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, 28 February 2018

Choice Activities: Why? and Where Next?

I am writing this posting after a very busy few weeks introducing then presenting my first set of resources. This posting is intended as a conclusion to these resources, although it could equally be read as an introduction. Blogger presents postings in reverse chronological order – and this could be the first time some readers encounter what I have been doing.

I have said some of what follows already – but for anyone new to the blog, or for anyone who has got a bit lost along this Herculean journey, here is a summary of some of key things I am seeking to achieve.

Why autism and classical mythology?

In 2008, I was meeting with a special needs teacher who told me that one thing she and her colleagues had noticed over the years was that autistic children often respond well, and sometimes with enthusiasm, to learning about classical mythology. As a classicist interested in classical myth, I was intrigued to find out why this might be the case. I began to wonder whether, as classicist specialising in mythology, I might have something specific to contribute towards using myth with autistic children.

I started contacting academics in disciplines including Psychology and Education and also professionals working in various ways with autistic children, and I kept being encouraged to push forward. For instance, the special needs teachers and dramatherapists I spoke with consistently said that they were repeatedly looking for new resources and that stories provide valuable sources for materials. This led to an unexpected turn in my career towards becoming interested in autism and disability more broadly. I started this 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.

For the first few years after 2009 – indeed, until the ERC-funded project began in 2016, I did indeed blog sporadically, often with lengthy gaps between postings. But what happened too was that several specialists who work with autistic people made contact with me and, by the time we began on the funding bid to the ERC, I had made several valuable and valued contacts, and written circa 20,000 words around aspects of autism, myth and disability studies, including on the possibility of viewing stories associated with Perseus through an autistic lens, the potential for Aristotle’s theory of catharsis as used in dramatherapy to “reach” autistic people, and how the hero/monster metaphor might inform the quest for disruptive pedagogies in Higher Education.

During this time, this interest in autism and classical myth led to some unexpected interfaces between my various roles in my institution. For instance, I became a Departmental Disability Co-ordinator, and this enabled me to work with the disability team at my institution. The blog provided a forum for reporting on this new direction in my practice, including a role in organising training for colleagues in how to support the needs of autistic students.

Why Hercules? Autism and challenges

For around a decade, then, and especially since the launch, in October 2016, of the European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood... The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges, I have been exploring the potential for classical mythology to respond to some of these challenges by exploring new ways to open up cultural experiences for autistic children.

This includes the development of a first set of resources, for use by those who work with autistic children, around the adventures of Herakles – Hercules in Roman stories and many modern retellings, including the one that has been providing the focus for the first set of resources I have developed. Hercules – I shall switch from here on to the Roman spelling – is a mythological figure with especially rich potential in the autistic “classroom,”[1] especially his difficult journeys into fantasy lands and his comparably difficult experiences in the mundane world, where he often remains an outsider.

In creating these resources, I have been aiming to draw on the potential of Herculean stories in: stimulating the imagination, extending experience, developing social and personal skills, giving cultural experience and aiding interaction with others.

For autistic young people, the challenges of childhood can be all the more acute as they find ways to make sense of experiences, develop imaginations, learn to plan for the future, and try to make sense of where they fit within time and space. I have been exploring what role is there for myths of Hercules as part of the quest to help change the experiences of autistic people. This hero keeps resurfacing at key cultural moments with a presence that Alistair Blanshard articulates as follows: “Stories about Hercules do far more than just recount amazing exploits, they take us into the hard of the culture that celebrates them.”[2]

I shall explore how far the potential of Hercules to express key concerns in a culture can be extended in relation to work with autistic children. I shall do this particularly in relation to the Choice of Hercules between two divergent paths in life. This is a myth with distinguished history of expressing contemporary concerns about children.

Autistic children characteristically experience a range of hardships over and above those experienced by other children. They find it difficult, for example, to know what to say or do in social situations, or to respond to the subtle cues that other children learn more easily. It is especially hard for an autistic child to do the kind of things that are, or come to be, innate for others, for instance how to initiate or maintain a conversation. Autistic children will find it harder than their peers to read body language or facial expressions – or any form of non-verbal conversation. Interpreting things like tone of voice will likely prove difficult too.

Beyond this, developing any rapport with others will likely be a challenge. And they will find it hard, too, to gauge what others are thinking or feeling. These difficulties in communication will tend to be compounded by difficulties over processing information. Autistic children will likely find it hard to think beyond the present and they might well find it hard to understand that the present can turn into the future. They will often find it difficult to understand the “bigger picture” in any given scenario, preferring instead to focus on particular details. Autistic children also find it hard to deal with changes in routine, preferring instead set and repetitive patterns of behaviour. Added to this, they will characteristically experience heightened sensory perceptions such an acute reaction to noise or smell. 

Why Hercules? Embodied differences

However, during the past decade, while I have been developing this blog, 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. This move, away from autism as something only needing be something to be pathologised as an impairment is something that I am have been seeking to explore. Indeed, a key goal is to show how the activities connected with Hercules might be able to open up new cultural and intellectual opportunities for autistic children.

