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.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Autism, Asperger Syndrome, Perseus and Athena

Inspired by emails that I've received just this week from two separate teachers working with autistic children, I have been revisiting an an article I wrote for the 2009 Bulletin of the Council of University Classics Departments setting out what I then saw as the rationale fuelling my work.
The remainder of this posting will take the form of a very slightly updated version of that article not least as the journal is temporarily unavailable in its electronic format.  Once it becomes available electronically again, I shall give details of the url.  I also plan, in a subsequent posting, to discuss the image that I have chosen to head this posting: The Baleful Head that Perseus, as represented by Burne-Jones, sees yet fails to become subsumed by.

I began with some general comments on Asperger Syndrome, the autistic spectrum condition on which I was then envisaging focusing.  I am now thinking that a more 'general' autistic focus would be preferable, a development on which I shall report soon.  Anyway, I made these comments with a caveat that they were generalised comments that reflected how little is yet known about the condition in spite of progress in understanding, diagnosis and treatment over recent years (see Frith, 2003; Frith, 2008). Asperger Syndrome is, I stated, an autistic spectrum condition, more commonly diagnosed in males than females, which can result in often subtle differences in aspects of social behaviour, communication and application of mental flexibility (e.g. Brown and Miller, 2004; Martin, 2008). Each person with Asperger Syndrome will have particular needs and challenges. People with Asperger Syndrome, who are often of average or above average intelligence, may have particular strengths, which can be harnessed when they are given the right support, which include attention to detail, a methodical approach, accuracy, reliability and good motivation.

I noted in the article that I tried out my initial hypothesis—that classical mythology might provide a fresh means of supporting people with Asperger Syndrome—on several colleagues, all of whom thought the topic worth pursuing, not least one who, I discovered, had worked previously in therapy and suggested that I approach dramatherapists as potential research partners. Subsequent contacts with current practitioners had encouraged me further that classical mythology’s potential therapeutic uses would be worth exploring, as has my preliminary reading on dramatherapy.  I reported that when I started reading Jones 2005, I anticipated that I would be solely lapping up new knowledge, but I also found myself thinking from a fresh perspective about material that I had been teaching for several years. I discovered that the approach taken to drama in dramatherapy, not least the application of the Aristotelian model of catharsis, intersects with one of the approaches currently being advocated in classics to the mythmaking of ancient drama which, as Buxton stresses in his chapter in Woodard ed. (Woodard, 2007: 166–89), characteristically selected material that drew upon the underside of myth. Tragedy created a mythic environment that explored what was troubling, problematic and antisocial between the individual and society, as well as between family members such as siblings of the same or opposite genders, mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, fathers and sons or fathers and daughters. Ancient drama goes to the heart of dramatherapy as it is described by Jones as ‘forming the meeting point between psychology and drama’ (2005: 41).

To give some indication of ancient myth’s possible value for dramatherapy, I started with a visual image (Attic red-figure cup from Cervetri by Douris; Rome, Vatican 16545) that has been regularly used an illustration in volumes on mythology, due largely, I would surmise, to its combination of popular goddess and well-known story. By depicting Athena as the patron of heroes, assisting Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece which is hanging on the tree behind him, not only does it show Athena in one of her most prevalent guises, but it includes a good range of her attributes too, including the owl which is shown only on relatively few vases. There is much scope for interpretation, for example of how the aegis’ scales match those of the monster in a way that might suggest a ‘dark side’ of Athena, something that Klimt seems to intimate in his Pallas Athena, where the scales of the aegis match those of the Triton in the vase painting in the background
The artist, Douris, has picked a key moment from the iceberg of material at ancient mythmakers’ disposal and packed it into unities of time and place. But precisely what that moment is on the vase is unclear, which took me to another reason why I picked this particular example. It draws attention also to how much remains unknown in spite of the wealth of evidence for classical myth. 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 to be in the process of swallowing him, a detail omitted from the literary versions. There is more as well: Athena’s assistance-giving is at odds with the literary accounts that we possess (e.g. Mimnermus fr. 11a; Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3) where it is Medea who serves as the helper-maiden of Jason, when she assists him in yoking the bulls, sowing the dragon’s teeth and then putting the dragon to sleep while he takes down the fleece.

The image illustrates myth’s mixture of familiarity combined with an otherness that keeps it frustrating with its stories that we know and yet often never really know. Neither did the ancients, however, have some canonical version of a myth as recent work on the topic is stress-ing (e.g. Morales, 2007; Woodard, 2007). What I anticipate being able to bring to dramatherapy is an engagement with this duality of mythology: between the reassurance it provides of a familiar story, combined with possibilities for creativity. I am planning, as one of my initial investigations, an exploration of what might be done with the ‘gaps’ of classical myth in the light of some of the fundamental goals of dramatherapy as Jones introduces them: ‘to free the imagination and to increase spontaneity’ (2005: 4).

One of the things that attracted me to classical studies as an undergraduate student was its interdisciplinarity, although I doubt I knew that term then. Back in 2009, I made the point that I had never really stepped outside the confines of the discipline, broad though these boundaries are. Where I had thought ‘big’, through applying gender theory for example, or comparative anthropology, it had been with a view to enhancing classical research. Now I have an opportunity to be able to think about how research into classical mythology might have an impact beyond the humanities. I anticipate that guiding my further forays into dramatherapy and mythology will be the potential of the doubleness of mythology to reach people with Asperger Syndrome. I felt able to contend at this early stage that classical mythology has the capacity to take someone with Asperger Syndrome into a world that is separate from daily life while allowing engagement with the challenges encountered in everyday life. I was, and still am, at too early a stage in my investigations to make any conclusion other than to say that the therapeutic potential of classical mythology appears to be considerable.

Works cited
  • Brown, M. and Miller, A. (2004) Aspects of Asperger’s: success in the teens and twenties, Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
  • Frith, U. (2003) Autism: explaining the enigma, 2nd edn, Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Frith, U. (2008) Autism: a very short introduction, Oxford: OUP.
  • Jones, P. (2005)The Arts Therapies: a revolution in healthcare, Hove and New York: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Martin, N. (2008) REAL Services to assist students who have Asperger Syndrome, Sheffield Hallam University Autism Centre, available at www.skill.org.uk/page.aspx?c=61&p=150#HE
  • Morales, H. (2007) Classical Mythology: a very short introduction, Oxford: OUP. Woodard, R.D. (ed.) (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, Cambridge: CUP.