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.

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.

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