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.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Students with Asperger Syndrome in Higher Education

After several months of silence while I’ve been focusing on trying to finish my book, this posting reports on some of the points that were raised at a training session I attended at Roehampton recently entitled ‘Students with Asperger Syndrome in Higher Education’ and run by a representative from the Prospects Employment Service which is part of The National Autistic Society. When I'm able finally to devote myself to autism and mythology, I'll reflect on how the strategies that were suggested might feed into my research.

The abstract for the paper at the Learning and Teaching conference that I included as my previous posting noted rather generally that ‘during the past decade or so, an increasing number of students with disabilities have entered higher education, including those with Asperger syndrome’. The training session provided some statistics that gives a more precise picture and if anything strengthens the point that we made in the workshop. In 2003, autism spectrum disorder was added to the disability section of the UCAS form. That year, 165 applicants disclosed that they were on the spectrum, of whom 139 were offered places. In 2008, the numbers rose to 851 applicants, with 706 offered places. That these five years could have seen this c.400pc increase indicates how aware teachers in HE need be about the difficulties experienced by students with AS and how vital it is that we seek strategies to help facilitate their learning. There are no statistics available on the subject choices of students with Autism, unfortunately, but Humanities subjects can be quite a popular choice.

Each autistic student will have particular needs and challenges. That said, there are several strategies worth considering which mostly involve taking a ‘back to basics’ approach (which might benefit some of our neurotypical students as well?). People with AS may have particular strengths which can be harnessed when they are given the right support, which include attention to detail, a methodological approach, accuracy, reliability, good motivation. People with AS are often of average or above average intelligence.

Communication and social interaction

Characteristics/Areas of impairment: People with AS are not born with an ability to communicate so this is something they are continually learning to do; with communication skills not innate as they are in neurotypical people, there are challenges in e.g. reading body language, eye contact, facial expressions as well as unwritten rules of interaction/cues of how to act appropriately and process info. They may find it hard to know what to say or do in social situations which can make group work difficult. Another tendency is to interrupt to talk over conversations. They might display repetitive behaviour often associated with high anxiety manifested in e.g. asking the same questions week after week which is done to seek reassurance and not because they have forgotten the information. People with AS may experience heightened sensory reactions and could be distracted by e.g. noise outside the classroom, an air conditioning system or the sound of the AV console. Some students with AS come to University to develop social relationships.

Strategies: Use multiple forms of communication, e.g. ppt with ppt slides as a handout. Be explicit in communicating information – students with AS may take things said literally and for instance not understand sarcasm. Make clear at the start of a course what the acceptable modes of behaviour are – e.g. whether it is acceptable to ask questions; whether students may interrupt the lecturer. For group work, provide step-by-step instructions and offer structured discussions; tutor should divide students into groups rather than letting students take initiative. Neurotypical students might sometimes ostracise a student with AS or else take advantage of their motivation or reliability. Be flexible over assessments, e.g. allowing students with AS to give oral presentations directly to the tutor rather than to the whole group.

‘Theory of mind’/social imagination

Impairments: Difficulty with reading other people’s feelings or gauging what people are thinking or feeling. Challenges with coping with situations that require initiative or judgement; difficulties over organising and planning; they might find it hard to see outside the ‘now’

Strategies: Provide direction with anything that requires initiative e.g. when to start and assignment; devise weekly timetables; perhaps send phone or email reminders.

Flexibility of thought

Impairments: Abstract thinking can be difficult, e.g. understanding essay questions. People with AS will find analogies difficult to understand as well as hypothetical questions.

Strategies: Help students to understand that there is no one correct answer to an essay. Lecturers very often use analogies to help students make sense of a particular event, concept etc. These stressed these can be missed by people with an AS yet other students, e.g. those with dyslexia, may find them useful. Rather than seeking to omit analogies, a suggested strategy was to make clear when an analogy was being used via an introductory phrase of the ‘now I’m going to make an analogy’ kind.

Dealing with anxiety

Impairments: People with AS often experience high anxiety and sometimes, linked with this, depression

Strategies: As well as providing verbal information on aspects of the course, write down what is required. Perhaps ask the student to repeat back what you have told them. Be strict where it may benefit the student – e.g. make clear that information will be provided only a set no. of times. In encouraging students to develop a timetable, find ways to account for breaks or interruptions. Make clear the purpose of any assignment and set out what the student is expected to do in order to complete it. Provide structure by giving notes on lecture topics in advance. Give feedback immediately on e.g. inappropriate behaviour, but avoid negatives – don’t tell a student with AS not to do something but find a positive action to place stress upon. Stay fresh with the student each time there is a change in a routine.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Making learing happen for a student with Asperger syndrome

Here, following up on my previous posting, is the abstract submitted for the 2009 Roehampton
University Learning and Teaching Conference.

