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.

Friday, 25 May 2018

To do good in the world: Hercules, autism and being prepared

I said in my previous posting that it doesn't need to be clear where serious work begins and play ends. Here I say more about the experience of a workshop that led me to express that comment.
Liz Hale has a lovely way of capturing the sprit and vision of what the Our Mythical Childhood project is seeking to achieve. She recently published a posting on her Antipodean Odyssey blog about last week’s workshops in Warsaw on the topic ‘The Present Meets the Past.’ Liz’s posting includes the following comment concerning the ‘warmth and comradeship that the project embodies.’ Liz writes: ‘I think of it as Classics with Kindness: using knowledge of classical matters to do good in the world.’ Here I hope to share a moment when this brand of classics was fostered in the haven that is Life is Cool, a café run by autistic people in Warsaw. I’ll lead into this moment via a different kind of experience.
Recently I co-taught a session for PhD students at my institution. It was not discipline-specific but was designed to enable any doctoral student, irrespective of subject area, to develop their skills at presenting on their research at conferences. I did this in tandem with a colleague from another discipline - to help ensure the session would be relevant to at least two subject areas. The co-tutor had run the session on a number of previous occasions, always with a specific colleague from an Arts subject whom I was replacing. The session was meticulously planned by my colleague. This was an unusual experience for me – I like to be spontaneous and I am never quite sure what direction a session will take coming out of all sorts of subtle and complex interactions, mostly non-verbal, from people in the room. My colleague emphasised to the students that, each time he gives a conference presentation, or any presentation, each moment has been thoughtfully planned and rehearsed.
I am not this kind of practitioner! I certainly go in prepared. I go into any session with a set of notes - and where appropriate with supporting materials like PowerPoint slides or a handout. And I seek to ensure that sessions have a beginning, a middle and end. But within this, I like there to be flexibility and I like to respond to the dynamics of the room. Sometimes, I have been surprised at the direction a discussion takes. But the next time round it might not work to try this out – the moment will different, the people too.
So, I do like to exercise a certain degree of control. I like to be – ideally at least – aware of the venue I shall be speaking in. I always like to close the door – not least to enable all to be within the same space.
What I had envisaged for my session at the Our Mythical Childhood workshops, in the café
Life is Cool, was to do a mixture of me talking and activities which people could carry out independently or in groups. I’d intended to start welcoming people and then to move to talking about my resources and the rationale behind then. Then I was going to give people a taster activity to carry out. Finally I planned to draw things together from the concluding list of possible closing points I had listed. 
But – thanks to the circumstances that I mentioned in the previous post, this didn’t happen. I gave the green light for people to start colouring in, adding stickers, tracing, cutting out and so forth. There was lots of disruption, including in the ways I set out in the previous posting. Yet - despite a door that wouldn’t close, despite noisy rain and at one point a thunderstorm, and despite the noise at one point from sirens -  I was struck by just how engaged the participants were with the activities. Indeed, they seemed to be amending what they were doing as I went deeper into explaining the reason why the various resources were set out on the tables in front of them. There were some photos taken that captured this engagement with the activities. I hope to share some of these once people have given their permission.
I shall share some pictures, too, of the ‘final products’ that people created, but, perhaps more representative are the photos that I shall hopefully share of people at play.
What several people said to me afterwards - even some who only arrived late thanks to all the disruptions – was that they could now, for the first time, see clearly what I am seeking to do with the activities. This was despite the lack of any connected discussion from me – I had lost a feeling of control and yet I communicated my ‘vision’ for the activities.  I also enjoyed myself.
And all present took part in the activities – the academics at various stages down the academic road and staff from the café. This was helped by Dorota, the translator who was present for the café staff. Far from simply translating what I had said, she engaged with the café staff and helped introduce to them what I was doing.
One thing to I take away from this is the following – these activities are designed for autistic people and specifically autistic children. But they can be for anyone, and people afterwards shared with me just how much scope there could be, here, for helping academics reflect on difference - including difference within the academy. One colleague told me that they have begun looking differently at some of their own colleagues and relatives and understanding them in new ways.
More soon...

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