 'non-autistic' or 'neurotypical' world: the 'world' metaphor for being autistic or otherwise will be discussed during the paper. The paper, grounded in a social rather than medical model of disability, will not be concerned with any possibility of 'healing' via classics but with how classical themes can resonate with distinctive autistic ways of being and experience. The key classical theme for exploration will be myths of Hercules which - as I shall set out by discussing a set of activities I have designed for autistic children - have potential to resonate with autistic experiences including around causality, social interaction and processing and communicating emotions.

I'll end with some images from my Hercules activities which might speak particularly to a 'healing' aspect - and which I might well pick as illustrations for my paper. 

The drawings are all by Steve Simons - with the colour and captions of the third one by Anna Mik.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Autistic children speaking out via classical myth - at the Children's History Society conference, June 2021

Last month was a super-active one for me including where autism-linked and myth-linked – and autism-and-myth-linked - activities are concerned. I’ve been involved in so many activities that it’s been hard to do what I like to, namely to reflect on events via this blog. 

Today, though, I am going to make a start with an activity that took place in two stages – for a panel at the latest conference of the Children’s History Society Conference held, via Zoom, at Manchester Metropolitan University, organised by Dr April Pudsey.

The event’s theme was “Children and Young People Speaking Out”. The panel I was on, “Children with Special Needs: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Agency and Autonomy,” concerned what it means for autistic children to speak – including to speak out – via classical myth. 

My contribution was a joint one with Prof. Lisa Maurice, with whom I’ve had quite a few joint projects of late. While the conference took place 17-19 June, Lisa and I met to record our contribution in advance, earlier in June. It’s the first time I have taken part in an event where the live part takes place to discuss recordings circulated beforehand – and it was a special experience recording the session with Lisa.

I ran though initiatives on my part creating – and trying out – activities for autistic children based around the figure of Hercules. I talked about the inception of my Hercules project in the context of interests in myth and in autism - and I shared examples of the resources for activities as well as information about one of the sessions and some examples of workshops I have hosted.

In the Adam Room at the University of Roehampton with
school students from the "Class of 2020' looking at Hercules
choosing on an 18th century panel

Lisa, then, ran through the work she has done – informed by, and in turn informing – mine in collaboration with her colleagues at Bar-Ilan University, including Dr Ayelet Peer.

Some of the slides from my part of the presentation accompany this posting as images, and the video will be available - I'll share it in due course.

Hard Work, Hercules and Pleasure - high-quality drawing by Steve Simons of
a chimneypiece panel in the Adam Room at Roehampton
- the key focus of the activities I was discussing at the conference

Perhaps in part because I hadn’t just given a presentation and so was ‘fresh,’ meeting specifically for discussion worked better, than, for instance the discussion - as I remember it at least - after a paper I gave on the autism activities at the University of Reading for the series “Making Classics Better” in April. We’ll see – that session’s recording is out, and I’ll share it via this blog and via ACCLAIM once I’ve watched it through.

The discussion at the Children’s History Conference panel included consideration of complex emotions and how special interests and skills have a fit with mythological heroes. And we ended – ended because our break-out room closed; we could have continued for longer – with reflections that picked up on a point I’d made concerning how autistic people can find classical myth appealing when they are able to see aspects that reasonate with themselves in characters and scenarios.

The Adam Room scene as coloured and captioned
by Anna Mik at an autism and myth workshop

April Pudsey – as I’ve mentioned above also the organiser of the event – raised the possibility for the fit here with approaches, including queer theories and disability studies, around what it means to find oneself in another world. I suggested that we might have, here, a topic for a future event. There is so much to consider here – including the fit with the LGBT+ History Month event on classics and children’s culture that I’ve blogged about previously...

Comments about the session include this one and this one.

I also carried on threads of discussion afterwards with people who’d been at the session, including on the topic of girls and autism and the figure plans I have for activities including other mythological figures – starting with one I have been considering for years now – Medusa.

