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.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Our mythical journey at Roehampton - how we introduced the OMC project during ERC Week 2017

Here’s a written-up version of the text I presented yesterday at a special event. Along with my colleagues Sonya Nevin and Katerina Volioti, I introduced the Our Mythical Childhood project in Roehampton's Adam Room whose chimneypiece I have many-times referenced in this blog of late. This event formed part of a series of events for the project helping to celebrate ERC Week on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the European Research Council. I'm awaiting photos of the event, which was also recorded. And I've also sent an evaluation form around those who booked. I'll add to and supplement this posting with these materials as seems most fit.

We’re so happy to have this opportunity to present our project to you. Some of your faces are familiar – others not – and as a result you’re making a dream I had a few months ago come true. I woke up at c. 3am after a dream that, as part of the project, it was necessary that I should reach out to every wing of the University including each academic department and each support department. I realised with relief that this was just a dream, but the dream had been coming out of an awareness on my part that one potentially interesting thing about the project is its interdisciplinary – its home in disciplinary terms is classics but we don’t consider ourselves rooted here.  There is fit for example with children’s literature, with education and with psychology and more…  so, when I started publicising this event I was very pleasantly surprised when many of the names that were showing in the booking notifications were unknown to me.  So – a dream I had of working with colleagues across the university is coming true.

This is a project that is being embarked on by the three of us at Roehampton. Today we’ll be introducing the work that we’re doing. But it is also a global project involving collaboration between a team of scholars in Poland, Cameroon, Israel and Australia. So, as well as introducing the work that we’re doing here, we’ll show how our work is being done in collaboration with our colleagues internationally. Here’s how this evening will be structured. I’m going to start by talking about the project broadly. This will lead into an introduction to a stand of the project for which I’m taking the lead, autism and classical myth. Then, Sonya will introduce the work she is doing along with her partner Steve Simons on animating classical myth. Finally, Katerina will discuss the work she is doing on how mythological figures are received in children’s culture in modern Greece.

And what we’re going to do is to try to convey how globally focused our project is, while conveying too how it is rooted in regional receptions in kids’ and YA culture, and one way in which I’m going to engage with this duality between international and local is in relation to this room. It’s my most favourite room and here’s why: this chimneypiece and the panel at the centre.  These can get a bit overlooked when we gather here for meetings and receptions and so forth but it is a wonderful instance of the reception of classical myth and it’s an instance too of the appropriate of a mythological figure that has a resonance with our project – because of when it was produced, who it represents and how it can continue to speak to children today – and adults… Having hopefully generated a bit of expectation I’ll come back to it after saying something more about the project.

The project started – for me – a few years ago when I saw a notice that Professor Katarzyna Marciniak put up on a classicists’ email list about resources created under her direction on classical motifs in Post-War literature for children in Poland. I wrote to her expressing my interest and support and this led to a dialogue around her work and a project that I’d been slowing building up for a few years on the potential for classical myth in work with autistic children. Katarzyna had built up a network of scholars interested in how children’s culture adapts and transforms classical themes. And we decided to go for something ambitious - a bid for funding to a sufficiently large and forward-looking scheme that might match the ambitious project we were envisaging. This was the Horizon 2020 Excellent Science Scheme of the European Research Council.

Our conviction was that in kids’ and YA culture, the reception of antiquity isn’t just taken in passively but is always being shaped afresh, in varied ways, in response to challenges that are both regional and global. We wanted to research the richness of these processes, with a view to impacting on the frontiers of scholarship, education and culture. We prepared the bid over several months, with excellent support from our institutions including Roehampton – and I would especially like to mention here Mike Edwards, Head of the Dept of Humanities, who peer-reviewed the bid and the then research facilitator for Humanities, Arianna Ciula, without whom I don’t think we’d be standing here now.

We were warned that the project was so huge and risky that we might well be unsuccessful – but we felt that by putting together the application we’d at least have material we could use for future collaborations. But then we heard that we’d got past the first round – and after Katarzyna presented the project to the ERC in Brussels, we learnt that we’d been successful. The project began, after lots of final bits of admin, in October 2016 after the agreement with the ERC had been signed off by each University’s signatories including our Vice Chancellor. I’m honoured, now, today, to be here introducing the project during the first ever ERC Week, to mark the Council’s tenth anniversary.

One thing that’s fuelling our work is this – that the way to approach the reception of classical antiquity is not as from some distant, frozen past, but as a vibrant cultural process – it is something alive – that has been appropriated at various times since antiquity right up to the present, and in media that can range from an 18th-century chimneypiece such as the one in this room to contemporary novels, movies and, now, internet phenomena and computer games and toys such as Lego figures.

We are going to show the variety of receptions though a range of studies that pull together reception models in Europe, America and Australia and NZ and also in localities not typically associated with the classical tradition – Asia and Africa.  The example of Hercules is instructive here. This figure has been appropriated by many cultures including as a national hero. For instance, there is a late 1960s Russian animation, The Return from Olympus, where Hercules defends the working class against the gods who represent exploiters of the workers (cf. Putin as Hercules…?!). And in the Eighteenth-Century, the Hercules myth became a British myth – and the hero was used to educate the young – young men at least – in how to find a balance between two opposing forces of key interest then – Virtue/Hard Work and Vice/Indolence. And this is precisely how he is shown here on the chimney piece panel in this room – choosing which path to take in life between the pleasures of Vice, whose gifts are abundant, immediate and overflowing, and the way of Virtue which will take the hero up a steep and craggy path but with huge rewards at the end of his struggle. And on the panel, he turns his body towards Vice but his head towards Virtue.