Where next?

Hercules, the ancient hero and the hero that has been co-opted at key moments since antiquity, can offer Hope for autistic children as they negotiate challenges on their journeys towards adulthood. This is my conviction. Once I have turned this conviction into something tangible though completing the first set of resources for use with autistic children, I shall seek feedback from professionals and rework them in light of their comments. I shall report on my progress on this blog. More soon.

Here ends the most intensive (and most visited!) to date month on this blog….

[1] For the debate between whether there should be a distinctively autistic classroom in the sense of a space that supports the learning of those diagnosed as autistic, or whether to support the move towards an inclusive classroom that supports the learning of all, autistic and otherwise, see Rita Jordan “Autistic Spectrum Disorders,” in Ann Lewis and Brahm Norwich eds., Special Teaching For Special Children? A Pedagogy for Inclusion (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2005): 110-120.
[2] Alistair Blanshard, Hercules: A Heroic Life (London: Granta, 2005), xviii.


Background discussion

In this activity – after having previously reached the strange location with Hercules, noticed various objects on each half of the scene and then encountered two rather different women, we come to make a choice between the women and the ways of life they represent.

So far, the activities I have been presenting have been concerned with the complexities of a particular social situation. This includes in relation to the body language of Hercules and the two women, and the eye contact that is variously being made – and refused. The activities have also been concerned with how to gain the attention of someone else – through pointing for example, or through looking at the other person. There has been some emphasis upon using language to express what is going on and what characters might be feeling, and what the children themselves might be feeling, but vocalisation is not necessary, and the activities should be suitable for those who are non-verbal. 

The key goals of this final activity are around how to open up the potential for different perspectives on a given issue, and how to understand how the present can impact on the future.

The Activity

If children are able, one initial task that the facilitator could set is as follows. This is to construct a narrative, or set of narratives, for the episode that they have been working through.[1] This could take the form of a rehearsal of the various stages of the myth - the worksheet that I mentioned in the previous posting that I am planning would be useful here.

But following the myth as it is recounted in various tellings, ancient or modern, is not essential. Indeed, as I have said previously, it is not vital – or necessary – to focus particularly on the details of the myth – or on the identity of the various personages. Another option would be for the group to construct their own narrative. This could be done in various stages, starting perhaps with how the hero found himself in a strange landscape filled with curious things, and then, subsequently, with two persons. Then there could be a shift, to a narrative focusing on one of the women – followed with a third narrative focusing on the other woman.

Then, we move to the Choice! Here, the children could be encouraged by the facilitator to move Hercules round the picture. Alternatively, they themselves could move round the classroom and the various models and props that have accumulated. The facilitator could encourage Hercules – or the children – to pick up various objects and play with them. They could hold or wield the sword for instance, or put on the helmet or pick a flower.

Then the facilitator should divide the various objects into two groups in line with where they figure on the picture. The facilitator then might ask the children to describe each set of objects. As before, if appropriate, the children can use a prepared set of words or emojis.

Next, the facilitator should ask the children to choose between, on the one hand, the helmet, serpent, sword and woman pointing up the hillside, and, on the other hand, the fruit, flowers and the drinking vessel and the woman seated in the midst of these features. 

If the facilitator considers it suitable, this stage of the session could include an account of what it is that Hercules chooses in specific versions of the myth. According to authors, this is way of Virtue. However, as I have said earlier on this blog, it is also possible Hercules actually chooses the other option. This activity could be particularly suitable for those children with an interest in the classical myth and the figure of Hercules – because it offers potential for relation the episode to other instances where he is, on the one hand, the ultimate suffering hero, and, on the other, also the great lover of eating and drinking.

Finally, to encourage the children to think about how the present can turn into the future, the facilitator should encourage the children to think about the impact of what Hercules chooses on his subsequent adventures. If he chooses Pleasure – what might this mean? If he chooses Virtue, what would this mean for his future?

If the children have each coloured in their own copy of the picture, they might take it away with them – if they have worked collaboratively to create a larger coloured in picture, this could be displayed in the classroom.

I have now reached the end of my initial draft of these activities around the Choice of Hercules. And let me stress that what I have been presenting are just this – initial drafts. Over the next few months, I am going to share them with as many people as possible, not least teachers and other professionals who work with autistic children. If you have any comments on what I have presented – or what I might go on to present – I would love to hear from you. In the next posting, I shall build on this point by pulling together some of the key things I have been seeking to achieve and by saying a little more about my future plans.    

[1] On the role of creating narrative in work with autistic children, see Lisa Capps, Molly Losh and Christopher Thurber, “The Frog Ate the Bug and Made his Mouth Sad: Narrative Competence in Children with Autism." Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 28.2 (2000): 193-204; Joshua J. Diehl, Loisa Bennetto and Edna Carter Young, "Story Recall and Narrative Coherence of High-Functioning Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders," Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 34.1 (2006): 83-98; Helen Tager-Flusberg and Kate Sullivan, "Attributing Mental States to Story Characters: A Comparison of Narratives Produced by Autistic and Mentally Retarded Individuals," Applied Psycholinguistics 16.3 (1995): 241-256.


