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.





Thursday, 12 October 2017

Classical myth: bearer of hope for autistic children?

Here’s a written-up version of the paper I gave yesterday at the Classics and Social Justice conference mentioned in my previous posting. This event was exploring ways to diversify Classics. Here's what my short (c. 15 minute) paper contributed.

Good afternoon! I offered three papers for this event. The first was on Equality and Diversity, around my experiences writing a disciplinary guide for the Higher Education Academy for Classis a few years back (which made lots of references to this prize-winning book). Secondly, I offered one on the potential for Black Athena – currently in its 30th anniversary year – for challenging what Classics is, and diversifying it. Here I would have looked especially at my experiences teaching Black Athena in the classroom. Then I mentioned a third topic, on work I’m doing on autism and classical myth – and this is what won out, possibly because its potential impact beyond HE has the best fit with what Classics and Social Justice strives for, namely “Outreach that brings classics out of the academy andreturns it to the least privileged in our society.”

So, what I shall give now is an overview of what I am doing with classical myth in an autistic context – and what I am doing with autism in a classical context.

I am in the second year of Our Mythical Childhood… an ERC-funded project on classics and children’s culture (Nanci Santos, who just spoke on classics and video games is part of the project too). It’s a global project – for which Roehampton is the UK base. The key thing I am doing for the project is producing a set of resources for use with autistic children.

My title for today mentions – specifically – myth as a ‘hope bearer’ because this is an issue that I have been exploring as part of the Our Mythical Childhood project for a conference held in May 2017 and, now, a tied-in book. The conference/book looks at how far classical myth can be a source of hope for children as they move through difficulties and challenges of childhood towards adulthood. And my paper looks at how far classical myth might be a source of hope for autistic children in particular.

It might be thought that hope is something particularly needed for autistic children – not least the hope of a cure. This is not the approach I am taking. There are still people seeking to cure people of their autism. But, for others, this is misguided and damaging. Rather than seeking to cure someone of autism – to separate autism from a person – another approach is this, namely to recognise that autism represents a particular way of thinking and a particular kind of experience. So, the kind of hope that I am engaging with is the hope for a means for non-autistic people to ‘reach’ autistic people and, vice versa, for autistic people to engage in a non-autistic world.

I am hoping that classical myth will provide just such a gateway between these two worlds. This is a quest that began for me approaching a decade ago when I learnt from a special needs teacher that, in her experience, autistic children tend to respond well to learning about classical myth. I started to wonder why – and I began to wonder whether, as a classicist especially interested in myth, I might be able to contribute something to autistic research.

I was confirmed in this thinking last year when I heard about the book Sidekicks by Ron Suskind. Here, Suskind sets out how he managed to reach his autistic son via Disney characters, including those from Disney’s Hercules. And my first set of resources will be linked with Hercules – with the choice of Hercules between two paths in life. I am going to centre them around an artefact, one just c.100 metres away, in an 18th-century room at Roehampton – imaged here  in an earlier blog post - which has a chimneypiece panel depicting the episode. I am going to use this artefact in activities with autistic children. For example, for those with more basic levels of communication, who might not know – or ever know - who Hercules ‘is’ there will be activities around the fruit in the basket, where users will be encouraged to say key words relevant to the image, such as ‘hungry’ and ‘pretty.’ For others, there will be activities around gestures – and on how the three figures, especially the women, seek to control the space around themselves.

I am going to be developing these resources by early 2018, and I shall keep putting updates on my blog to outline by progress.

I ended by saying thank you – and I gained some really supportive feedback and also offers of help. One of the participants, Chris Mowat, tweeted actively during the event at #classicsSJ including as follows on my paper:

            Classics Soc Justice Retweeted 

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         Chris Mowat‏ ‪@chrismologos 17h17 hours ago
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Replying to ‪‪@chrismologosSD: Hercules and the two different paths in life is a strongly used image through classics reception ‪#classicsSJ
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         Chris Mowat‏ ‪@chrismologos 17h17 hours ago
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Replying to ‪‪@chrismologosSD: using characters (from Myth to Disney) can provide a gateway to communicate with autistic children ‪#ClassicsSJ
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            Classics Soc Justice Retweeted 

         Chris Mowat‏ ‪@chrismologos 17h17 hours ago
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Replying to ‪‪@chrismologosSD: "neurotribes" by Silverman is an interesting book exploring autism and neurodiversity ‪#classicsSJ
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            Classics Soc Justice Retweeted 

         Chris Mowat‏ ‪@chrismologos 17h17 hours ago
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Replying to ‪‪@chrismologosSD: the owl of Athena is often used as a motif for autism ‪#classicsSJ
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Replying to ‪‪@chrismologosSD: i heard from a special needs teacher that autistic children are generally readily engaged in classical myth ‪#classicsSJ
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Replying to ‪‪@chrismologosSD: myth can be really useful for all children coming through childhood and learning adulthood, it gives hope for various people ‪#classicsSJ
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Replying to ‪‪@chrismologosSD: part of my aim in this project is to create resources for teaching classical myth to autistic children. ‪#classicsSJ
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Replying to ‪‪@chrismologosSD: the project "our mythical childhood" intends to look at the role of Classics in children's literature etc. ‪#classicsSJ
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         Chris Mowat‏ ‪@chrismologos 17h17 hours ago
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Susan Deacy on "classical myth: the bearer of hope for autistic children" ‪#classicsSJ
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