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, 22 February 2017

What's an autistic classroom?

When I sent the title of an event I’m planning to introduce the Our Mythical Childhood project to a colleague who was putting together a programme of upcoming classical events at Roehampton the colleague wrote back to check whether I’d got the title of my talk at this event right. The title I’d sent her was along the lines of ‘classical myth in the autistic classroom’ and she wanted to check whether I’d meant to write ‘autistic classroom.’ I assumed that I had managed a typo thanks to autocorrect with tends to offer me ‘artistic’ for ‘autistic’. But I checked, and I had correctly written ‘autistic’. So I confirmed this to my colleague and she who said that that she’d wanted to make sure that I’d actually meant ‘autistic classroom’ as she is not sure what such a classroom might be. I’m glad that she asked about this because the question has got me to think about what I do actually mean by the phrase.

The answer I gave her – this was about a month ago - was this: come along to the event and you’ll find out! So I have a few weeks to get my thinking sorted out ahead of the event which is on Thursday 6th March. Here are some initial musings, informed by the chapter on autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) in a book that I’m grateful to my colleague Lena Kamenopoulou for recommending: Special Teaching for Special Children? Pedagogies for inclusion, ed. By Ann Lewis and Brahmn Norwich. The chapter in question, by Rita Jordan, and also synthesises the author’s previous work on autism and education. Perhaps I should write to her to ask whether she thinks there might be such thing as an ‘autistic classroom.’

For one thing, an autistic classroom might be one where children diagnosed as autistic are taught, and were special provision is made for their distinctive needs. Jordan, building on her own previous work - and others’ notably Lorna Wing’s – defines these as dealing with difficulties in:
  1. Social and emotional understanding
  2. All aspects of communication
  3. Flexibility in thinking and behaviour.
She doesn’t number these three points – I’m only doing so because I’m following the order in her list. Indeed, what she stresses is that educational practice that only focuses in on one of the three might be inadequate – because it is the ‘triad of impairments,’ Wing’s term, that is key here. Jordan writes:

Communication difficulties, for example, are apparent when the child has problems in understanding his or her own and others’ emotions and social signals and when they have problems being spontaneous and monitoring feedback to their own actions …  ASDs are transactional disorders, appearing in their interactions with others and not to be understood without the contextualization from which special needs are determined (p. 111).

So, an ‘autistic classroom' might be one where the educational needs of diagnosed children are met, so that transactional problems can be helped, and where, for instance, their flexibility in thinking is helped in relation to how they communicate with others, and where their social and emotional understanding is fostered in the context of how they think about their behaviour and the behaviour of others. An autistic classroom might, then, be one where autistic children are helped to become more emotionally engaged and which seeks to remediate their difficulties in being socially engaged, emotionally engaged and in communicating and in developing flexible thinking and actions. Such a classroom might find ways to help those children who find it hard to participate in the mainstream classroom – the space where other children are helped in socialising and becoming enculturated. An autistic classroom could deal with needs of those who develop different from others in such areas as the following identified by Jordan:
  • Joint attention
  • Imitation
  • Social and emotional identification
  • Reading social signals
For example, as she says, autistic children can find eye contact ‘intrusive and painful’ so getting them to do this might make listening to what the speaker is saying a challenge. An autistic classroom would hopefully support an autistic child in building up confidence in making eye contact and responding to eye contact from others – and in gaining understanding of social signals and what these might mean.

So this is one answer to my colleague – an autistic classroom is a classroom for autistic kids where the specific challenges they face can be addressed. However, the Lewis-Norwich volume title ends with a question mark - signalling that the authors are engaging with a debate over whether there should be ‘special teaching for special children’ and what it means for a child to be regarded as ‘special.’ They are engaging with the call to move away from ‘special needs’ to an inclusive education. From this perspective, should there be a distinctively autistic classroom in the sense of a space that supports the learning of those diagnosed as autistic – or should autistic children have their own classroom – or should a classroom be created that supports the learning of all, autistic and otherwise?

A few follow-up points:

Firstly, I’m going to reflect about how the debate around how to meet the needs of autistic children vs. inclusive practice might impact on the resources I’m currently developing around the mythological adventures of Hercules, including around eye-contact, imitation and reading social signals.

Secondly, I’m going to read one of the items referenced by Jordan, which looks at the role of drama and also play in autistic pedagogy: Sherrat and Peter 2002. Developing play and drama in children with autism (David Fulton).

And finally this! In yet another happy coincidence – I’ve reported on others previously over the last few months – on drafting this posting on Monday morning (20th Feb), Katarzyna Marciniak the Principal Investigator for Our Mythical Childhood, emailed me on Monday afternoon to tell me about an event taking place in Warsaw on inclusive practice. I’d initially planned to write up this posing on Friday. Instead I’m doing it today (Weds) ahead of the event on Friday. I’m looking forward to finding out about the event from Katarzyna, who will be attending it – and, hopefully, to making contact with the organisers.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Autism, classical myth and why it can be beneficial NOT to name the man in the middle


Over recent postings I have mentioned a key resource I want to use for the materials I am putting together for use in the autistic classroom. It is a chimneypiece panel in an eighteenth-century room in Grove House at Roehampton, originally used as a dining room. The panel here in the picture looks quite striking: the figures are in relief so it is three dimensional. One can touch it. As people now walk into the room they don’t necessarily notice it at first, although I would say that its location – above a fireplace – would have ensured that it would have got noticed back in the eighteenth century, especially on cold London days. Thus its location would have helped make it a talking point for those who would have gathered in the room.

