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, 21 February 2018

Introduction: Choice of Hercules activities

This feels momentous: with this posting I am introducing the first version of the first of the activities that form the first set of activities for use with autistic children. I have been building up to this for a while now – please see the previous several postings for an outline of this journey. In these postings, I have been providing the background including in terms of classics and autism. However, now, I move from this sometimes quite theoretical and methodologically-reflective discussion of what is underpinning my research to something more practical. I have been building to this moment since the ERC-funded Our Mythical Childhood project began in October 2016 – and February 2018 marks the deadline agreed with the ERC for this first set of resources. In a less-focused way I have been building to this moment since I began this blog nine years ago to chart my hoped-for progress to converting my idea for a project on autism and mythology into something tangible.

The activities set out here each deal with something tangible – a relief showing Hercules making a choice between two opposing paths in life. I am able to touch the artefact in question whenever I visit the Adam Room in Grove House at Roehampton (as I did yesterday evening for example at the launch of a new book on Brutus by my colleague Dr Kathryn Tempest - as shown here on the right) and I am able to appreciate its 3D elements. For example, Hercules seems to be depicted as though – as well as being positioned between two women – he might be contemplating stepping forth out of the panel. But, for the present purposes, I shall be presenting photographs of the artefact, and also some drawings of it, with a view to setting out how it might be used by teachers and others. I shall try to keep this as flexible as possible. And I should stress that the activities I am presenting here are far from set in stone. Once they have been drafted, I am going to be seeking feedback on them from potential users.
It would be wonderful if – one day – these activities around the Choice of Hercules could actually take place in the Adam Room. But what I am setting out here is envisaged for use in the usual space used by teachers and others working with the potential users of the resources. The activities are designed – in places – to encourage the users to work in pairs or groups – but they can also be done by children working independently.

The activities will build up to the choice that Hercules makes. The full chimneypiece panel need not be introduced at the start. Rather, I am going to suggest that the users work up to being able to engage with the artefact as a whole. The first activity will introduce the figure of Hercules. The second will introduce the curious, lonely spot where the encounter with the two women takes place. The third will involve Hercules reaching the strange location. Then, the fourth activity will deal with Hercules once he notices the fruit and other objects in one half of the locality. Next, activity five will be concerned with how Hercules responds to the very different objects – a helmet and a snake – in the rocky terrain in the other part of the place. It is then, with activity six, that Hercules will come to notice the first of two women. Then, with activity seven, he will come to respond to the second of the two women. After that, in the final activity, Hercules will make his choice – between the two women and between the two sets of objects. 

I have said previously that many who talk about the episode assume that Hercules makes a particular choice – for Virtue and her helmet and snake – and rejects the flowers and fruit of Vice/Pleasure/Leisure. But, as I have said, while this is true in some versions both ancient and modern, it is not invariably the case that Hercules makes a firm choice. It is possible that Hercules might go either way in what he chooses - and both choices are supported with ancient evidence. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, the choice is, likewise, represented as one that can – indeed should – go either way.

There will also be an optional preliminary activity – this will be the subject of my next posting.

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