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, 8 February 2018

An autistic puzzle: what my Herculean activities are seeking to achieve

I have spent the last few postings introducing my first set of resources by providing various pieces of background, including on why I have chosen an episode in the mythical life of Hercules – his choice between two opposing paths in life – for the activities. Now that I am on the cusp of staring to share these resources, I am honoured to present the following image: a logotype that has been prepared by the graphic artist who is creating logos for the social media projects underway by the Our Mythical Childhood team. These are all in the style of modern comics in order to be as attractive and meaningful as possible to a range of potential users. The one for Autism and Classical Myth is this one: a puzzle with Athena’s helmet. One piece of the puzzle is missing and yet the missing piece is close by – the puzzle is incomplete but it can be completed. It is appropriately apparently simple and yet complex.

This seems to me to be an apt time to be sharing this image – just when I am about to share a set of activities for children that involve a mythical episode that is both strikingly clear in what it deals with and which raises issues that strike to the core of what it is to be human, including what it is to be a human on the road to adulthood. Over the following paragraphs, I am going to set out some of the ways in which I hope that the resources will be of use to autistic children.

Completing the puzzle?

For all young people, the challenges of childhood can be acute as they negotiate experiences on the path to adulthood. These include challenges common to all such as building identities and making choices. But, 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.

As I have been reflecting over recent postings, there is potential in myths of Hercules for work with autistic children – and particularly in the story of the hero’s choice between two divergent paths in life. This is a myth with a distinguished history of expressing contemporary concerns about children. I have picked it because of the opportunity it offers to open up new cultural and intellectual opportunities for autistic children specifically, including in: stimulating the imagination, extending experience, developing social and personal skills, giving cultural experience and aiding interaction with others.

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.  For many years, these difficulties were articulated in the “triad of impairments” identified by Lorna Wing, these being: difficulties in social and emotional understanding, difficulties in all aspects of communication, and a lack of flexibility in thinking and behaviour.[1] In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), autism spectrum disorders are categorised in terms of “communication problems”, “difficulty relating to people, things and events” and “repetitive body movements or behaviors”.[2]

Does the puzzle need completing?

But I would also like to approach the issue from a different angle. A great deal of work into autism and autistic children has centred on how to help autistic children function in a non-autistic world, for example by helping them make eye contact or by finding ways to stop them making repetitive actions. However, there has also been a move – a move that has been accelerating in the 9 or so years since I began this blog – away from pathologised as an impairment to regarding autism as a mode of existence.

This way of conceptualising autism is expressed, too, in the title of the film about Sue Rubin: Autism is a World. And as Rubin makes clear at end of the film:

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.[3] As Jim Sinclair wrote, 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 comprehending a different way of being and of relating:

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.[4]

I will close for now – and when I pick this up again, I shall explore how Hercules’ Choice can help find a place in society for people who think differently, while also fostering their particular abilities and helping them puzzle out a non-autistic world.

[1] See, esp., Lorna Wing, “Autistic Spectrum Disorders,”  312.7027 ( The Autistic Spectrum: a Guide for Parents and Professionals (London: Robinson 2002, updated edn.).
[2] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) (2013) (last accessed 31.07.17). On autistic impairments, including on ‘the need to impose a strict and inflexible order on…daily routine abilities,’ see Eva Loth “Abnormalities in “Cultural Knowledge” in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Link Between Behavior and Cognition?” in Evelyn McGregor, María Núñez, Katie Cebula and Juan Carlos Gómez, eds., Autism: An Integrated View from Neurocognitive, Clinical, and Intervention Research (Malden: Blackwell, 2008), 83-103, esp. 83-85.
[3] See e.g. Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars (London: Picador, 1995); 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.
[4] Jim Sinclair, “Don’t Mourn for Us.” Autism Network International (ANI) website (last accessed 31.07.17) originally published in Our Voice 1.3 (1993). 

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