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 January 2021

Among the Ciceronians in December 2019

My work building up activities for autistic children involving classical myth has taken me down unexpected paths. One of these has been a Ciceronian one above all when, in late 2019, I spent several days in Warsaw immersed in discussions about Cicero and his writings on education in the midst of Ciceronian scholars from around the globe at the congress Cicero, Society and the Idea of Artes Liberales

A volume of papers from this event has recently been published and it is pleasure to include a link to the preface by Prof. Katarzyna Marciniak which includes comments about my project and how it is being informed by Cicero's discussion of the difficult choices children can experience when on the cusp of adulthood in the De officiis. These comments are on the fourth and five pages of the pdf - pp. 264-5.

The image at the head of this current posting shows the assembled delegates. I'm the one holding the 2019 poster.

I have reflected previously on Cicero including here when I was about to leave for Warsaw and here soon after my return to the UK. My plans for 2021 and beyond include further explorations around how Cicero might 'speak' to what it is to experience the world in an autistic way...

Thursday, 10 December 2020

“Too much green…” “everything so intense…” "Roehampton is so beautiful"... What happened at Hercules Café

My previous posting concerned the first of three zoom events I hosted this term. As I said in that posting, the first of them, a Show and Tell for Black History Month, was connected with the autism activities I am developing – more so than I’d initially thought. The second event, the topic of the current posting, is the one for which I can use the word “directly” without hesitation.

This second event was a remote “Hercules Café’ for this year’s Being Human festival. Being Human is a festival usually comprising face-to-face events but which was this year held remotely. I had been concerned about how well the event would work – would people book for instance? What activity should I present? Would it work? etc.

People did book, and then come! Participants zoomed in from round the UK and internationally, including from Israel, Belgium and Greece. Those present included people from the Our Mythical Childhood project, some of whom have been in workshops with me previously. There were also teachers, people with autistic family members and, best of all – children. By the time that this second zoom event took place, I had already, thanks to the Black History Month event, gained a sense of how Zoom can facilitate the connection of a range of people in different places.

Ahead of the session, I sent those who had booked some advance information, including details about the autism activities and a pack of drawings for colouring in, cutting out et cetera on the day, including the following:

On joining, comments from participants in the – very active – chat included introductions where people shared why they were present, where they were zooming-in from, and how old they were. Here is a sample of introductions from adults present:

I'm an Associate teacher at a secondary school (22 years old) and I am here today because I studied classics for my degree. I am also running an intervention at our school which uses Hercules!!

.. I also have an autistic nephew. I'm here to support Susan's work. I am a big fan of Athena.

… I am researcher in education and I love Myth. My favourite mythological figure is the goddess Athena. And I'm old

As this year’s festival theme was “New Worlds,” the focus was on what it can be like to enter a new world – somewhere that might provoke a range of responses as one approaches then enters it – anxiety or excitement for instance. The focus was on one particular stage in the “Choice of Hercules” story which is the focus of the set of lessons I am developing for autistic children. This is the moment where Hercules finds himself in a rich, packed and multi-sensual space.

We began by sharing, via the chat, what people first noticed, or what Hercules might have noticed, first in the curious place. The possibilities put forward included:

The tree curtain thing on the right. Hercules would wonder what it was.

I can see a snake helmet

I noticed Hercules first because he is in the middle and after that the two women next to him 
The things behind Hercules is what I noticed first. 

A long and winding road ...

We noticed Hercules' expression

I noticed he looked uncertain


We then discussed what Hercules might be feeling in this curious place. Comments included:

He looks bored. He's not looking at the woman, but beyond her.

his mind knows he has to finish the labours but his body is tired and wants to relax

he is magical thats what

To me he's distraught and finding it hard to decide

I think he is thinking of something

He doesn't know what is going on 

After exploring what Hercules might be feeling, we moved on to a discussion of the times we have been somewhere new for the first time. And what it made us feel. These discussions were carried out over the chat facility - which was used very actively throughout the session. Comments included what it felt like to start a new year at school as student, or to start a new job at a school, or to give a talk on a specific virtual platform for the first time:

i was so nervous wen i started year 3

I felt very nervous when I started my new job and had to get used to a new school!!!

I was really terrified when I gave my first conference talk on Teams, but it was fun in the end

Some participants shared experiences getting to new places:

Parthenon in Athens—magical

Taking my wife to Spain, exciting and nervous with the language.

Going to New York City. Everything so intense.

