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.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Mythology and Autism: on whether is this a Classics project or an Education project - and whether I need to choose

I am going to address big questions in this posting – about what I ‘am’ in disciplinary terms and about where the activities I am designing for autistic children sit in disciplinary terms. I have been asked questions that in some way relate to these questions over the years.  At job interviews in the 1990s and early 2000s, for instance, a question I used to anticipate was this: ‘are you a Classicist or an Ancient Historian?.’ And, on one occasion, when I told a colleague that I was going to teach a module on historiography for first year History students, she responded ‘but you’re not on the History Team.’ Why I am saying this now is because I was asked something about the activities that I didn’t give an adequate answer to at the time. This was in a meeting with an autism expert in Education who asked whether the activities are envisaged as Classics ones or Education ones. I answered by going back to the origins of the project – so, perhaps I gave a classicists’ answer, one which took refuge in the apparent authority of origins?

I told my colleague about how it began for me at a meeting with a Special Needs teacher at a secondary school who told me that she had experienced autistic children enjoying classical myth. I then began to wonder whether, with my academic interests in myth, there was something I could contribute.

As I am writing this now, I am thinking that this was a good enough answer after all?

What I am trying to do is to use my experience in researching classical myth, especially mythological characters to design activities using classical myth – activities which try to engage and ‘speak’ to autistic children. I am not seeking to educate the children about classics as a primary goal, although inevitably the activities will involve some degree of learning about myth – and this is hopefully not a bad thing. As I have reflected previously in this blog, experiences with classical myth can make a difference to people, and not because there is something somehow edifying or worthy about classics or classical myth. I am aware that classics is linked with elitism, and that a knowledge of classics is seen as appropriate as a mark of a ‘good’ education. And I am aware that the figure of Hercules has loomed large in such an education.

But there is also that ‘other’ way to encounter classical myth, and Hercules: via such adaptations as The Legendary Journeys and the Disney film and, recently, such inventive works as Camp Hercules, where ancient myth comes into contact with the life of a young boy who solves Hercules’ labours in contemporary America – or, in time travel fictions such as Helping Hercules, where a girl is transported into classical myth, solves problems of Hercules and others and ends up changed though her experiences.

I have recently read an article by Lisa Maurice which is highly relevant here – in the latest edition of the Historical Fictions Journal. Lisa surveys books for children which foreground Hercules published in the UK and the US between 1970 and 2018. One recurrent theme she identifies in works published before 2003 is the following – the works tend towards an ‘elitist’ view of myth, classics and Hercules. In these books, myth is used as something worthy for children to learn about. This includes books that came out in response to Legendary Journeys and the Disney film. There is a disjunction, here, as Lisa shows, between the inventiveness of the TV series and the film and the books, which are characterised by didactic elements.

But, in the years since 2003, spurred on in part by the Percy Jackson phenomena, there has been a turn to more inventive uses of Hercules. These works often engage with classical myth, though without being confined to the ancient evidence as some kind of ‘master narrative.’ It is here that Camp Hercules comes in – where ancient myth and the present are ‘remixed’ the result being the potential for issues to be dealt with, including bullying, popularly, courage and depression. There is space, too, in such receptions for female characters, Susan for example, who helps Hercules but as the hero more than the helper.

Back in the 90s, I used to watch Hercules – and the spin-off Xena – on Channel 5 in the UK. I liked the mix between known mythological characters and inventiveness in how myth was used. This mixing is characteristically postmodern, but this is hardly solely a postmodern thing – Euripides, for instance, was ever subverting and twisting and likely inventing myth. So was Aeschylus before that, and Sappho, and so, likely was Homer – the problem here being the lack of any earlier sources to enable an investigation of how the poet is playing with stories, characters, motifs and so forth.

So – here is what I am doing. I am drawing on classical myth as a space for exploring and learning about such things as dealing with others, getting to know how individuals ‘tick’ and dealing with feelings and emotions, the opportunity to go into another world – a world that remixes ancient and modern and bits in between,

Is this a Classics project or an Education project? Yes.


Thursday, 9 January 2020

What Cicero might have to say to autistic children - with an animated surprise

Around this time last month, I was preparing for a trip to Warsaw to take part in a congress on Cicero. As I mentioned in this posting, of 10th December, the key thing I was going to do was to add a short outline for my autism and classical research project to a session that Professor Katarzyna Marciniak was going to present. In the current posting, I shall outline what I said. I shall also add information about the one thing I kept out of the December posting, namely the surprise I mentioned:
"The presentation I shall make will be on the Choice of Hercules. The exact content is a surprise, so I’ll keep that a secret for now. Instead, I’ll say a few things here about Cicero’s take on the Choice of Hercules, as I will refer to this during my presentation."

