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


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.

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