‘It’s all Greek to me’:
Making learning happen for a Classical Civilisation undergraduate with Asperger Syndrome

Susan Deacy, School of Arts
Bridget Middlemas, Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit

The session’s title aims to get across the bewilderment that can be a feature of initial forays into the study of Humanities subjects. During the past decade or so, an increasing number of students with disabilities have entered higher education, including those with Asperger syndrome (AS). AS is an autistic spectrum condition, which can result in often subtle differences in aspects of social behaviour, communication and application of mental flexibility. It is more common in male students (Brown & Miller, 2004; Martin, 2008).

Humanities subjects, Classical Civilisation included, are among the programmes found appealing to many autistic students. The session will discuss the various challenges faced by disability coordinators, tutors, student services and the programme team in creating an accessible and inclusive learning environment for students with AS, and also reflect on the student experience from the viewpoint of such students. Teaching methods pioneered in Classical Civilisation at Roehampton encourage and even expect students to take an active role in the learning process e.g. though group work and oral presentation, a focus which risks alienating autistic students. The session will consider what support might be required to enable successful completion of one of the modules offered to first year students, 'Introduction to the Study of Greek Literature'.

The module outline will be discussed in the light of ensuring that sessions are able to address the learning needs of all students in the group. What is the most effective way for us to ensure that the learning outcomes have been met? How will the students’ voices be heard? Is there anything that we might do differently? Good practice guidelines will also be made available for review:

  • an explanation of Asperger syndrome/autistic spectrum disorder

  • what might be done before the student starts the course

  • promoting independent learning and study

  • how the learning environment affects an individual's ability to learn

  • a social needs checklist for students with autism

  • a realistic approach to academic/learning needs

  • coursework and examination issues (after NAS, 2009; Jamieson & Jamieson, 2004)


Brown, M. and Miller, A., 2004, Aspects of Asperger’s: success in the teens and twenties. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing

Jamieson, J. and Jamieson, C., 2004, Managing Asperger syndrome at college and university. London: David Fulton Publishers

Martin, N 2008 REAL Services to assist students who have Asperger Syndrome, Sheffield Hallam University Autism Centre, available from SKILL at http://www.skill.org.uk/page.aspx?c=61&p=150#HE

National Autistic Society (NAS), 2009, University – How to support students with Asperger syndrome available at: http://www.autism.org.uk/nas/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=1011&a=12205

The image at the head of this posting shows a Roman fresco showing Alcestis and Admetus: alcesti_e_admeto.JPG/200px-Affreschi_romani_-_pompei_-_alcesti_e_admeto.JPG

Thursday, 26 March 2009

It's all Greek to me

While I seek to meet the delivery date for my book for OUP, I anticipate making postings to this blog frustratingly sporadically before, from next autumn, being able to launch myself into the project, aided by some research-led teaching that I am envisaging for Sept-Dec 2009 that will incorporate dramatherapy into a first-year module. In this posting, I’m going to provide some information on how I am considering recasting this module. In one of the nice connections that has been a feature of this research, I’ll also be able here to give information on a session that I am co-organising on the learning experiences of students with autism.

I’m currently recasting the first-year course, which I have taught for several years now, prompted by various factors including my initial forays into dramatherapy that I’ve summarised in previous postings. I’m using the possible new format of this course as the focus for a session that I am preparing in collaboration with a colleague in the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit for this year’s Learning and Teaching conference at Roehampton which takes place late next month.

Ideas, which are still provisional for the autism session, are given below. I’d love feedback in the run-up to the event, which takes place on 28 April.

An increasing number of students with an ASD are coming to University and Classical Civilisation is one of the subjects found appealing to autistic students, for reasons I hope to be able to explore. The session will discuss the role of disability coordinators, tutors, student services and the Classical Civilisation programme in creating an accessible and inclusive learning environment for students with an ASD. Teaching methods pioneered in Classical Civilisation at Roehampton encourage and even expect students to take an active role in the learning process e.g. though group work and oral presentation, a focus which risks alienating autistic students. The session will consider what support might be required to enable successful completion of one of the modules offered to first year students, 'Introduction to the Study of Greek Literature'.

Envisaged module outline:

  • Week 1: Introduction: Why Roehampton? Why Classical Civilisation? [to involve ice breaking session where students introduce themselves to the class]

  • Week 2: What is Greek literature? [to include group discussion: ‘what is the best kind of Greek literature?’]

  • Week 3: What is Greek tragedy [discussion topic: ‘why do we enjoy watching tragedy?’]

  • Week 4: Tragedy and catharsis [including research-led discussion of dramatherapy’s use of Aristotelian theory in reaching autistic people – would this potentially draw in or alienate a student with an ASD?]

