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.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Hercules, the autistic imagination and Our Mythical Hope

Here is the text of the paper I gave in Warsaw in May 2017 introducing my autism and classical mythology work and linking it to the conference theme, of Our Mythical Hope in children's and young adults' culture... the (in)efficacy of ancient myths in overcoming the hardships of life. Some of what I actually said in Warsaw differs from what is set out here - the paper, as delivered, used this text as a springboard for reflections around my project rather than anything like a strict script.


A year ago, when we were gathered here in Warsaw to ‘Chase Mythical Beasts,’ I gave some very initial information about the work I was – then – getting ready to embark on concerning autism and classical mythology. When photos taken at the conference were circulated shortly afterwards, and I saw this one of myself setting out my plans, I was struck at how intense I looked. This was, I think, because I was sharing how much this work meant to me. Back then, we had several months still to go before the project, enabled by ERC funding, would start. Indeed, we were still working out a number of aspects of the project, including what the precise start date would be. Then, in October 2016, the project got going officially. And, so, the dream I had fostered for several years could finally come true, namely to investigate the potential for using classical myth with autistic children.

I had learnt, back in 2008, that autistic children often respond well to learning about classical myth. As a classicist interested in classical myth, I was intrigued to find out why this might be the case. And this led to an unexpected turn in my life towards becoming deeply interested in autism and disability more broadly. Over this time, I thought about the topic constantly, and began a blog to set out my ideas, but I was far from sure whether it would ever turn into an actual project, much though I hoped it would. But, now, I am able – indeed required – to conduct this work. And today what I am going to do is discuss what stage I have currently reached, and where I will be going next. I shall outline some of the principles guiding what I am doing, and I shall talk about the particular topic that I have selected for the first stage of my project, namely the development of resources for use by those who work with autistic children around a particular mythical figure: Hercules. This was not the initial figure I had planned to work on – so I shall seek to convey what it is about Hercules that makes him suitable for the focus of my work. I shall also mention a couple of occurrences that have confirmed me in my thinking about the potential for using Hercules in this way, starting, now, with the first of these. This was being put in touch, by Prof Marciniak, with Dr Pecchini, my fellow panellist today, at a time when he, too, was exploring the potential of myths of Hercules in his work as a clinical psychologist.

The focus of this current conference, around ‘Our Mythical Hope,’ is something that I have also taken heart from – in view of how it points to the aspirational approach that, spurred on by Katarzyna, we are as a team, taking towards the study of classical themes in children’s culture. I have also taken inspiration from the conference’s focus on how classical myth can play a part in mitigating the ‘hardships of life.’ In relation to my work on autism, there is potential for using myth to deal with the challenges faced by autistic people – notably the
‘triad of impairments’ that Lorna Wing identified some years ago now, as which are still used as guiding principles. These are difficulties in: (1) social and emotional understanding, (2) all aspects of communication, and (3) a lack of flexibility in thinking and behaviour. As Rita Jordan – to whom I’ll return further soon – stresses, 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:

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).

But I also note the ‘in’ in brackets before the word ‘efficacy’ in the title for the conference. This allowance of the possible of ‘inefficacy’ alongside ‘efficacy’ signals something that, also, fits my experiences over the past few months as the project has been getting going, namely that classics, as it is received by children, might not always play the transformative or reassuring or aspirational role that we might like it to. Colleagues working on aspects of classics in children’s literature have told me about some of the uncomfortable things that they are discovering, for example that classical themes are sometimes used to perpetuate certain stereotypes, for instance around gender. The ‘in’ also puts me in mind of certain of the experiences I have had over the last few months, which have helped bring home to me just what the responsibilities might be for me as I produce materials that could be used in work with autistic children. I shall structure the remainder of this paper around three of these experiences.