This session, on Cicero for children and on the Our Mythical Childhood project, took place at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw in association with the German Embassy in Warsaw. The abstract for Katarzyna’s paper is here. My presentation was accompanied by a handout consisting of one of Steve Simons’ drawings of the Choice of Hercules and the following text:
"The image here is a high-quality vector drawing by Steve Simons of a Choice of Hercules chimneypiece panel in the Adam Room in Grove House in Roehampton in London. This drawing, along with a series of others by the artist, has been created for the activities on Hercules' choice for autistic children which I am creating as part of the ERC-funded Our Mythical Childhood Project. During the Congress, I will briefly introduce the activities through the lens of Cicero's De officiis where the Choice is linked to 'the most difficult problem in the world' faced by young people on the path to adulthood. The presentation will include an animated surprise."

 As Katarzyna had explained beautifully, the Our Mythical Childhood project concerns classics and children’s culture. I then explained that my work is exploring classics in the culture of a particular group, namely autistic children, who often love myth including the myth of one particular figure: Hercules.

In her presentation, Katarzyna had posed the following question: what does Cicero have to say to children? I asked: what does Cicero have to say to autistic children?

I summarised how I am creating a set of activities on an episode where Hercules, in a strange place, is faced with a choice between two contrary paths in life: the way of ‘virtue’ or hard work and the way of ‘pleasure.’ I mentioned how the activities are based around a chimneypiece panel in Roehampton from the 18th century, redrawn by Steve Simons. I outlined how the activities include how to make choices – which can be hard for anyone but which can raise particular difficulties for autistic people. I then spent a minute or so outlining how Cicero deals with this choice faced by Hercules in the De officiis, as part of a concern with how to live and how to behave, including where conflict comes up between competing obligations. This is, according to Cicero, ‘the most difficult problem in the world.’

Having reiterated that choice-making can extremely difficult for autistic people, I next explained that, in respect to the choice of Hercules, there is no right choice and no single wrong choice. As a result the episode gives an opportunity to reflect on choices, and what the consequences might be of these choices.

I then shared the surprise – I explained how Steve Simons is not just an artist but that he is an animator too. I broke the news that Steve has created an animation of Hercules choosing. I showed the animation – and was so delighted when at a key point people laughed: ‘with’ not ‘at’ what they were seeing.

I had some wonderful conversations after the presentation, including with a participant who told me about a colleague at his university who is working on autism. Also, two of the participants told me about how some of the aspects of Virtue I am dealing with link to ancient Roman representations of Virtue and also possibly to some other eighteenth century ones.

And so I have now shared the surprise about the animation via this blog as well! I’ll be showing it at upcoming presentations on the activities at Cambridge in February and then at Roehampton in March. At some point I’ll share it with the world, though this blog…

My thanks to Agnieszka Maciejewska for the photo story!

Monday, 23 December 2019

Looking both ways - including to fairyland Warsaw, (making a) difference at Roehampton and my Herculean resolution for 2020

The last few weeks have been energy-creating and hectic: so much so that I need a bit of time to pull together the various things that I have been doing and their implications for this blog's topic. This includes the many things I gained from a recent Ciceronian excursion to Warsaw, some of which are indicated among these photos:

Among the Ciceronians:
1. asking a question while blown away by what I'd just learnt about a 16th-century commentary on the de Officiis;
2. in the Herculean interiors of Wilanów Palace;
3. with delegates plus posters from 1989 and 2019 Warsaw Cicero congresses;
4. in the Wilanów winter fairyland

This also includes what came out – for the students, and for me – of a session I taught on myth and (making a) difference during a second year module I convene at Roehampton: Myths and Mythology. I’ll be posting on these – probably now in early January.

Looking ahead… I have agreed give an update in early spring on the activities on the Choice of Hercules to colleagues in Special and Inclusive Education at Roehampton, following up from a session I did just over a year ago. Around this time, I shall be speaking on the same topic at a Myth and Education conference at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. Then, in May 2020, I’ll be in Warsaw for the last of the three conferences for ERC Our Mythical Childhood Project: Our Mythical Nature.