  • Weeks 5, 6, 8, 9: sessions on particular tragedies which will combine informal lectures with group discussion of specific passages.

  • Week 10: preparation for the in-class test: to involve group work planning a commentary or essay

  • Week 11: a play reading of one of the set texts, Euripides’ Medea, possibly following methods employed in dramatherapy.

  • Week 12: In-class test.

The session’s title -"‘It’s all Greek to me’: Making learning happen for a Classical Civilisation undergraduate with autism" – aims to get across the bewilderment that can be a feature of initial forays into the study of the classical world. The selected image to accompany this posting, Evelyn de Morgan’s Medea, struck me as getting across the difficulty connected with any attempt at reaching an understanding of Medea, one of the heroines to be discussed during the course, whose unreadability (I may have just made up that word) might perhaps stand for the issues to be raised at the session.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Greek myth and dramatherapy

As promised in my previous posting, here are some initial comments on ancient myth's possible value for dramatherapy. The image I have picked is one that has been much used an illustration, which is one reason why I have chosen it myself as a kind of emblem for this posting. It shows Athena as patron of heroes, assisting Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece which is hanging on the tree behind him, with an appealing combination of popular goddess and well-known story that makes it convenient and also appealing as an image. Not only does it show Athena in one of her most prevalent guises: it includes a good range of her attributes too, including the owl which is shown on relatively few vases – I must check sometime its prevalence. There is lots of scope for interpretation, for example of how the aegis' scales match those of the monster, with possibilities for looking into a possible ‘dark side’ of Athena with connections with creatures inimical to the order she watches over – something Klimt foregrounded in his Pallas Athena, where the scales of the aegis match those of the Triton in the vase painting in the background as shown for example at http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/philolog/klimt-pa.jpg.

The artist, Douris, has picked a key moment – a ‘pregnant moment’ as Gombrich put it though I don’t have the quotation to hand and to be honest I’ve been afraid until now of using the phase since I quoted it in a draft of a thesis chapter for my supervisor back in the mid 90s as a way of describing imagery of erotic pursuit on Greek vases and he thought that I was making a pun in view of what is shown as impeding on the depictions, namely the capture, defloration and impregnation of the young woman by the god chasing her. Vase painters, like the Athenian tragedians, would pick a moment from the iceberg of material at their disposal, packed into unities of time and place. But precisely what that moment is on the vase is elusive, which is another reason why I picked this particular example – it draws attention also to how much escapes us about classical mythology: of how much remains a mystery for all our mythological handbooks of and for those written in antiquity as well, above all Apollodoros’ which I intend to draw upon as a mine of information and suggestions of possibilities beyond the canonical. The mystery for us – not the intended audience at least I assume not – is in what is happening between Jason and the monster, who seems to be regurgitating him, or maybe is in the process of swallowing him. Literary versions do not include this occurrence. There is more as well: Athena’s assistance-giving is at odds with literary accounts that we possess where Medea is the helper-maiden.

What I have been trying to explore so far in this posting is myth’s mixture of familiarity and an otherness that keeps it frustrating – though it is this very frustration that keeps us engaged with its stories that we know and yet never really know. Neither did the ancients, however, have some canonical version of a myth as recent work on the topic is stressing, for example Morales’ Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2007) and Woodard (ed)’s collection of work on myth that repeatedly stresses its fluidity (Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, also 2007). What I might be able to bring to dramatherapy is this duality of mythology – the reassurance of a familiar story combined with the possibilities for imaginative reflection that is part of what myth was doing for the ancients and that it can also do for us today. The ‘handbook’ approach to classical mythology has an appeal for presenting manageable, accessible versions of stories. The approach that looks at the gaps may be what is needed further to engage clients because there is a connection to be made with some of the fundament goals of dramatherapy as Phil Jones introduces them in his The Arts Therapies (details in previous posting) of ‘to free the imagination and to increase spontaneity’ (4).

When I started reading Jones’ book, as mentioned in my first blog posting, I could immediately see a connection with my interests in Athenian drama. The mythmaking of ancient drama involved selecting material that drew upon the underside of myth, something Buxton stresses for example in his chapter in Woodard ed (166ff). Tragedy created a mythic environment that explored what is troubling, problematic, antisocial... between the individual and society, between family members, e.g. siblings of same or opposite genders, mother and daughter, mother and son, father and son, father and daughter. Ancient drama goes to the heart of dramatherapy as it is described by Jones (41) as ‘forming the meeting point between psychology and drama’. The Aristotelian concept of catharsis is applicable to what dramatherapy does as it provides a framework for interpreting how Greek drama explores undersides but in a way that leaves its audience feeling purged.

