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, 24 November 2016

DrawDisability and Giving a Hoot about Autism

As promised in my previous posting, here are some notes about a seminar in Education at my institution about a project that bears on the Our Mythical Childhood project - and my own work on autism for this project.

The speaker, Andrea Pregel, did the master's degree in Special and Inclusive Education at Roehampton and then went on, with fellow students, to found a voluntary organisation Global Observatory for Inclusion (GLOBI) to build on their shared interests in disability and childhood. While their background is in disability, they're also interested in inclusion broadly including e.g. migration. Their vision of embraced diversity values includes active and global citizenship and the biggest project to date, DrawDisability. This was the topic of Andrea's paper - and as I listened, I was struck with the potential for making connections with our own project.

Working with the UN, the team are seeking to raise the awareness of children worldwide about disability via a global art project. Here children draw disability after a discussion of what constitutes disability and submit their picture - a selection of this work has already been put together in a book available in print form (I have a copy which Andrea was kind enough to sign beside me as I write) and online.

Andrea explained that they went for art because of its potential as a global language - and this got me thinking of the potential for art in our work - e.g. in collecting oral traditions and communication them and in Sonya and Steve's animations, and also in relation to how artefacts, for example in museums, can get children personally engaged with the classical or other pasts and presents. One thing that struck me was how far children around the world appear to have been saying comparable things - and I asked afterwards whether any regional variations came up. The response was that they don't know for sure yet - but they have all the data thanks to the artwork and this could now potentially be analysed.

I came away from the session mulling on the potential for art as a powerful narrative tool for social transformation, which can empower children - as global citizens - to observe their own societies differently - and to discover that their voices count. And then, as I was browsing through the book after the session I discovered that one of the published pictures, by Spoorthi Cherivirala, Aged 13, from the USA, depicts - tenderly - an owl, held inside a pair of hands with a brain visible behind the hand. This picture, called 'Trapped Wisdom' includes the word 'Autism' in the bottom left-hand corner - if you open the link to the book given above and turn to p. 19 you'll be able to see the picture.

I've long been thinking about the potential for using Athena in the materials I put together on autism and classical mythology - and now I see that I'm not alone here. And to illustrate this poster I just searched for 'autism owl' and was blown away to find a range of uses of the owl as a symbol for autism awareness, including this one, which I've now inserted at the head of this posting. This is all going to need investigating - and I'm wondering whether to start the materials with the owl, perhaps as a counterpoint for the gorgon, which I'm certain planning to use, as mentioned in my previous posting.

More soon!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Art, noise, music and monsters - Perseus, gorgons and frescos in the autistic classroom

One thing that I am currently doing is revisiting the notes I have made over the years associated with my autism and classical myth work - which now, thanks to the ERC funding for the Our Mythical Childhood project OMC)- I can advance at last. Looking through my notebook from 2011, I discovered some notes I made towards a posting in the wake of an event I'd attended the day before at the Ure Museum in Reading. There's still information up on the event here thanks to Rogue Classicist.

This was, I am seeing, at a time when so many aspects of my practice and interests were informing one another - often unexpectedly. This mirrors what I am currently finding - all the more so indeed - in fact, more than I realised when I initially sketched out this posting in my current notebook yesterday, as I shall show at the end of this posting. One lesson to draw is - I think - to get out to as many events and other opportunities as possible and to reach out to as many people as I can think of. For instance, here is a quick example. Earlier this week, I went to a session for a module on Pompeii taught by my colleague Marta Garcia Morcillo - which Marta had opened up to colleagues and postgraduate students. She had brought along an artist, Rayda Guzman, to provide a workshop on creating Roman frescos.  So we got to learn about the theory - and practice - of frescos. The balance between individual work (we each got a specific section to work on - from the Villa of Livia in Rome - it's mine that's illustrated above) - and collaboration (e.g in the end we were shown how each of our tablets - shown here drying on Marta's desk - fitted within the wider iconography of the fresco) has suggested the value of an activity of this kind for the autistic classroom, with possible applications including:

  • Development of social skills - e.g. sharing and asking for help.
  • Helping others
  • Development of visual learning skills
  • Enhanced executive functioning - including planning and organising one's time.
The Ure Museum aulos
And - now - to what I drafted in 2011, the day after the event in Reading, along with some updates including some links that came my way - by coincidence - just this morning. The event was centred around the Ure's prize collection piece, this aulos - an unusual example of a surviving musical instrument from antiquity. Highlights of the event included an auletic performance, by Stefan Hagen of the University of Vienna - where I'd be working just a few months earlier but whom I met only now in the UK. I am particularly mentioning this performance because it gave me an additional perspective on one of the myths that I am particularly planning to use - that of Perseus and his gorgon encounters. In one of Pindar's odes, the creation of a piece of music (Greek, nomos) for the aulos is narrated. This is after Perseus had carried out his quest of beheading of the gorgon Medusa with Athena's help - indeed: under Athena's direction. Inspired by the wail of the surviving gorgon sisters, Athena composes a piece that imitates the sound made by one of them, Euryale, called - punningly - the 'nomos of many heads.'  I wondered then about the potential for developing activities aimed at the visual and aural aspects evident here. And now I am thinking that, like the frescos - this could involve both individual work and group activity, including:
  • Making gorgon head masks
  • Imitating the sound of the distressed gorgon and the aulos.
Many of the applications could fit those I outlined for the frescos, and, in addition:
  • Understanding how others behave in unexpected situations - and how others respond to these
  • Exploring how to deal with distressing situations
  • Behavioural applications including how to act in response to certain emotions, e.g. grief and fear
  • Help with sequencing - by establishing what comes next in a story. This is a potentially challenging task as the mythological source, Pindar's poem, does not present the narrative in any linear way, but starts in the middle and loops back and forward. Plus the account does not fill in the gaps of the story. Thus it might make for a great potential activity - turning this challenge to an opportunity - which approaches sequencing from a creative angle. I'll give more thought to this.
Just this morning, in an email discussion with two of the fellow OMC collaborations, Sonya Nevin and Liz Hale. Sonya mentioned that she will be collaborating with an aulos player, Barnaby Brown of the Workshop of Dionysos, who will be composing music for some of the animations that she will be creating along with her partner, Steve Simons, of their Panoply Project. Barnaby will also play live at one of the OMC conferences. Sonya also pointed me to an interview on the Panoply site with Conrad Steinmann, an ancient music re-creator. I'm now looking forward to liaising with Sonya and hopefully Barnaby and perhaps also Stefan and Conrad over the potential applications in the autistic classroom.

The next posting I'm planning, is one reporting on the potential for co-action with a project on children and disability that I learned about recently at an event in Education at Roehampton...

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Autism & mythology: learning good practice

One thing I’m enjoying right now - as we move into the second month of the Our Mythic Childhood project - is the opportunity to read the literature on autism that has been on my shelf for a while. One of the books in question is an edited volume, Autism and Learning: a guide to good practice (ed. Stuart Powell and Rita Jordan, Routledge), that has sat there for a couple of years and was first published quite a time ago, in 1997. A date of publication approaching two decades ago would be something that I would take note of were I to be reading something on a classical topic because the goals and outlook - and the positioning of the author/s – is likely to be shaped by the intellectual climate at the time of writing. This is something I’m aware of, in my own work. For instance I am fairly regularly revisiting my PhD thesis just now. When I completed it in the early months of 2000 it felt timely, but it now looks to me to be steeped in a way of thinking about mythology, religion and deities that has moved on. And how much more so with anything written on autism – a field with is constantly finding new space.

The book I’m reading has a new preface, from 2012, by Rita Jordan, one of the original editors. This 2012 date itself even marks an earlier stage in thinking on autism. This is witnessed, for instance in the references to ‘children with autism’ or ‘adults with autism’ or ‘people with autism’ – when the move currently is towards such description as ‘autistic people’, ‘autistic children’ etc. One advantage here is the potential to capture how one’s autism is not some add-on to an individual. Thinking of someone as ‘with autism’ risks creating a sense that autism can be distinguished from a person – or that one can, even, perhaps be cured of the condition. This is not to say that I cannot see the benefits of the ‘with autism’ description – and I had an interesting discussion just recently about this with the press officer, a psychology graduate, who wrote a piece about the Our Mythic Childhood project.

What I’m struck with is just how far the practical strategies set out by the book’s authors are commensurate with how I am envisage how I should set about preparing my mythological studies for use in the classroom. I shall summarise a few points here:

  1. It is crucial to keep the focus on the individual person – and to retain a sense of how everyone learns differently. And so…
  2. There can’t ever be a recipe which sets out how autistic education should be done – and as a result…
  3. It’s vital that practitioners keep reflecting on their practice, philosophy, pedagogy, successes and failures. What’s more…
  4.  While each person learns differently, there is a distinct autistic way of learning – and
  5. This can be hard to grasp by those who don’t share autistic ways of thinking. I like putting it this way round – as it identifies the non-autistic here as the one who is deficient.
  6.  The authors mention the insights that ‘high-functioning’ autistic people have supplied (p. 4). Increasingly, autistic voices are being shared, including from those who can now look back on their childhood and at how adults would try to ‘reach’ them and on what it was like to be reached.
  7. It’s not necessarily helpful to divide autism up into subcategories – perhaps more useful is Lorna Wing’s identification of a triad of common features (more to follow here). Conversely,
  8. There is rarely if ever a ‘pure’ autism - autism often intersects with other conditions. I’m minded here of a training session I took part in last year on ADHD, and which I commentated on briefly, which explored how there much of an overlap between for example dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD and autism – so much for dyspraxia as ‘autism with empathy…’
  9. Autism education should keep a focus not just on what autistics lack, but on autistic strengths and abilities. This ties with the earlier point above on a distinctively autistic way of thinking. Thus
  10. It is vital to set high expectations while providing plenty of support for each learner.
  11. One challenge is around picking up what non-autistics are able to do. Autistics need to learn what others manage instinctively. And so,
  12. Autism practice should both support distinctively autistic ways of thinking and behaving while finding ways for autistics to live and work in a ‘non-autistic world.’
  13. Good autism practice might well benefit all. This is commensurate with what I’ve discovered over the last few years namely that good disability practice is good practice per se. But, as the authors say, this might not be the case the other way round – so, what works for non-autistics in the classroom simply might not support the learning development of autistic people. There’s another potential implication here that challenges the previous point (#12):
  14. Autistic good practice has the potential for impacting on, even transforming, the ‘non-autistic’ world (p.1). 