I got to see the educational potential of this artefact earlier this term when the Class of 2020, the group of girls who are being sponsored by the University to mark our 175th anniversary. came into this room as part of their day of activities on the Humanities Challenge Day. What many of them saw was not – just – some artefact from a long-distant classical/18-century past but a metaphor for the choices they make in life. One said in her evaluation:

My favourite things about today was when we went into the Adams room because I loved the architecture and designs inside and outside. The picture on the fireplace was also very good because it made me think about decisions that I have made and will make.

So – classical myth has rich potential as a transformation marker in children’s culture including for the amazing girls in the Class of 2020. And the OMC project is seeking to capture this via its various strands. For instance, Lisa Maurice in Israel is leading research into how classics is used in educational resources worldwide. Plus, we’re all involved in compiling a Survey of works for children drawing on classical antiquity. Over each 6-month period, Roehampton, like the other institutions, is producing 30 entries. We are currently nearing the end of the first period – and Katerina and Sonya have brought along some of the works that they are working on. Some of the authors who will be contributing to the second set of entries are in this room – including the author who will write about this Lego figure and others.

Now to the second thing I want to talk about – the work I’m doing on autism and classical myth. I think that the best way to introduce this is via a brief account of how it came about. This was around 2008 when I was talking with a special needs teacher who told me that one things she had noticed over the years was that autistic children often respond well to learning about classical myth. I started musing over why this might be the case and then something stuck me – namely that, as a classicist specialising in mythology, I might have something specific to contribute towards using myth with autistic children. So: I began contacting as many people as I could think of, including at Roehampton, and I kept being encouraged to push forward. For instance, the special needs teachers I spoke with, and dramatherapists too, consistently said that they’re always looking for new resources and that stories provide valuable sources for materials.

I started a blog in early 2009 to report on my progress. I decided to do this because I was aware that I had many other projects ongoing – but by blogging as and when I thought I had something to share, I could at least report sporadically on my progress. And in the period from 2009 until the OMC project got going, I did indeed blog sporadically, often with huge gaps between postings. But what happened too was that several specialists who work with autistic people got in touch with me and by the time we began on the funding bid to the ERC, I had written c. 20,000 words around aspects of autism myth and disability studies. And during this time, this interest in autism led to some unexpected interfaces between my various roles at the University. For instance, I became the disability co-ordinator for the School of Arts and went on to hold a comparable role for the Dept of Humanities – and this has enabled me to work with the disability team here including Lisa Forbes and Tom Cakebread, whose presentation on neurodiversity at a training event in disability and inclusive practice here last year was inspiring.

Since I started work on the project, two interesting things have been happening. For one thing, classical reception studies has been developing as a field of classics. And in this climate, with OMC, we’re exploring from new angles how classical antiquity is persistently reshaped in children’s culture, including to deal with difficult moments and rites of passage. Secondly, understandings of autism have been developing, including an increased sense of the challenges that autistic people face and also the how vital it is not only to seek to ‘reach’ autistic people but also to gain a deeper understanding of the world of each autistic person – it is the potential for myth to gain this understanding that is helping drive what I’m doing.

My work on autism is in line with a core feature of the OMC project – namely that engagements with antiquity are not passive, but instead classical themes and figures are ever being reshaped. And this takes me to a key answer I have been formulating over the past few years to the question of I asked back in 2008 – of what it is about classical myth that might appeal to autistic children. Classical myths on the one hand look fixed: each character for instance has specific traits and each story seems to have a fixed structure. Yet, on the other hand, classical myths are flexible and fluid – they were so in antiquity and they have been thus ever since. I am going to work with duality to find new ways to open up cultural experiences for autistic children – children whose access to cultural and intellectual life can be challenging.

I am going to be developing materials around several mythological characters, starting with the one in this room, on our chimneypiece. The panel here offers huge potential – for working with autistic people across the spectrum. For instance, there is potential for developing activities around the most basic levels of communication. For example, I am planning a task that focuses on the fruit in the baskets – where children are encouraged to touch models of fruit and say key words relevant to the experience, such as ‘hungry’ or ‘pretty’. I am also planning activities around more developed levels of communication. For instance, Hercules here is at a difficult moment, facing a choice between two different paths in life. I am considering developing activities around eliciting states of feeling which contrast with one another. I am also exploring the potential for an activity around turn-taking which takes the focus away from Hercules in the middle to the two women and how they each seek to gain his attention.

I am currently building up contacts with specialists and practitioners and soon I shall start discussing these materials with them. My work is in its early stages – I’ll keep blogging on my progress and I’d be happy to share this progress with you.

I then handed over to Sonya who in turn handed over to Katerina. We received some warm feedback in the reception afterwards. I now feel as though, as we near the end of the first reporting period of the project, our mythical journey at Roehampton has truly come into existence.

L-R: Katerina Volioti, Susan Deacy, Hercules, Sonya Nevin