One experience was from a colleague, a librarian, who has been very encouraging about the project. Chancing to learn that a visitor to her library was the grandmother of an autistic young child, she told the visitor about my work and mentioned that I am looking, particularly, at Hercules. The visitor responded that she very much hoped that I wouldn’t be including anything particularly violent, like the Hydra’s heads being cut off. Now: this is precisely one of the features of Hercules’s adventures that I am planning to work on – as one instance where Hercules, journeying into a fantasy land, encounters hardships which he overcomes against the odds. (Conversely, in the mundane world, he is often an outsider, who gets things wrong – because the behaviour that is suitable in a fantasy realm is not such in the everyday world.) In light of this comment from my colleague, I am aware that I need to treat the episode with care, including because it is not necessarily possible to control how someone will engage with any aspect of mythology presented to them. For example, the encounter with the Hydra, which might appear an instance of how to engage in problem solving to one person might be taken as uncomfortably violent by someone else, especially perhaps if the user empathises with the monster rather than the monster’s slayer. Stories of Hercules tend to be presented form the perspective of the hero, but what if a participant in an activity for autistic children identifies with the Hydra instead?

(There are various possible solutions here – for instance, by problematising who it is who is the hero and who it is that is the victim perhaps by focusing on how the Hydra deals with the violence of Hercules by growing new heads – but I’ll start to address these further down the line rather than currently).

Another experience that has got me thinking about my practice is the following one – namely feedback I received from a participant at an event at Roehampton where I introduced the work I am planning on autism and classical myth during ERC Week in March. One of those who attended the session was a therapist who has experience working with autistic clients. I stated during my presentation that I would be developing materials that teachers and other professionals could use with autistic children. When she stressed to me after my paper the many challenges of working with autistic clients, and also emphasised the potential for causing harm to clients if one lacks sufficient training, I realised that she had thought that I was intending to work directly with autistic children without any specialist present. This experience has made me realise that I need to emphasise that this is not what I am intending, and shown me yet again just how much expertise a practitioner needs in order to work in an educational or therapeutic capacity with autistic children.

So – here is what I am doing currently. I am developing resources around the adventures of Hercules – not the episode with the Hydra – yet – but a particular episode that already has a history of use in the education of the young. This is the ‘choice of Hercules’ between two paths, one of hard work, the other of pleasure, which was popular in educational texts in the 18th century. I shall focus in particular on the episode as it is represented on a chimneypiece panel in Grove House, an eighteenth-century villa in Roehampton. Once I have finished drafting the first set of activities, I shall start liaising with professionals – and in light of their feedback, I shall rework the materials. Ultimately, I’m hoping that the materials will have a place in classroom activities - and I would be very interested in actually observing them being used. And this is one of the aspects of my work for which I have gone through the Ethics procedure at my institution.

Now I’ll turn to a third observation which is shaping my approach.


My third observation in relation to the focus of this conference deals with overcoming the hardships of life from another angle, namely how far it should, in fact, be the role of someone working with autistic people to attempt to resolve the supposed hardships of their lives.

Since I began getting interested in autism in 2008, there has been a shift in thinking about the condition away from autism as something in need of a cure. As Jim Sinclair said ‘don’t mourn for us.’ Autism, as activists present it, isn’t something to be pathologised as an impairment, but it is a way of being. In place of trying to make someone autistic more like ‘us,’ for example by helping them make eye contact and by finding ways to reduce repetitive actions, instead it might be timely to think about embodied differences and also about possibly advantageous autistic behaviours. And there is scope here for work on myth – including the myth of Hercules. One approach, in line with what I was exploring back in 2008, would be to use myth to help autistic people develop specific skills, for instance in communication. Another approach would be to use myth to explore the its potential for speak to different ways of thinking and behaving.

Indeed, the potential for myth as a gateway into the wold of an autistic child is huge. This may be demonstrated by the experiences of Ron Suskind, who – in his recent book Sidekicks – sets out his journey towards communicating with his son, Owen, via Disney characters, including characters in Disney’s Hercules. Reading about this process, and the place played by Hercules among an array of characters, has further encouraged me in my thinking that it is worth developing resources around the adventures of this figure.

Suskind’s experiences also put me in mind, however, of one challenge that I am facing. Owen had already developed a love of the stories and characters that his father was able to use as a gateway to understanding him. But it could well be the case that those I am producing materials for will not have any such existing knowledge of the stories – let alone a love of them.