 I shall pause for now and aim to blog later on this summer to refection other things I’ve been up to as well as fresh things that come up…



Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Preparing Historians at Work for future professions via remote placements between Roehampton, Warsaw and Bar-Ilan

What a few weeks... The panel I mentioned in my previous posting took place last week - and the potential for follow-up is huge. I should even be able, I think, to share the link to the recording. For now, though, I'm blogging to share what's coming up next autism and myth-wise...

Next week, Roehampton University's 2021 Festival of Learning and Teaching takes place - in an earlier posting, I mentioned what I'd be doing during the festival. This was after the news arrived that the session I'd proposed had been accepted. 

The two-day festival includes, on day one (Wednesday 16 June), so a week today, the session in question:

"Preparing Historians at Work for future professions via remote placements between Roehampton, Warsaw and Bar-Ilan"

The session bears on the main theme for this year's festival, namely: "preparing our students for their future professions." I shall be presenting along with two current students, Erika Ruminaite and Adam Soyler, the "Historians at Work" of the title of the presentation and of this posting.

What follows are the session aims and abstract as submitted to the Learning and Teaching Unit at the university, along with other details, photos too, starting with the following two. Both show activities which took place at Warsaw, in a cafe staffed by autistic workers. The reason for the location, along with what's being coloured in, will become clear during the session - and to an extent during this posting...

First, and in large part quoting the proposal submitted to the event organisers, here are its aims:

  1. To present work of by second-year Humanities students in placements at Roehampton/Warsaw/Bar-Ilan for a European Research Council-funded project: Our Mythical Childhood.
  2. To consider the roles and experiences of the students including organising an online event and interviewing practitioners working with autistic students.
  3. To explore the impact of the placement on students’ learning experience.
  4. To reflect on the impact of the placement on the project, including the development of materials relating to lessons for autistic children.
  5. To map the experiences on the placements on Roehampton Enabling Strategies, QAA PDP recommendations, and Case Studies in Pegg et al. 2021. 
Here's the 'official' Our Mythical Childhood image of Erika:

And here's the same for Adam:

Here, now, is the abstract: 

This presentation will share, and reflect on, the work done in spring 2021 by second-year Humanities students on the Historian at Work module in placements at Roehampton, Warsaw and Bar-Ilan Universities for the European Research Council-funded project, Our Mythical Childhood… The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges.

The presenters will outline the roles and experiences of the students as “mythical trainees” in tandem with students from the University of Bologna. As will be discussed, these roles included, for one student, organising and promoting an online event for practitioners working with autistic children in the UK, Poland, Italy and Israel. Meanwhile, the roles of another student included interviewing members of the network ACCLAIM: Autism Connecting with CLAssically-Inspired Mythology about their work using classical topics with autistic students.

The impact on the students’ learning experience will be explored, as will the impact of the students’ activities during their placements on the project, including the development of new materials relating to lessons for autistic children. As well as reflecting on their experiences, the presenters will map their experiences on the placements onto the University of Roehampton Enabling Strategies 2019-2025, especially 6, to: “embed research and knowledge exchange across the University.” Meanwhile, the role of the reflective assessment for the module will be discussed in relation to the QAA (2009) recommendation to use PDP to enable students to “plan, integrate and take responsibility for their personal, career and academic development.”

The presenters will, also, consider the potential benefits of placements by mapping their experiences in relation to Pegg et al (2021,) including in relation to aim 3 of the Redesign of the Learning Experience initiative at Birmingham City University concerning “embedding the ‘real world’ in the curriculum with work experience [and] placements;” and in relation to the PALANTINE project at Lancaster University’s study of “work placements and work-based learning” to “ensure real-world experience.”