A theme developed where people shared what it felt like when they first arriving at the Roehampton university campus:

I remember the first time I visited Roehampton!  The first thing I noticed was the nature around the University. Too much green. I remember crossing a path among trees! I was so excited!

I remember the first time I visited Uni of Roehampton and having difficulty finding everything!

Roehampton seemed very large and very academic!

I was very nervous the first time I visited Roehampton but felt much better having met my lovely supervisors!

I've only visited but Roehampton is so beautiful - I felt very calm when I first visited

I was at Roehampton 30 years ago as an undergraduate, a lovely place and so close to Richmond Park which is beautiful

Things became a little meta which one participating sharing their feelings before, and the during, the very session they were in:

First time attending the Being Human Festival - now and it’s amazing, thank you, Susan!

As well as the chat working well, there was a surprising amount of interactively, with children holding up the colouring-on they were crating to their computer screens and – even – a sword fight involving a coloured in sword and a word sword at my end. Comments as the session drew to a close included:

Thank you Susan this was amazing and thanks to everyone  - it has been lovely seeing you all virtually!

Thank you so much Susan!!! Great having coffee with all of you!

I am now planning further follow-ups, including more zoom sessions...

Friday, 27 November 2020

"How classics can be more diverse and inclusive": Our Mythical Childhood Show and Tell for Black History Month 2020

My last two postings concerned events I was hosting that were, then, forthcoming. These events have now happened, and one of them led to another event in turn. What I am going to do in the current posting – and in subsequent ones – likely to create a trilogy – is to summarise what happened, with a focus on how the events relate to my autism-linked activities.

I do like the challenge of responding to some kind of theme – and all of the events were “for” something: Black History Month, the Being Human Festival and, most recently, Roehampton University’s International Week. 

The first of these, a “show and tell” for Black History Month in the UK, wasn’t directly concerned with the autism activities – although it was showcasing works relevant to the overall project for which I am doing a programme for autistic children. Plus, the event showed me just how well Zoom can enable people to connect: differently from being together in person, but enabling a different kind of connection. I am struck at the possibilities for drawing together people who would not be able to, or want perhaps, to travel to be in the same physical space.

Among the items shown and told:
Overheard in a Towerblock
 by Joseph Coelho,
who grew up in Roehampton
and Dean Atta's The Black Flamingo

I said above that the event wasn’t directly linked with my autism work but perhaps “directly” isn’t the right word. The event was concerned with issues that connected with what I am seeking to do, including around dealing with issues that run deep into classics and into what happens when classical themes are used in works created from, and by, children.

There is a particular duality that was explored at the event and which I have been exploring in relation to autism and children’s culture. On the one hand, classics can be seen as elitist and exclusive. On the other hand, an encounter with something classical can be exciting and stimulating. No one “owns” the classical world.

But what does it even mean to talk about classics as a world – or even to talk about classics as a thing? As was discussed at the event, works for children using classical topics can perpetuate stereotypes, although classics can also be used to reflect on such issues as the relationships with the environment and with others and about race and class and gender. Such was the case for instance in Joseph Coelho’s book of poems I briefly “show and told” – where the figure of Prometheus forms part of reflections issues including the environment and on growing up. 

Those showing and telling were: Liz Hale, Aimee Hinds, Robin Diver, Sarah Hardstaff, Sonya Nevin and Nanci Santos. The items shown included: Princess of the Nile Barbie; Hades – a new video game by Supergiant games; The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta; Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider; Vita Murrow’s High-Five to the Hero; Dub Leffler’s Once There Was a Boy; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor; Noughts + Crosses by Malorie Blackman; George O'Connor’s Olympians series; Tom Kindley’s Heroes of the Night Sky; and The Half God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams.

Entries for many of these works can be found in the Our Mythical Childhood survey. And Sonya Nevin has blogged here about the works she presented.

One participant, a classicist, said in the chat that they had come to the event because they “want to find out more about decolonising the classics curriculum which [they] think is long overdue.” Another participant, a librarian commented during the session that it: “shows how classics can be more diverse and inclusive, but it is often a matter of being able to find these resources and information.”

Soon I shall reflect on the second event: Hercules Café for autistic children…

Friday, 23 October 2020

"New Worlds" Hercules Cafe for 2020 Being Human - A Festival of the Humanities

In my previous posting, I mentioned several activities I am currently involved with including a session I am going to be hosting next month during the 2020 Being Human Festival – a big, UK-wide and international-looking festival celebrating Humanities research within, and beyond, universities.

This year’s festival is largely taking place remotely owing to covid and while the experience of being in a room has to be put on hold and feels like an increasingly distant memory, the upshot is the potential for reaching people from across the UK, and around the world.