Some pointers where I could go from here:

  • Aristotle’s theory: does it stand up? Not for all drama, perhaps as I shall consider, but for Greek drama and for dramatherapy it is applicable in ways that might provide starting point for thinking of uses of Greek drama within dramatherapy--linked with this, I should look into how far Greek drama is already used in dramatherapy.
  • An analysis of some myths as they are presented in tragedy to present a problem but also as a means of problem solving. Obvious starting points are Herakles and Medea although any tragic material will be useable; however Euripidean tragedy’s foregrouding of the underside ought to make for an ideal route in: in fact the Medea example is Euripidean as is Herakles, though Sophocles too reflects interestingly on his character.
  • Think about other ancient genres as drawing upon a key moment – notably art, building on the thoughts at start of this posting; also Pindar comes to mind as does Sappho’s take on Helen, and Apollodoros too for his narratives that have a potential each to be expanded to tragic proportions
  • I am tempted to think about Perseus story as a guide not least in view of its use in Anderson-Warren and Grainger’s Practical Approaches to Dramatherapy, subtitled The Shield of Perseus (Jessica Kingsley 2000) whose take on mythology I want to discuss, possibly in my next posting. Perseus does not figure in extant tragedies although there is much packed into his appearance in a Pindaric ode as well as in vase painting and in Apollodoros’ account that opens up possibilities for dramatic exploitation.
  • As a final aside, might vase paintings be useful in art therapy – perhaps they already are being used – owing to the simplicity of the drawings, combined with their with imaginative freedom within certain boundaries?

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Looking at a blue sky?

Ciel bleu traversé de trainées aériennes
by Floratrek
I’m starting this blog in order to share some ideas that I have been tentatively formulating since last summer on classical mythology and its possible therapeutic uses. When I show my writing to others it has usually undergone many reworkings, which makes starting a blog with all its first-draft rawness daunting: closer to the process of writing lectures than academic papers. This first posting will set out how I came to the topic and what my preliminary plans are at this early stage. From the outset it has looked as though I have a topic here and over the past few months, several aspects of my work have become relevant to the project including in ways that I did not initially envisage. I value opportunities to carry out research-led teaching; there may even be some mileage in trying out research-led admin but more on that later. One advantage of starting this blog will be the opportunities it will provide for putting down ideas as and when I have the time as I currently have a pressing delivery deadline for another project – a book on myth and religion using the vehicle of Athena. Editing another book, on ancient Greek women/femininity/desire, is currently taking up a lot of my time as well, as are teaching and admin duties even though I can see opportunities for linking teaching and admin to my project as I'll explain soon.

The journey towards this topic started by chance in a meeting with a special needs teacher who mentioned in passing that she had heard that children with Asperger Syndrome often respond positively to learning about mythology. I began to wonder what it might be about mythology that seems to be able to reach autistic children – or at least children with high functioning autism. I shared initial ideas with my Classical Civilisation colleagues at Roehampton, all of whom thought the topic to be worth pursuing, and one of them who, I discovered, had worked in therapy after completing her first degree, suggested that I approach practitioners in dramatherapy.
Some brief comments on how different academic roles might feed into the topic:
Teaching: I bought Phil Jones' The Arts Therapies: A Revolution in Healthcare (Brunner-Routledge 2005) from the University bookshop in December to begin reading on dramatherapy. I thought I would be lapping up new knowledge which I was: I was taken into a world beyond my experiences to date but I also found myself thinking from a fresh perspective on material that I’d been teaching for some years. I discovered that the approach taken to drama in dramatherapy, not least the application of the Aristotelian model of catharsis, intersected with the approach currently being advocated in classics. In fact, I had earlier that week finished off a review of a book that included a chapter that argued for a therapeutic function of Greek drama for its intended, fifth-century BCE audience that I now see was broadly consonant with the approach taken in dramatherapy.
Research: One of the things that attracted me to Classics as an undergraduate student in the late 1980s was its interdisciplinarity, although I doubt I knew that term then – or should that be multidisciplinarity? I’ve never really stepped outside the confines of the discipline, broad though these boundaries are. Where I have thought 'big', through applying gender theory say, or comparative anthropology, it has been with a view to enhancing classical research. Now I might be able to think about how classical research can do the opposite, for which I may have unwittingly laid a groundwork while on research sabbatical a year ago, when I did some research that took me beyond the confines of classical mythology into folktale and cross-cultural mythological phenomena. One way of developing this research might be through considering how storytelling has therapeutic value across cultures.
Admin: I have recently become Learning and Teaching representative for my subject area as well as SENDA academic representative for the School of Arts, a role which will involve liaising on disability issues including arranging a session for the University's Learning and Teaching conference at Easter.
In my next posting, I intend to outline where initial reading on dramatherapy is taking me. Soon I also want to set out what I am gaining from research into autism.