And now for more photos! The first shows ACCLAIM as it was being launched, in Warsaw in 2019 (at one of the three universities listed in our presentation's title) by myself (from Roehampton - another of the universities in our title) and by Lisa Maurice (from Bar-Ilan, the third university mentioned)

Here's the initial ACCLAIM poster, on display during the conference where we launched the Network

And, next, here we are at the launch again, at the White Villa of the Faculty of Artes Liberales at the University of Warsaw. Note the inscription on the wall above the windows, in Polish, Latin and English. Anyone recognise the source of the quotation?!

The first set of photos in this posting were taken during the same conference where ACCLAIM was launched. Here, participants at the Warsaw event are taking part in activities designed for autistic children.

Here are two remaining sections of the application:

Which conference theme/s will be addressed?

  • preparing our students for their future professions
  • preparing for work placements and internships (virtual or face to face)  
  • participatory and reflective learning
  • redesign of current modules /programmes to enhance employability (see Pegg et al, 2021)

5 key references that relate to the chosen topic:

ACCLAIM: Autism Connecting with CLAssically-Inspired Mythology Network http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/acclaim

Our Mythical Childhood… The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges http://omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/

Pegg et al (2021) ‘Pedagogy for Employability’ http://oro.open.ac.uk/30792/1/Pedagogy_for_employability_170212_1724.pdf 

QAA (2009) Personal Development Planning – Guidance for Institutional Polcy and Practice in Higher Education http://www.recordingachievement.org/images/pdfs/pdpguide2009.pdf

Concluding now... We have just between 14.20 and 14.45 for our presentation, and I think that the 15 minutes we have - to follow a pecha kucha format - includes discussion time. So a challenge will be to cover the key ground in a "talk less, show more" manner. Now I think of it, I might structure the presentation around the pictures included above, along with some others such as, perhaps, these ones, also from the cafe in Warsaw staffed by autistic people:

I'll report back on how the session goes...

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

What I'm doing today, tomorrow and later this month including participating in an autism and mythical hope panel tomorrow at the Israel Society for the Promotion of Classical Studies conference...

For a while, in the early years of this blog, there would be periods of non-blogging from me. These silences often reflected the progress I was making with autism and classical myth - that is, that there wasn't much, or at least not much I could put into words. In recent times, and this is one such, when I go quiet, it is often because I have been busy preparing activities, events, articles etc - even now a book - linked with the topic.

Page 1 of the Israel Society for the Promotion of Classical Studies conference,
including the Mythology of Hope panel - the red, including for my paper, denotes
virtual presentation... Screenshot captured as best I can manage after several attempts
each of which worked less well than this one!

Today, my key task is to prepare a paper for a classics conference in Israel tomorrow where I shall talk about my project as part of a panel on autism and classics - and how classical topics can resonate with autistic children, and how this engagement can be demonstrated by activities in Israel (by my fellow panellists) and the UK (by me).

I shall be zooming in while my fellow, Israel-based, speakers will be there in person. I shall use this blended format as an opportunity to say some things about the possibility for 'remote' activities for autistic children. Such activities need not, I shall consider, be a second best, but might offer a means of enjoying and exploring being autistic - through ways that in in-person activities cannot allow.

Before I get stuck into the paper, I shall be attending - at Roehampton, but again via Zoom - a planning meeting for a possible bid that might include an autistic dimension. I shall also be doing other activities in preparation for upcoming events including a panel in the middle of this month at this year's Children's History Society conference - again via Zoom. And I shall be preparing for a talk I shall be giving soon, with two Roehampton students - though Zoom again - during this year's University of Roehampton Learning and Teaching Festival. This presentation will be on the placements the students have been doing with the Our Mythical Childhood project, including around autism and mythology. 

I shall also be doing some followups to an ACCLAIM Network event last week - which was too wonderful to share easily here (so more will follow), and I shall be starting to look though the proofs that arrived yesterday for a chapter on Hercules and autistic "hope" for a volume coming out of the "Mythical Hope" stage of the Our Mythical Childhood project.

This sounds like quite a lot - and I've missed out a couple of things - and if this posting reads as a little breathless, that reflects how I'm envisaging the day. I'm going to get started now...