However, this potential problem is surmountable. Indeed, it might not, even, be a problem I the first place – as I shall consider in the next section.


In my development of resources around episodes in the adventures of Hercules, I am
following the approach developed by Grove and Park around the adventures of another hero, Odysseus. This is in their book, Odyssey Now, which is comprised of a set of activities for those working with those with profound disabilities, but which can be adapted for use with other groups too. As they state in the book, they developed resources around the adventures of a classical hero because rooting activates in stories with such a heritage can open up cultural experiences to those whose intellectual life is different from that of other people.

Like them, I have opted for a classical hero, Herakles, whose struggles against the odds see him draw on skills associated with strength and also cleverness that is akin to Odysseus. It doesn’t matter whether those doing the activities have existing knowledge of the stories – indeed, some of the users might find it hard, perhaps impossible, to understand the specifics of the myths. Indeed, a challenge for me will be to make the materials I create accessible to those with a range of abilities at communication.

In doing this, I shall be seeking to keep aware of the potential that the stories might provide
for engaging autistic children, while taking note of just how misguided it is to think in terms of some ideal recipient of the resources – when each autistic person learns in distinctive ways. This is something that is stressed, for example, by Rita Jordan in the practical advice she gives to those working with autistic people. For one thing, she stresses that it is crucial to keep the focus on the individual person, and to retain a sense of how each person learns differently: there cannot ever be a recipe which sets out how autistic education should be done. As a result, it is vital that practitioners should keep reflecting on their practice and the principles that underpin it – and it is crucial too they should reflect too both on their successes and failures as practitioners.

Jordan also stresses something that might be especially challenging for a non-autistic person – this is that, while each person learns differently, there is, all the same, a distinctly autistic way of learning. This can be hard to grasp by those who don’t share autistic ways of learning – I like putting it this way round, as it marks out the non-autist here as the one who is deficient, rather than the autistic person. However, as she also stresses, it is not necessarily helpful to divine autism into subcategories. What’s more, there is rarely ever ‘pure’ autism – instead, autism often intersects with other conditions, such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia.

Jordan emphasises that autism education should keep a focus not just on what autistics lack, but on autistic strengths and abilities. She stresses that it is vital to set high expectations for each learner, while providing plenty of support as well. And as she sets out, one challenge is around enabling autistic people to pick up with others are able to do instinctively. Autistic practice should be support distinctively autistic ways of thinking and behaving, while finding ways for autistic people to operate in a ‘non-autistic world.’

I’ll end by sketching out how the brief example of the Choice of Hercules mentioned earlier can be informed by these principles. There is potential for developing materials for those with different levels of communication. I’m planning activities, for example, around the complexities of eye contact between Hercules, the two women and also various of the attributes in the image – this activity would be geared towards those with more advanced levels of communication. For those with more basic levels of communication, I am envisaging an activity based around the fruit in the basket, potentially involving pictures or models of fruit. The children could be encouraged to say things like ‘hungry’ and ‘pretty’ and they could be encouraged to reach out and touch the fruit, or pretend to eat it.


To conclude - life can be difficult for children and young adults, just as Katarzyna Marciniak sets out beautifully in the conference booklet – but, as she points out, out of Night there comes a daughter, Hope. I have tried to show some of the sources for Hope for autistic children as they negotiate experiences on the road to adulthood. These include challenges common to all including building identities and making choices. Yet, for autistic children the challenges can be all the more acute as they find ways to make sense of experiences, to develop imaginations, learn to plan for the future, and try to make sense of where they fit within time and space.

I am driven by a conviction that classical myth can be a source of support, and Hope, for autistic children as they negotiate these challenges. I have only had time to sketch out very briefly what I shall be doing to turn this conviction into something tangible, but I hope that I have given a sense of the principles that are underlying what I am planning around Hercules, his choices and his experiences. Over the next few months, I am going to be drafting initial activities, and I’ll be contacting various practitioners and seeking their advice, including perhaps some people in this room. It’s been an honour to share my thinking to date – and I look forward to sharing my work with you as it unfolds during Our Mythical Travels.

No comments: