Why classical myth and autism?

Why classical myth 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, 17 May 2018

'When you come to a fork in the road, take it' - A Choice of Hercules workshop at Life is Cool, a café managed by autistic people in Warsaw

I had been a little concerned that the paper I was to deliver in Warsaw yesterday was a little out there. It is Herculean. It runs with the metaphor of the crossroads. It pauses for a moment with Jacques Brel and it makes a brief consideration of the metis of Jogi Berra. But the experience of actually delivering it was ‘out there’ on a whole other level.

Firstly, we arrived late at the venue, a café called Life is Cool which is managed by autistic staff. This lateness was owing to travel disruption and sudden bad weather. While waiting for our colleagues who still hadn’t left the previous venue, let alone got into a taxi and joined the traffic jam across Warsaw, I reversed the order of the session and began with the interactive activity before I’d actually explained what lay behind it. The (incredible - it merits a posting in its own right) picture accompanying this posting was done by one of the participants.

When our colleagues were still stuck at the previous venue, I began, sadly, without them. There were several pauses as people arrived, and each time, I went back over the material for those who’d joined us. The final group arrived just as I’d finished. I’m going to set out here a written-up version of the paper from my notes for yesterday. This is so that those present can experience it as I’d more or less intended – as can anyone else who might be interested.

But, in fact, the disruption led to something that was probably better in terms of how the activity worked and in terms of the depth I was able to go into – and in terms of the depth in which people were able to respond. The discussion, indeed, was the best that I have ever experienced after any paper I have given. I’ll write about that in a subsequent posting. For now, here is the beginning-middle-activity-ending version, Brel, Berra and all.

I’d like to say first that it’s an honour to be here – in this city I’m in love with, amid Our Mythical Childhood participants – a ‘family’ – and here, in Life is Cool. It has been my dream for ten years now to produce materials that might speak to autistic people. I have started producing materials, and now, today, I am realising my dream of presenting them in space that is marked out as autistic.

Often, autistic people devote energy to trying to work within non-autistic space. Here we have an example of the opposite being the case - of a space for all where autism is at the centre. Thank you to Katarzyna Marciniak – and the café – for making this happen – for bringing us to this intersection.

It is also an honour to be here as part of events under the aegis of ‘Where the past meets the future’ and where it does this as part of ‘our heritage.’ This inclusive title captures something that I want to explore, namely that heritage can be for everyone, and this can include those for whom access to culture that many share can be a challenge.

Our heritage can be a heritage that embraces everyone, irrespective of such factors as class background, or gender, or disability or ability. It is apt, then, that we are gathering under the ‘aegis’ of Medusa, our ‘spokesmonster’ as Katarzyna Marciniak puts it in the blurb for this week’s events. Medusa is an everyone, an everymonster, figure. Medusa is the ultimate image of otherness and also of self. Medusa is also an image of victimhood and of empowerment, an image of disability and of ability, and of disability as ability.

When our project began, I was envisaging a set of activities around the Medusa story – including mask-making. And this is something that I plan to do in the future. For the first set of activities, I determined instead on an episode in the career of… Hercules. I shall talk today about 'why Hercules?', and I’ll introduce the activities that I have put together.

“Where the past meets the future…” we are at an intersection point – or a crossroads. My title is “at every crossroads” – it’s a translation of French – “à chaque carrefour” from Jacques Brel’s Quand on n’a que l’amour, from the verse:

Quand on n’a que l’amour
Pour tracer un chemin
Et forcer la destin
À chaque carrefour

When we have only love 
To trace a path
And force destiny
At every crossroads

Getting to a crossroads involves making a choice – between different paths, metaphorical or otherwise. The choice in question might be a stark one, in two divergent directions. Why I have been talking so much about crossroads is as follows – the activities I have designed are based around a particular moment in the mythic life of Hercules, namely when he reaches a crossroads, a carrefour.

He is a young man not sure, yet, what direction to take. He gets to a lonely place when two women appear, goddesses perhaps, and offer him a choice. He could take the path signalled by one of them, which will involve a life of ease and pleasure and abundance,  and plenty of food and drink and indeed access to all pleasures. Or he could take the path signalled by the other woman. This will be a path of ‘virtue’ or hard work. There will be rewards at the end, but only after toil and pain and suffering.