One thing I would like to do is hold sessions in the room, where groups of people can experience the relief and respond to it. But I am also planning on using it as inspiration for activities elsewhere. As can hopefully be seen from the photo, it is a striking artefact in its own right – and one activity I am wondering about involves creating a line drawing of the image which people could colour in. This could be a group activity, where each person takes one part of the image. For example, one person might colour in the woman on the left, another the other woman while another might colour in the fruit bowls. A further person could colour in the hillside that the woman on our left is pointing to. Or – an activity could be to create models, for instance of the fruit, or of the helmet on the bottom left of the panel, or of the club that the man in the centre is holding.

So far, I have not said who any of the people represented here are. One reason for this is as follows. As I mentioned in my previous posting in relation to Grove and Park’s exploration of the materials that they are presenting around the journey of Odysseus, it doesn’t necessarily matter if those doing the activities have little, or no, knowledge of the stories. And while it is beneficial – as Grove and Park discuss – to use the stories as an opportunity to provide access to a shared cultural heritage, this is not essential, especially when some users of the materials might find it difficult if not impossible to understand the specifics of the stories. Indeed, one challenge is around how to ensure that the materials I create can be accessible to people with a range of abilities at communication.

Thus it could feasibly be the case that some users of the materials will never get to know much if anything about the mythological stories – while others, hopefully, will find experiencing the stories rewarding, and the introductions to them provided here might potentially give a route into subsequent with classical myths. Some users, meanwhile, might come to the material with an existing knowledge of classical stories. As I discussed in a much earlier posting to this blog, there is something about classical myth that especially seems to engage autistic people. indeed, it was learning about this that prompted this whole project, as I set out in this blog’s introductory blurb.

I am going to delay saying who the figures are for a further reason. Recently, I took part in a set of workshops at Roehampton for a group of Year 10 girls (aged 14-15), most of whom know little about classical myth. My colleague Marta Gรกrcia had designed activities for them, who were divided into teams of about eight people. These included activities relating to various artefacts around the campus, and one was based around the chimneypiece panel. I was in the room throughout the time when the girls were doing the activities to welcome them and talk about the panel. When I began by saying something about the mythological figure being represented, what they noticed was focused around this male figure. But when the girls had started to look at the panel first, their attention was drawn to other things going on here. Indeed, what caught their interest was not the man in the middle at all - the two women. And rather than thinking about how he is responding to them, they were interested in the opposite thing - namely how they are responding to him, and competing for his attention.

What this has shown me in relation to my autism and classical myth project is just how many things can be drawn from the panel, irrespective of how much existing knowledge the viewer brings to it. Each time I look at it, I am struck by some fresh thing. But my interest has always been shaped by my awareness about the myth being represented. However, one could, equally, focus on the women – for example on how their gestures and on how they control the space around themselves. Another possibility would be to focus, too, on the objects around them – such as the abundant fruit beside the woman on our right.

I had originally through about whether to begin with an activity around how the man comes to be between the two women. But I am now wondering whether a starting point could be the panel itself, especially as there is potential for developing activities around the more basic levels of communication – and one could build from this to more advanced levels. For instance, a task could focus on the fruit in the baskets – and this could be accompanied with pictures of fruit, or models of fruit – which could be piled up in the baskets like they are on the panel. The fruit could be touched; those in the group could be encouraged to say key words relevant to the image – perhaps ‘hungry’, or ‘pretty’ – and they could reach out and touch the fruit or perhaps pretend to eat it.

It has been an interesting activity for me to avoid saying who the image is representing. And I am going to end by still rejecting the temptation to reveal who he is and who the women might be. Reading some of the other postings will disclose this information. I have written about the panel elsewhere too, including here, where I focus my discussion around the identity of the three figures (let me know if you have difficulties accessing this document). There is even a video of me talking about it with Classics Confidential. I take advantage of any opportunity to talk about it…

More soon – when I plan to say more about the activities I am considering.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Odyssey NOW - and *The Greatest Hero Of Them All* in autistic perspective

Behind a lot of what I do as a classicist lies the following duality – and this includes my work on autism and classical myth. On the one hand, classics is associated with elitism as a highly traditional subject, connoting public schools and ivory towers. The very name of the subject reinforces this sense that it is for a few and keeps out others. Yet when people come to the study of classics they often find that it is ‘for them’. Often, for example, when I ask new undergraduate students how they came to a classical degree, they say that it was through encounters as children with classical myths – which engaged their imagination and to which they could relate their own experiences, fears and desires. And I have many times taught first year History students who are taking classical modules not through choice but because it is a requirement of the syllabus that they study at least one ancient subject. Some of these students unexpectedly discover that the subject engages them – and that they can find their own ways into the subject. 

