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.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Our Mythical Childhood - Introducing the Roehampton wing of the ERC Project

Previously on this blog I've included details of events I'm involved in that bear in some way on autism/classical mythology. I'm currently getting quite a buzz out of organising another such event. I mentioned it in my previous posting last week: it's an event to introduce the work being done at Roehampton for the Our Mythical Childhood project - including my work on autism. Here's the text of the notice I've put out.

Booking is open here.

Over the next 5 years, the University of Roehampton will be part of an international project, funded by the European Research Council, to develop a pioneering approach to the role of classics as a transformation marker in children's and Young Adult contemporary culture. This event, held during the 2017 ERC Week, will introduce the Roehampton wing of the project. It will include presentations from the following academics who will introduce how their work is unfolding:

Susan Deacy - autism and classical myth

Sonya Nevin - vase animations on mythical themes

Katerina Volioti - gods and other mythical creatures in literature for young children

You will also hear about the major survey of classical mythology in children's culture which is being collected by scholars around the world.

All are very welcome.

Where and when: Thursday 16th March 2017, 5.00pm-6.30pm in the University of Roehampton's beautiful (and mythologically rich) Adam Room in Grove House.
Further information on the project

ERC Website: http://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/205179_en.html

Roehampton News: https://www.roehampton.ac.uk/humanities/news/funding-received-to-research-benefits-of-ancient-myths-for-children-diagnosed-with-autism-/

Sonya Nevin's animations blog: http://panoplyclassicsandanimation.blogspot.co.uk/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/784466598373583/

Twitter: @OMChildhood

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

How Roehampton's Adam Room might stimulate the autistic imagination

On Monday I said that I’d hopefully be posting again soon. Here - on Wednesday - is the posting I mentioned there on how I plan to use Hercules as a focus of the materials I am planning on autism and classical mythology.
As I have laid out briefly in earlier postings, including this one, I had been beginning to use the Perseus myth as my focus. In addition, I had started to think about the potential for owls – in light of the use of this creature as an image for autism. But, then, I managed to book a particular room at Roehampton for an upcoming event introducing the European Research Council-funded project my work is part for – for an event introducing the project to be held during ERC Week in March. This room, one of the eighteenth-century rooms at the University, is the Adam Room, which includes a chimneypiece panel representing the Choice of Hercules between Virtue and Vice (or Hard Work and Indolence, or even between Mind and Body).
I have decided to go beyond the potential of this artefact as, merely, a suitably – and attractively –
mythological setting for the event. I am also going to use the example to illustrate the work I am doing. The scope here is vast. For one thing, it serves as an example of where myth deals with a difficult moment: the Choice faced between two very different paths, represented by two very different females and their gifts. What’s more, in the eighteenth century, the myth was one that people were specifically engaging with as their made their own choices between what each of the women signalled – hard work on the one hand and leisure on the other, though also mind on the one hand as against the body. And the myth was, even, used in the eighteenth century to educate young people, as I have mentioned in previous work on this topic. There's an interview of me talking about the chimneypiece with Classics Confidential a few years back

And by doing this, I should be able to use the research I have done to date on this chimneypiece. Thus, to my pleasant surprise, I am finding once again that another aspect of my academic life is impacting on the autism and classical myth project.
I now want to update this educational potential in the Choice of Hercules. In particular I shall investigate how the episode can help:
  • Stimulate the imagination
  • Extend experience
  • Develop social and personal skills
  • Give cultural experience to autistic people
  • Aid interaction with others

I’ll post an update as soon as possible.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Disney, Sidekicks, Autism and Classical Myth

Over the past few years while I have been developing my autism and classical myth project, I have been thinking about the potential of classical mythology as a means to engage autistic children – and potentially adults too. Over the past couple of months, I have been thinking about how other kinds of stories can also provide this role, namely those put out by Disney. Disney taps regularly into fairy tales and folktales such as Aladdin and Mulan, though there has also been a foray into classical myth with their Hercules and so there already is a classical mythological dimension to explore and build on. 

What has got me thinking about Disney has been the hugely successful work by Ron Suskind who charts his journey to reach his autistic son Owen in the book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, which has provided renewed publicity for autism and how autistic children can be supported in the US and beyond. Right now, what he has done is hot news thanks to a recently premiered film charting his son’s journey since he suddenly started to show autistic traits as a three-year-old in the 1990s and lost the ability to speak in any way intelligibly to others. The one word he would keep saying sounded like ‘juice’ but it later transpired that he was saying ‘just your voice,’ which is what Ursela says in The Little Mermaid. Thus he was using a Disney film to communicate but no one could yet understand him. Then, one day, his father picked up his puppet of Iago, the villain’s sidekick from Aladdin and started talking as that puppet. Owen started responding – and thus began his father’s recognition that what he had here was a pathway to is son. It was not merely that there was echolalia here – whereby Owen had memorised lines from the plays. Owen was using the Disney characters to communicate his feelings while also to help him reflect on his own self and his relationship to the world. And, since then, including as he moved into adulthood, Owen has continued to draw from film to enable him to process his feelings at key points in his life including to deal with difficult experiences, such as a relationship break-up.

Previously, his parents had been told by professionals to ‘tame’ his love for Disney because they saw this as something that was holding back his progress, but it was in fact Owen’s gateway to the world, and the world’s gateway to Owen’s inner world.

The relevance to my work is something that I am currently exploring. I want to think about how the characters of myth – and the difficult moments they need to negotiate – can serve as a just such a gateway. As I have commented previously, whereas I started out thinking about how one might ‘reach’ autistic people, I am increasingly gaining a stronger sense of the distinctive world view of each autistic person. It won’t be solely that myth can aid autistic people to develop social and other skills to enable them to interact with the world – in addition, others can be enabled to gain a deeper understanding of the world of an autistic person.

In an interview with Ron and Owen Siskind for Democracy Now, the interviewer, Amy Goodman, asked Owen:

What does it mean to be autistic?

He answered,

It means that you have special skills and talents inside you.

Like Disney, classical myth might provide a means to help bring these skills to the world outside. By a really nice coincidence, I have been thinking about the specific Greek myth adapted by Disney – and one which Owen and Ron would also use to in their communications with one another – that of Hercules. I’ll discuss how I came to think about this myth, and what I’ll be doing with it, in the next posting, hopefully later this week.