I experienced this potential of remote events two days ago at an event I coordinated as part of Roehampton University’s programme for Black History Month. The event explored diversity, race and decolonisation in classically-themed children’s and Young Adult culture. UK people took part as did participants from around the UK and beyond, with those in the zoom room including people in children’s literature and classics from the US, Australia and Poland.

The event I am next hosting – the one for Being Human – has already had bookings from the UK and internationally. I am thrilled to be part of the festival which for several years now has been showcasing and transforming Humanities research. Two years ago was involved in a set of events concerning Humanities and children’s culture which included a strong focus on autistic children’s culture. This was when along with my then colleagues a classicist Helen Slaney and Susanne Greenhalgh in Drama, I took part in arranging a theatre event for autistic children and a workshop for adults interested in how arts and humanities can inspire, and make a difference to, autistic children.

The current event, which forms part of the festival’s programme of “cafés,” offers an autistic perspective on the theme of this year’s Festival: New Worlds.

Here are some details about the event, based on the Being Human Festival and booking websites.

Hercules Café

November 12th 2020, 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Online "cafe" offering autistic perspective on "New Worlds" theme of the 2020 Being Human Festival of the Humanities

Choice of Hercules chimneypiece panel, Grove House, Roehampton, redrawn by Steve K. Simons

This “café” session offers an autistic perspective on the “New Worlds” theme of this year’s festival. Dealing with specific situations can be a challenge for anyone, but especially an autistic person, for whom “New Worlds” can seem “alien” places where one might feel like an outsider rather than a participant.

All are welcome to join the mythological hero Hercules in a 1-hour online café for autistic children and their families. Susan will introduce Hercules as he discovers a new place, filled with many objects. Participants will be invited to think about how Hercules takes in information about the place and about how he processes the emotions he experiences. There will be opportunities to take breaks inspired by the food and drink that Hercules finds among his surroundings. There will be an opportunity for participants to reflect on their own experiences of entering places for the first time.

The event is designed for autistic children aged c. 7-11 and their families. The event might be suitable for other children, and adults, too. Anyone interested in taking part is welcome to contact Susan (s.deacy@roehampton.ac.uk) to discuss the relevance of the café for them.

The activity is adapted from activities for a European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood (2016-2021) which comprises tasks for autistic children based on what happens when Hercules reaches a curious, multi-sensory place. It is also run in association with the network ACCLAIM: Autism Connecting with Classically-Inspired Myth.

For more information, including how to book, please go to: https://beinghumanfestival.org/event/hercules-cafe/

Announcing ACCLAIM in Warsaw with Lisa Maurice (right)
To reiterate - all are welcome: children and adults, autistic and non-autistic. if anyone would like to find out more, please contact me via this blog or email s.deacy@roehampton.ac.uk     

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Black History Month, Being Human Festival and lesson writing - some quick updates

Around the time I last posted to this blog, I set myself a deadline of the middle of October to complete a draft of the book of lessons based on Hercules for autistic children. Since then, I've been intensively writing and have... just this afternoon... completed a draft of the book and sent it to some dear colleagues for comments. I'm now going to immerse myself in preparing for two events I'm organising within the next month. One is a remote 'show and tell' for Black History Month UK of classics and children's culture - to take place a week tomorrow, on Weds 21 October. The other is an online 'Hercules Cafe' for this year's UK Being Human Festival on Wednesday 12 November. More to follow on this latter event! And on the lessons...

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

What I'm currently doing while not blogging yet immersed in writing about Hercules

I've been visiting this blog a good deal lately - indeed, I've recently re-read pretty well each posting I've out up since I got going in early 2009. But this engagement with my own previous postings hasn't been translating in to creating new posts.

Here's why: I am throwing myself into writing the book I've mentioned in earlier postings. It's a book which introduces then presents a set of lessons using classical myth for autistic children. So, just when I'm working more intensively than ever on the project, I'm quieter than I sometimes am on the blog.

I'm close to finishing a draft of the introduction - currently at 12,298 words. Here's the current version of the first paragraph:

This book – part of the series Our Mythical Childhood – is concerned with a particular kind of “mythical childhood,” an autistic childhood. It is a book which presents a set of activities which are each concerned with classical myth. The second part of the book presents the activities, which are divided into ten lessons. This first part of the book explains the purpose of the lessons, what they focus on and why they take this focus. I spend quite a bit of time giving the background for two key reasons. One is to help any teacher, or other adult, who is interested in using some or more of the lessons, know about the mythological background to the activities. The other key reason is to set out why I have developed the activities.