Next steps…  I shall explore on the implications of the above points around using classical mythology in autistic education, for example in providing space where individuals can work out their distinctive identifies, while also negotiating between an autistic way of understanding and the other world – the world of non-autistics.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Synaesthesia, autism and scribbled notes from 2008

Several things came up yesterday that bear on the Our Mythical Childhood project, including two things that are relevant to my particular work on autism and classical myth - one planned, the other a conversation that took a turn that has reminded me of some previous work that I can now revisit. The planned thing was a seminar I attended yesterday lunchtime at the Psychology Department at Roehampton. The speaker, Jamie Ward of Sussex University, was talking about possible links between the perceptual abilities of syntesthetes and autistic people. He reported that what he has found - and it felt a privilege to hear about how research is conducted - is that the common ground would seem to be just where autism is regarded in terms of an ability rather than a problem or deficiency in Simon Baron-Cohen's Autism Spectrum Quotient. I am not sure whether there is any direct applicability to my project beyond giving me an insight into autism and autistic experiences from a specialist in another field – that of synaesthesia – whose work has led him to research into autism. 

The second thing is this: I was talking yesterday evening with a former student, and now a colleague, at the reception after the inaugural lecture by my colleague Mike Edwards. The former student reminded me that he first came to Roehampton as a classical civilisation undergraduate student in 2008. This was just when I was beginning to develop my ideas on autism and classical myth. Indeed, I recall writing some notes on the project while a group of students – himself included – were doing an in-class activity. I think that scribbling some notes eight years ago has stuck in my mind because it was teaching this module – an introductory course on ancient Greek literature – that helped me work through a few ideas relevant to the project while it was in its very early stages. I went on to develop these sketched-out thoughts for a paper I presented to Roehampton’s annual learning and teaching conference along with a colleague in educational development.  

The chat with yesterday with the former student has reminded me that I really need to search out the notes I wrote back then on the project. I was full of ideas as to how a dramatherapy approach might offer insights into how classical mythology might inform the teaching of autistic students – while also providing a learning experience for all students. There is also plenty of potential applicability that I want to explore for using myth with autistic children.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

"Funding received to research benefits of ancient myths..." Roehampton News item

A very brief posting! Around the time when I was writing my previous blog posting, the University was putting up a news item on my work, illustrated by this photo of me taken while I was Chasing Mythic Beasts in Warsaw earlier this year. You can read the news item here.

And here's the text of the item:

Funding received to research benefits of ancient myths for children diagnosed with autism 

Classical Civilisation lecturer is to undertake research that will help children on the autism spectrum develop social understanding and affective engagement.
Posted: 4 October 2016

Susan Deacy talking about the project in Warsaw
Dr Susan Deacy from the Department of Humanities is part of an international team of scholars awarded €1.5 million funding to explore the role of classics in children's and young adults' contemporary culture. 

The five year project brings together six classical civilisation scholars from universities across five continents including Africa and Australia who will all be developing different research strands relating to this theme including children’s literature and mythical education. 

Dr Deacy, who won a National Teaching Fellowship for her work in finding sensitive ways to teach difficult subject matters, will undertake research on autism and classical mythology.   
Her research will begin with an academic study of the research relating to autism and ancient myths which will be used to develop workbooks and guides for special educational needs (SEN) teachers who work with children who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum. 
Dr Deacy said: “Stories from the ancient world have the potential to be extremely useful tools in helping children and young people express themselves and develop social understanding. This could be because the child has a structure to work within as stories have a beginning, middle and end, but they also have the freedom to apply their own meaning to the story.

“However this is a largely undeveloped area when it comes to the benefits it can have for children who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. The guides I will develop with help teachers use stories such as the story of Medusa, who is turned by the goddess Athena into a horrible monster whose look could turn others into stone, as a tool to help the child express themselves. I also hope that these resources will be useful for children with other disabilities and learning differences such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Dyslexia.”

Dr Sonya Nevin, also from the Department of Humanities at Roehampton, is also a member of the team. Her project, Animating the Ancient World, will see her produce four video animations which are created from the actual scenes which decorate ancient Greek vases. Other outcomes from the project will include three international conferences, student workshops and a research database. 

The funding comes from the European Research Council's Excellent Science scheme, designed to help support researchers at the stage during which they are consolidating their own independent research team or programme. The team is led by Katarzyna Marciniak of the University of Warsaw and will begin in October 2016.

The University of Roehampton is ranked third in London for Classical Civilisation (The Guardian University Guide 2016).