Background discussion

This is the paired activity for number 6. like activities 4 and 5, it involves making a transition – and likely a more extreme one – between one scenario and another. For Hercules now encounters the other, very different, woman. One goal of this activity is to help the children feel empathy and to aid in their interactions with their peers. Autism is a mode of existence rather than something that can be cured. As Sue Rubin says in the film about her:

The last thing I want to clarify is that no matter how much social interaction one has, one will never be free of autism. The tendencies to be and act in certain ways may subside but I will always be autistic.

From this recognition, in place of trying to make someone autistic more like “us,” for example by helping them make eye contact or by finding ways to stop them making repetitive actions, instead it becomes viable to think, instead, about embodied differences, and to seek different ways of understanding autistic behaviour and recognising possibly advantageous autistic behaviours.[1] As Jim Sinclair wrote, in the essay "Don't Mourn for Us," turning around the assumption of who is “other” and who is “normal”:

Each of us who does learn to talk to you, each of us who manages to function at all in your society, each of us who manages to reach out and make a connection with you, is operating in alien territory, making contact with alien beings.

Accompanying autistic children on the road to adulthood, then, need not solely involve addressing the various challenges they face – it can also involve a journey, for the non-autist towards and a different way of being and of relating. To quote Sinclair again:

Push for the things your expectations tell you are normal, and you'll find frustration, disappointment, resentment, maybe even rage and hatred. Approach respectfully, without preconceptions, and with openness to learning new things, and you'll find a world you could never have imagined.

In this posting, I continue to reflect on what part classical myth – specifically one of the episodes in the myth of Hercules – might play in discovering such a world – and in mapping out this world.

I am not seeking to develop activities geared towards some way to cure the children of their autism – but rather to help them interact with others to facilitate their interaction with a world that can be non-autistic. I do also hope that, by giving the children sufficient time to reflect on and engage with the various stages of the myth and to engage in play activities in the location where it is set, there will also be an opportunity for each child to develop their own distinctive autistic characteristics, and to experience the characteristics of their peers. As a result of the the consultations I am going to embark on next with professionals, I hope to develop aspects of the activities that relate specifically to the embodied differences of autistic people.

The Activity

The facilitator should direct the children to something going on over in the other part of the scene. This is the appearance of another woman – she is in the rocky part of the landscape. She is standing up – in between the hero and the helmet. She holds a sword in one hand. Her other hand points up the mountainside behind herself.

One possible activity would be for the facilitator to place the woman in the requisite place in the scene. Then the facilitator could ask the children what words are called up by her appearance. It might be that the words they provide are relevant to how they think that Hercules is feeling, or the words might be relevant to their own feelings – now that they are transitioning to the next activity. As previously, the facilitator can provide a prepared list of words or a list of emojis. I am considering whether to prepare a set of these as part of the materials that will, eventually, accompany the activities.

Next, the facilitator gets the children to colour her in. As with the other woman, they could pick colours on their own initiative, or the facilitator could limit the choice to dull colours – perhaps even lead pencils. The children colour her in – individually or in pairs, or as a team.

Then, as previously, the facilitator gets the children to copy her pose – as they did with the other woman. Again, they should copy her gestures and what her eyes are doing. This could be accompanied with models or with toys – toy swords would be ideal here. These could be added to the helmet used earlier. Indeed, the facilitator might encourage the children to use the full range of objects now introduced. For example, they might put on the helmet in addition to holding the sword.

Then the children should copy Hercules’s gestures and stance – they did this in the previous activity. This time, however, it should be in relation to how Hercules is responding to Virtue rather than Pleasure. Is he looking at her? Is his body included towards her or away from her? What is the significance of the pointing gesture she is making with one hand? What is she pointing to? Then, the children could be encouraged to list relevant words – including those for what the woman is pointing to – such as ‘hill’ or ‘mountain’ or ‘steep’.

As a closing task, and to lead into the final activity, the facilitator could ask whether Hercules would have anything to say to the woman. Then, to help encourage the children to think about how there can be more than one perspective on any social communication, they could also be encouraged to ask what the woman might say to Hercules.

Then, after a break (when I consult with others about these activities, I shall discuss how long these breaks should be) the children move to the final activity where – at last! – Hercules will make a choice between the two women and their accompanying objects. This will be the subject of my next posting.

[1] See, e.g., Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars (London: Picador, 1995); Steve Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People Who Think Differently (London: Allen and Unwin, 2015); Temple Grandin and Richard Panek, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013); Thomas G. West. Seeing What Others Cannot See: the Hidden Advantages of Visual Thinkers and Differently Wired Brains (Amherst: Prometheus 2017), esp. 69-90.