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.

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).

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Neurodiversity, autism, embodied differences and questions

Back in June, I attended a session at Roehampton that I'm going to reflect on here - because there is so much that bears on my autism and classical mythology work and because it provides one example of just how far autism research has come on since I started this blog in 2009. Back then, terribly little was known about autism but things were changing. They are still changing, and here I shall sketch out some of the changes as I understand them, aided by what was raised at the session. I shall do this with a view to setting out how my own thinking around autism has been evolving.

For one thing, there has been an increased awareness that autistic people grow up - when people diagnosed as autistic move into adulthood, they haven't somehow left autism behind, and as autistic adults, they may have gained the social skills that previously led adults in their lives to seek to support them. As Steve Silberman sets out in Neurotribes, his recent book on autism, autistic adults have reported that when they were children it is not that they didn't understand what someone was saying to them - rather, they didn't know how to set about responding to what the other person was saying. The precise reference to Silberman's book is to follow; plus I really need to set out just how much I've gained from reading this book...

Linked with this, it is over-simple to assume that autistic people lack empathy and need somehow to be taught it - in this regard I am led to rethink a posting I put up a couple of years ago that came out of a conversation with a student about where dyspraxia stands in relation to autism - where I referred to dyspraxia being something like autism-with-empathy. Not only am I now thinking that the relationship between the two is less divisible, but I am recalling a training session I went to around a year ago on supporting students with ADHD. Here the trainer discussed just how fluid the relationship is between particular conditions, autism being just one of them. Unlike when I got started on this project, I am now thinking of autism as part of a wider set of differences. And this takes me to the session in June - I would like to name the trainer, but I'd better check with him first. What the session set out is that neurodiversity is gaining such currency at the present that it is becoming possible to talk about a neurodiverse community and about a neurodiverse movement - one fuelled by the move away from the medical model of disability which saw disability as, for instance, something in need of a cure. As Jim Sinclair says: 'don't mourn for us'. Autism is not something to be pathologied as an impairment - it is way of being. Autistic people are different not disabled. In place of seeking to make someone autistic 'more like me' - by, for example, helping them make eye contact or helping them stop making repetitive actions - there is a move to thinking instead about embodied differences and about advantageous autistic behaviours.

There are many implications here for my project - just when I am exploring what potential there is in classical mythology for those who support autistic children. The very issue of what it means to support - let alone 'reach' - autistic people is open to debate. How far should I be developing materials to help autistics develop social skills? How far should I be exploring the potential for myth to speak to different ways of thinking and behaving? As is typically the case when I blog I end with questions rather than answers - but that seems about right at this current early stage of what I'm doing.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Our new adventure

Along with other team members I received an email on Saturday morning from Katarzyna Marciniak, the Our Mythic Childhood Principal Investigator, that began "Today is the first day of our new adventure." The period of European Research Council funding began then - 1st October - and so today, Monday 3rd, is the first standard working day of the project. I've spent today's OMC time getting ready for what I anticipate as a pleasurable bureaucratic event - a meeting on Wednesday with colleagues in Finance and Human Resources to finalise the terms of the contract and the payment schedule. Then I'll be able to plan in earnest not only my autism research but also the entries that I'll be coordinating for the guide to classical antiquity in children's literature. Before Wednesday I'm planning to revisit notes I made at a disability and inclusive practice session that I attended earlier in the year on neurodiversity - what was said here helped confirm me in my thinking that research into autism has moved on since the late 2000s when I was first envisaging this project. I'll blog on this soon.

I'll end this posting with a brief mention of my colleague Rosemary Barrow who died recently and whose funeral is this coming Wednesday. Rosemary was one of several people to whom I mentioned my nascent plan for a project on autism and mythology and whose encouragement helped me realise that there was something here worth pursuing. I hadn't realised that, prior to starting her classical postgraduate studies, Rosemary had worked as a therapist in some capacity, She could straightaway see the potential for this research. This - and her subsequent interest - is one of the many things I'm remembering right now and that I believe will remain with me.