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.





Thursday, 2 April 2015

Classical myth and World Autism Awareness Day




Cellini, Perseus with head of Medusa,1545.
Details below
There is something about designated 'Days' to encourage reflection on the specific issue being marked. Today, World Autism Awareness Day, has set me reflecting on my evolving thinking around autism and where I see my work potentially leading.


I began this blog back in 2009 to report on my unfolding thinking about autism and classical mythology, aware that it would be some time before I was able to devote myself fully to the project – and since then my thinking has been developing in sophistication including in ways that I did not envisage when I was getting started. This has included not just thinking about the pedagogy of autism,[1] but also about disability more broadly – and how, for instance, a Disability Studies approach to classical myth can help challenge notions of bodily perfection via a focus on the numerous different bodies that recur in classical myth, including deformed bodies such as that of Hephaistos, and monstrous bodies, such as that of the gorgon – and also the lost body of Metis, swallowed by Zeus and kept within his own body.[2]

What initially motivated me to work on how classical myth might help reach autistic children was hearing from a special needs teacher in a state school in the UK that she had observed that autistic children typically respond well to learning about classical mythology. I have since heard that this view matches that of teachers who work with autistic children, including teachers who have contacted me on having read my blog.  What I would like to do is therefore as follows – use my experience researching classical mythology towards developing resources for teachers.  And What I would ideally like to hang this around is the figure of Athena.  One reason for wanting to do this is that I have explored mythological representations of Athena in a range of publications,[3] all of which focus on what it is that is distinctive about this mythological figure, and what this tells us about various issues in ancient Greece such as what how the ancient Greeks constructed notions of self and otherness, and how images Athena hover between various extremes.

I should like to use this previous research to explore how, for instance, the goddess is connected with bodily perfection and good health (for instance as Athena Hygieia (‘Health’) yet her face/eyes can become the face or glare of the gorgon, for example when, roused to fury, she becomes gorgopis (‘gorgon-eyed’),[4] and when she creates the aulos, plays it for the first time and casts it away when she sees her reflection with puffed out cheeks.[5]  I should also like to revisit, from a disability studies perspective, a story I have written on which concerns how, when Athena hears the wailing lament of Medusa’s sister Euryale, the goddess creates a music piece for the aulos[6] – in one respect Athena is transforming a gorgonic noise into music; in another respect this is Athena imitating a gorgon voice and performing (even embodying) the sound of the monster.

By setting out my previous research into Athena, I see that I have already started to outline another reason I would like to use Athena-Gorgon myths as a focus.  These myths blend such seeming opposites as perfection and monstrosity – and therefore they strike me as a way towards helping autistic children develop social understanding, social cognition and affective engagement.  Little is known about autism in spite of the advances in understanding, diagnosis and treatment over recent years, although there is consensus that it involves challenges concerning social behaviour, communication and application of mental flexibility and abilities that can include attention to detail and a methodical approach to given tasks.[7]  One appeal of Greek myths is their apparent fixed (and so reassuring) nature – where each character seems to have specific traits, and where stories are rigidly sequenced. However, classical myths were also endlessly flexible – in the ancient world stories were ever being revised and changed to meet the needs of each new audience. What I would seek to do is to capture both the sense of structure of myth and this endless capacity for variation and invention – after all it is this variability of myth that has been tapped into by centuries of postclassical users down to such innovative uses as the Percy Jackson novels.

I would like to use representations of Athena and Gorgon – including the quest of Perseus, with Athena’s support, for the Gorgon’s head – to explore various means to facilitate social cognition including in imitation (for example of actions, sounds and facial expression), joint attention (e.g. looking at people or objects – following the gaze), pretence (e.g. responding to people in particular roles) and mental states (e.g. linking events and behaviour and exploring gaps between reality and appearance).  In the first instance, I would conduct an academic study that applies research into cogitative and emotional capacities and autism to myths that concern Athena and the gorgon.  The next step would be to use this to underpin resources for teachers – such as a set of activities for use with their students.  This might include making masks (including of the Gorgon’s body-less head whose serpentine hair, boar’s tusks and huge mouth make it an ideal topic for a mask), and activities aimed at developing affect and imitation. 

I'll keep reporting on my progress...

References
Fig. 1: Benevento Cellini, Perseus with head of Medusa,1545.  Bronze sculpture, Florence, Piazza della Signoria. B. ©Dragoneye Dreamstime.com
Brown, M. and Miller, A., 2004, Aspects of Asperger’s: success in the teens and twenties. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.

Cosi, D. M. 1987. “Jammed Communication: Battos, The Founder of Cyrene, Stammering and Castrated.” in Grazia Ciani, M. ed. The Regions of Silence: Studies on the Dificulty of Communicating, Amsterdam: Gieben: 115-144.

Deacy, S. 1995. ‘Athena in Boiotia: local tradition and cultural identity’, in J.M. Fossey (ed.), Boiotia Antiqua 5: Studies on Boiotian Topography, Cults and Terracottas. Amsterdam: Gieben: 91-103.

Deacy, S. 1997. ‘The vulnerability of Athena: parthenoi and rape in Greek myth’, in S. Deacy and K.F. Pierce (ed.), Rape in Antiquity: Sexual violence in the Greek and Roman worlds: London: Duckworth:  43-63.

Deacy, S. 2008. Athena, Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World series, London and New York: Routledge.

Deacy, S. and Villing, A. ed. 2001. Athena in the Classical World. Leiden: Brill.

Deacy, S. and Villing, A. 2009. ‘What was the colour of Athena’s aegis?’. Journal of Hellenic Studies 129: 111-29.

Dolmage, J. 2006. ‘Breathe upon us an even flame: Hephaestus, history, and the body of rhetoric’. Rhetoric Review 25.2: 119-40.

Dolmage, J. 2009. ‘Metis, mêtis, mestiza, Medusa: rhetorical bodies across rhetorical traditions’. Rhetoric Review 28.1: 1-28.

Grove, N and Park, K, 2001. Social Cognition Through Drama And Literature for People with Learning Disabilities: MacBeth in Mind. London: Jessica Kingsley.

McGregor, E., Núñez, M. Cebula, K and Gómez, J.C. 2008. Autism: An integrated view from neurocognitive, clinical, and intervention research. Malden, MA etc: Blackwell.

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

Powell, S. and Jordan, R. 1997. Autism and Learning: A guide to good practice. London: Routledge.

Rose, M.L. 2003. The Staff of Oedipus. Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece.Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.




[1] Research that has informed my thinking to date includes Brown and Miller, 2004; Grove and Park 2001, Howlin et al. 1999, McGregor et al. 2008, Martin, 2008. Powell and Jordan 1997.
[2] On the alternative bodies of Hephaistos and Metis, both of which I intend to contrast with the bodily perfection often – though tellingly not invariably – associated with Athena, see Dolmage 2006, 2009.  Studies of disability in antiquity, including disability constructed in classical myth include Cosmi 1987 and Rose 2003.
[3] E.g. Deacy 1995, 1997, 2008, Deacy and Villing 2001, 2009.
[4] E.g. Homeric Hymn to Demeter 424, Alcaeus fr. 298.24.
[5] E.g. Athenaeus 616e, Apollodorus 1.4.2.
[6] Pindar, Pythian 12. 18-27, Deacy 1995.
[7] E.g. Brown and Miller 2004, Martin 2008.