Classics carries elitism with it, but it has democratic potential as well. This is especially the case when those new to the subject start to realise that in some sense the classical world is not just a dead one – it is also all around us, for example in the architecture of cities, in Western art and music – both pop and classical - and in adverts and fashion. Think, for instance, Versace’s gorgon-head logo or Kylie Minogue as Aphrodite – or indeed Lady Gaga as Venus. So, by encountering classics there is the potential for anyone to reflect on Western identities and cultures (and potentially non-Western ones as well – this is something I’ll pick up at some point).

In my work for this project, I am picking stories that are created from a long dead past. But these stories have been repeatedly reused and reframed, each time to suit the needs of a particular audience. It is this interplay between foreignness and familiarity and accessibility that I want to engage with and open up.

I am currently reading a book that is demonstrating just how fruitful the ancient world and its stories can be, including for those whose ability to engage with imaginative works can be hard to comprehend. It is a set of resources by Nicola Grove and Keith Park that I am indebted to Adam Ockelford for putting me onto, called Odyssey Now. This work presents a series of interactive games for those with profound disabilities, but which can also be used by any group of people. The games are concerned with developing specific skills, especially at engaging in group work. Grove and Park explain that when they revealed that they were planning resources based around the Odyssey there were some raised eyebrows – in view of the elitist associations it conjured up. But, as they say, they were able to counter such a view easily – because it is the very antiquity of this work that makes it full of potential for stimulating children, and others. And the Odyssey, ancient though it is, has been reworked since antiquity. Grove and Park note, for instance, the success of Tony Robinson in putting out a thrilling and accessible telling of Odysseus, ‘the greatest hero of them all’. Indeed, I recall watching how with enthusiasm Tony Robinson would tell the story, moving between suitable locations as he narrated episodes in the journey of the hero – consisting, I think, of British seaside resorts, but I might be misremembering.

Indeed, so engaging are these stories that it is not a problem if those who use them – whether clients, pupils or teacher and therapists – start with little or no knowledge. However, as Grove and Park set out, rooting the activities in a story with such a heritage can open up cultural experience to those whose access to intellectual life is different from many other people’s.  As Vygotsky, said (as quoted on p. 2 – Vygotsky, pioneer in cultural-historical psychology):

human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them (Mind in Society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1978: 89 – published posthumously).

So – any instance of art, music, storytelling can engage the imagination and extend people’s experience but there are particular opportunities that classical stories provide that can be of value.

Grove and Park also say something that resonates with my own experience as I have tried out my initial plans on others. This is that teachers and other professionals can benefit from new ideas for their sessions with pupils and clients. Dramatherapists and specialist autistic school teachers I spoke to a few years ago said something comparable – namely that they welcome new resources that open up new possibilities for engaging their clients.

I am going to draw from stories from antiquity that, like the Odysseus story, have been repeatedly reworked – so much so that the stories in question are very much part of Western culture. These are the stories about the hero Herakles (Hercules in Roman stories and many modern reworkings), a figure whose struggles against the odds see him draw on skills that are associated with physical strength and also – like Odysseus – with cleverness/cunning. He often works alone, but also frequently with others, who are likewise intriguing figures – from his sidekicks to the deities who interact with him (and at least one of these deities, Athena, counts arguably as a sidekick), to the monsters and other extraordinary beings that he encounters. Thus, as well as focusing on Herakles the hero and his ‘Herculean labours,’ it is possible to switch the focus and see things from the point of view of the monsters and so forth – from monsters like the Hydra and its many heads and the race of warrior women, the Amazons. Herakles is also a traveller, like Odysseus, so there is potential for thinking about travel to other locations – all full of difficulties and dangers. The new places reached are strange and wonderful – and, like the journeys that got him there, they are full of dangers for the hero to negotiate.

In the 18th century, the story of Hercules was used not least for its educational potential – to teach how to lead a suitably good life by making the right kind of choice between competing options. (More on this in future postings.) I am going to explore how, right now in the 21st century, the educational possibilities are likewise rich.

Grove and Park identify a set of areas that their activities based around Odysseus’ story can stimulate, including:

Eye gaze; exchanges and turn-taking; contingent vocalisation; gaining attention; anticipation; and elicitation of states of feeling which contrast with one another (p. 6)

I am going to show how the Herakles story has similar potential, starting with the very story that especially engaged those concerned in the 18th century with the education of the young. This is choice Herakles faces when, on a journey, he reaches a crossroads and needs to pick between two very different paths. He never chooses the third one, incidentally, which would be turn back the way he came. I would hope that, just as Herakles finds it hard to choose the right way forward, but never turns back to the original starting point, so those who use these materials will be able to deal with new opportunities, difficult though these may be. More soon!