Now I must to get back to the book!


Wednesday, 9 September 2020

"To marry him?": When a second class of students at an autism base met Hercules...

In the previous posting, I ran through what happened at a session on “Meeting Hercules” at a primary school’s autism base a couple of years ago. Now, as promised, I am going to turn to the second of the two lessons that took place om the same day. 

The first lesson had been observed by the then researcher, Effie Kostara, alone. I joined Effie for this second lesson, again for students between 8 and 11. To give some brief background, classes at the school are taught following a four-fold pattern which combines being given initial information, brainstorming opportunities, hands-on activities and opportunities for in-depth engagement with a given topic. Classes are small in size, led by a class teacher, with teaching assistants to support the students further.

“Meeting Hercules” formed the Topic lesson for the day. The teacher started the lesson, like all her lessons, by picking up a bucket and taking out of it something relevant to the session. This time, she had but in a card with the word “video” on it. Showing this led into the second, “Talk about…”, part of the lesson, which began with an introduction to Hercules via the trailer for the Disney Hercules – which the children looked entranced by. 

The teacher then showed this picture of a statue of Hercules, and asked the students to discuss what they saw:

They rose to this task, making lots of comments including about the lion on his head, and his eyes, which one student found ”scary.”

Then the teacher introduced the chimneypiece panel which produced a response of “wow” from one of the children. It was the women that especially interested them. They were full of ideas as to how the women are reacting to Hercules. One said “they both want his attention.” Another suggested that they both want to marry him.

As for Hercules, one student thought that he might be bored, another that he looked like he is flirting. Others thought that he might not be paying any attention to the women with one student wondering whether he was looking up at the sky to find a planet, and another commenting that he could be looking at the sea.

When it was time for the next stage of the class, called “your turn,” the students coloured in a picture of Hercules: the same one that the previous class had coloured in:

As they did the task, the students kept asking questions. There was a lot of working together and sharing of ideas as well as sharing their colours and looking at what others were drawing.

For the final stage of the lesson, the teacher asked the children which picture of Hercules they liked better. They all said that they preferred the picture of Hercules alone to the one of him with the women.

Then – because the teacher invited me to – I told them the story that is being depicted on the panel. The children listened carefully to the story about the choice that the women asked Hercules to make. They said that they thought that Hercules looked scared. One of the children impersonated his pose.

I asked them what they thought he should chose: the easy life or the life of adventures. They all said: the easy life.

Here are some thoughts on what took place and how what came up in the class is shaping what I am now doing,

With the class teacher present along with two teaching assistants, Effie and myself, there must have been as many adults as children in the room. Yet my memory is that there were more children present than adults. That I remember there being more students that adults testifies perhaps to how student-centred the class felt.

I was struck by just how much the children liked hearing about Hercules, and how proactive they were in coming up with their responses to what he looked like, what he might be feeling and how he was interacting with others. Likewise, I was struck by just how much the children engaged with what was going on in the scene – not only with Hercules but with how the women were responding to Hercules.

The children’s responses showed just how many ways there can be of making sense of Hercules. Like the children suggested, he might be ignoring the women for instance, or he might be flirting with them. Or his attention might be elsewhere – he might be looking at the sky, or at the sea. 

The activity also showed just how much colouring in is something worth doing as an activity. After the session, I learned how controversial colouring in is in children’s education, with some arguing that it is often done in place of teaching students and that, as an activity, colouring might go so far as to impede student learning. But what I saw were students turning with enthusiasm to the task, looking thoughtfully at the image, noticing new things and – all the time – reflecting on what they responses to Hercules and to the scene on the panel.

Had the session ended with the final task planned by the teacher – the comparison between two depictions of Hercules – it would have achieved some useful things. For example, the students would have had opportunities to think about Hercules and about feelings and about how he communications with others.

But due to what happened in the closing minutes – where I outlined to the students what mythological episode is being depicted on the panel –  I gained a sense of the potential for this aspect of the panel too. As I only told the story close to the end of the class, there wasn’t much time for thinking about choices, let alone causality. However, there was enough time for a brief chat about how the students thought about what Hercules might be feeling. The students were very willing to think about what they themselves would choose faced with comparable options.

Indeed, one thing I took from the session is that Hercules’s choice can be introduced in a single lesson. I am now thinking about a way to make this the focus of a discrete session – one where students get an opportunity to think about choices and about the implications of what they choose for the future.

More soon…!