And… during 2020, I shall be WRITING A BOOK. This book will present the Choice of Hercules activities. While I was Warsaw I agreed a deadline for submission of the book with Katarzyna Marciniak, the editor for the series of books linked with the Our Mythical Childhood Project. This deadline is... 15 December 2020. So: my New Year’s Resolution is this: to write the book. And I’ll use the events for spring 2020 detailed above as deadlines for the completion of stages of this book.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Love the Max: thank you!

This current posting is a very short one - possibly the shortest I've ever written. I've just discovered the existence of Love the Max: A blog about kids with disabilities who kick butt. I had been checking the ‘top referrers’ for my previous posting – the one I wrote not long before I headed to Warsaw for a Ciceronian excursion. One of these referrers is Love the Max's weekend link-up for 13 December 2019. I’d like to thank the kind person - whoever you are! -  who put up this posting alongside some snapshots of the huge amount of current blogging relating to disabled children.

I'll blog again soon - including in relation to the trip to Warsaw...


Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Hope 12 - Ciceronian thoughts on the Choice of Hercules ahead of a Congress in Warsaw informed a little by Binary Computation

When I last blogged at the end of last week, my session at the British Museum about Hercules and his choices was about to take place. This has now happened. I had some unexpectedly useful feedback, including from one of the participants who raised the potential of considering Hercules' Choice in the context of Computer Science and binary computation. I’ll say more about this as soon as I’m ready to get my head around this wonderfully unpredicted possible new path.

Tomorrow I’m off to Warsaw to take part in a congress on something that is more within my disciplinary comfort zone – it’s on a Roman rather than an ancient Greek topic. But that topic is Cicero, one of the few ancient authors who wrote about the Choice of Hercules. The key thing I will be doing is making a presentation during a session led by Katarzyna Marciniak. This sesson will be setting out work underway by members of The Cluster for the Past and the Present and the Our Mythical Childhood project. The presentation I shall make will be on the Choice of Hercules. The exact content is a surprise, so I’ll keep that a secret for now. Instead, I’ll say a few things here about Cicero’s take on the Choice of Hercules, as I will refer to this during my presentation.

Cicero raises the Choice of Hercules in the de officiis, a treatise concerned with how best to live and behave including where a conflict emerges between different obligations. Referring to the time when a youth, i.e. a male youth…, will need to decide which calling in life to take up, Cicero says that this is is ‘the most difficult problem in the world.’ For:

it is in the years of early youth, when our judgment is most immature, that each of us decides that his calling in life shall be that to which he has taken a special liking. And thus he becomes engaged in some particular calling and career in life, before he is fit to decide intelligently what is best for him. For we cannot all have the experience of Hercules (1.117-18, W. Miller Loeb tr.).
Cicero’s Hercules, then, is faced with a simple choice – between hardship that would bring great eventual rewards, and a life of pleasure. But it is always so simple for Hercules? Or perhaps I should put it like this: the choice might be simple. But does Hercules ever commit himself? He does… and he does not… And it is this lack of clarity in terms of the outcome that makes the episode so full of potential, as a talking point and as an opportunity for reflecting on moral positions and about dilemmas one might face in life. Making choices can be difficult for anyone. It is possible to feel caught in indecision. Looked at one way, the choice involves a clear decision between two things as opposed as Virtue and Vice, where the heroic career is reduced to a choice between things as extreme as they come, with none of the ambiguities that often accompany a choice in life. Or there is complexity (Computer Science, I’ve learnt since Saturday, is likewise moving beyond binary thinking – I’m itching to discuss this with the participant I mentioned above…).

It is not clear how to read the episode and how to determine what choice the hero made. It is this simultaneous simplicity and complexity that I shall be drawing on in my resources for autistic children. The episode offers potential for getting any user to reflect on a choice in life, and to think about different possibilities and what the implications of these possibilities could be including around where they fit in the world, between themselves and others. Meanwhile, it is this simplicity of Hercules' choice – the very thing that distinguishes Hercules’s choice from that of other young people according to Cicero – that counts as one of the reasons why the story has so much potential for use with autistic children. This is because it can enable children to think about moral dilemmas and to think about contrary ways to respond to making a decision in life. By doing this, the children for whom I'll be creating the resources will have the opportunity to engage in a process that has engaged others as well, including those for whom the particular representation of the choice was likely created.

I’ll come back to this on my return from Warsaw. Plus, I’m looking forward to learning from the assembled Ciceronian expects, which include my Roehampton colleague Kathryn Tempest. What I discover might well impact on my appreciation of the use of the Hercules example in the de officiis, especially as a strong focus of the conference will be Cicero’s vision of education.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Hope 11 – Hercules, Blue Story, British Museum… thinking about children's choices

With this posting, I turn in earnest to Hercules. I pretty well got there with the previous posting. Here the hero gets centre stage some more.