I have picked this episode because it is rich in potential for engaging an autistic way of thinking. In very broad terms. Hercules, like many mythological figures, has huge potential for engaging autistic people. For instance, he is frequently an outsider – at home in the borderlands but out of place in society. Indeed, when he is in society – when he returns home or arrives at some city – his behaviour can be inappropriate. Yet Hercules also has a richly exciting life. He is ever coming up against obstacles and overcoming them.

Being autistic is often seen as about encountering hardships. Hercules can speak to this aspect of an autistic experience. Being autistic is also about a different way of thinking – a different way of being. Hercules can speak too to this autistic experience.

These two aspects of Hercules come into play in the particular artefact on which my first set of activities is based. It is an eighteenth-century panel depicting Hercules engaged in reflection on the two paths he is invited to choose between. It is in an eighteenth-century ‘showpiece’ room at the University of Roehampton, where I work – and one thing I am hoping to do at some point is, actually, to welcome people to that room to engage in activities with the artefact, not least because the closer one looks, the more one can draw from it. The ‘Choice of Hercules’ was a talking point for the eighteenth century, where those receiving it were encouraged to use it to reflect on where they stand between competing paths.

In the activities, I take the user through the episode. There is an optional introductory activity for those who have not yet ‘met’ Hercules. This uses works that figure/will figure in Our Mythical Survey, launched just yesterday, ranging from books to music to pillow-fight cushions and to Playmobil and Lego minifigures.

Then there are activities that take the user through the episode: from the arrival at a strange place, to noticing certain things about the place, to noticing the two women. There are activities where users reflect on what the hero might be experiencing in his interactions with each woman. There are also activities which reflect on things from the perspective of the two women – and on how they seek to engage him. Then, finally, we move to the hero’s choice.

What choice does he make? Usually it’s thought to be the path of… virtue and the life of hardship. But this is not necessarily the case. On the panel, Hercules turns his head to Virtue, but his body to Pleasure/Vice and Hercules is the great lover of life, of food drink and sex.

The late Yogi Berra, the baseball player and coach, is known for his wisdom – a sideways wisdom, a wisdom of metis. His quotations are worthy of Heraclitus – where impossibilities are combined – where they exist in one another. He also said: ‘when you come to a fork in the road, take it.’

Hercules chooses one path – he chooses the other path. There is rich potential for exploring different perspectives on a given issue. And for thinking about how the present can turn into the future.

As the activities progress, features of the scene gradually come to be introduced – Hercules appears, then the landscape, then the women. For today, I began by showing the whole artefact. But in the activities, it will be introduced gradually – and this will help avoid overloading the users. It is a richly detailed image, with very many things going on, such as in terms of its vegetation, and in terms of the objects present – such as a drinking vessel, a helmet, a snake and bowls of fruit. What I would like to do now is get you thinking about your responses to the artefact – via activities that have a fit with those I have devised.

I would like you to pick part of the artefact and colour it in. You can do it in groups – or alone – as you prefer. Or - do your own drawing if you would like. Alternatively, you can trace the scene or one of its figures. You can use stickers if you would like, including the emojis… I discuss using emojis in the activities as described on the blog, to encourage the students to think about how Hercules – or the women – might be feeling. Is he happy, for instance, or worried. Or the users could move, where suited, to more complex emojis – ‘cold sweat’ for instance, or ‘smiling and sweating.’ You can also, if you would like, draw something based round the image: a flower for example.

And also, if you would like, write something in this – a guest book. This is something that I have been inspired to start by the work of Zena Kamash of Royal Holloway University. In her work with people from Middle Eastern communities, she includes a guest book. People are encouraged to write in their thoughts, and do drawings if they would like. Draw Hercules if you’d like – or stick in your tracing etc., or draw something based around the image. Do it straight into the book, or on paper, or a post-it that we can stick in later. Or write words that strike you onto labels. Sign it – or don’t! - as you prefer.

In conclusion, the activities are intended to be inclusive and thought-provoking. I hope that they offer an opportunity to think about such matters as how the present turns into the future, how to cope with new scenarios and change, and how to engage in decision making. They offer a gateway to classical myth and culture. They also open up a gateway between two worlds, 'autistic' and 'non-autistic'. The activities have a serious purpose. They are also intended to be fun. Indeed, as we have been discussing regularly over the past few days at these meetings and workshops for the Mythical Childhood project where play stops and serious work begins can – or should – be fluid.

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