Tomorrow (Saturday 6th December 2019), I am going to be talking about Hercules at the British Museum. Specifically, I shall be talking about the Hercules who is relevant to the autism activities I am developing. The event is a study day on classical myth - to tie in which a new exhibition, on Troy, at the Museum. It's the cover of the exhibition guide that is illustrated to the right. I shall be talking about myth as it can be relevant today, and I shall speak about how it came to matter in the eighteenth century, and before then in Rome, and before that, in Greece. I shall talk about its appeal in particular as a way to think about an aspect of what children can experience as they are on the path to adulthood – namely what choices to make between different paths in life.

I shall include a reference to something very current: the film Blue Story which has recently been in the news in the UK: here for instance. The film's poster is illustrated to the left. In an interview on the radio the other week, probably on the Today programme, I heard the director, Rapman, saying that it is a film, above all, about making a choice between two contrary paths.
From a quick search, I’ve found a few references to the director talking about the film in these terms. For example, Rapman is reported in the Sunday Times for November 28th 2019 in a piece by Fariha Karim as stressing that the film "was intended to make youngsters involved in gangs think about their choices."
The film is innovative and timely. Its themes are perennial too. In the next posting, I’m planning to come at the angle of choice-making faced by young people – this time from the perspective not of something contemporary, but from the perspective of… Cicero.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Hope 10 – The Choice of Hercules could be “brilliant”, like Odysseus

Over the course of these Hope-themed postings, I have mentioned Hercules from time to time, mostly to say that Hercules is the focus of the activities I am designing for autistic children. With the current posting, I am going to turn in more depth to Hercules – to give a sense of why I have chosen this figure. I shall start by following up on one thing I looked at in the previous posting namely the activities developed around another mythological character by Nicola Grove and Keith Park. This is Odysseus. As I said in the previous posting, one reason Grove and Park pick Odysseus is his enduring popularity. Because of just how rooted Odysseus is in a shared cultural heritage, there is the potential for opening up a cultural experience to people who might find such experiences difficult to access. I shared some views a few views I have around this... I am going to keep reflecting on these, but, for now, I am going to turn to some of the other reasons for the selection of Odysseus.

According to Grove and Park, the story of Odysseus is “a brilliant story which everyone can enjoy”. As they continue, this story can enable a teacher to “nourish the imagination and emotions of students, as well as providing them with practical skills.” Among the reasons why the Odysseus story is so “brilliant” and so full of potential for stimulating the imagination, and for engaging the emotions, is its concern with a traveller, who keeps reaching new places. There is a good fit here with Hercules who, like Odysseus, is a traveller who keeps reaching new places: some pleasant, some strange, some full of dangers to negotiate.

This leads me to a second point about the parallels between Hercules and Odysseus. Hercules is often regarded as one who achieves his successes thanks to his distinctive strength. This is often true – but not always. Hercules often finds a way to succeed in a given task though cunning, a quality above all linked with Odysseus among classical mythological figures. But Hercules, like Odysseus, keeps getting himself out of a particular difficulty not so much by brute force but by finding some clever solution. The image that illustrated my previous posting showed him wielding his club above the Hydra, one of his victims, but how he defeats the hydra isn’t though superior strength, but is through finding a way to stop the hydra being able to grow new heads. Hercules does this, mind you, by an act of violence – by searing the severed neck of each Hydra head he cuts off.

This takes me back to the heading of one of my previous postings: “But Hercules is horrible…” He often is. But what I am going to look at is Hercules as the hero in a strange place: the hero when he finds himself in a location which is overpowering – a place whose rules he needs to work out. This is a hero who needs to work out what to do in this place because, here, he is faced with making a choice: a choice over the road he will take from this point on, and a choice between two very different ways of living – hard work and pleasure. It is a stark choice, and choices that people encounter in life are not likely to be so stark. However, for autistic people, choice-making can be especially difficult, and what I would like to propose is the following. Hercules’s choice can provide an opportunity to engage with choice-making. And there can be a fit with other aspects of being autistic too, including feeling out of place in some spaces and, conversely, finding other spaces pleasant or reassuring. Another is going though sensory and emotional experiences, both pleasant ones and ones that are so intense that they are too much to deal with.

In the next posting, I shall turn in earnest to this particular episode: the choice Hercules faces and makes.