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, 22 June 2018

Antique Fables and Shaping Fantasies: Dreaming Classics while looking ahead to engaging autistic and other children during Being Human 2018

I was at a meeting recently where a colleague said something that took me by surprise. The colleague was distinguishing between two kinds of modules on the classical curriculum – language and non-language. The colleague described the former as ‘real’ Classics and then stopped without finishing the sentence. The implication, I suppose, was that the other kind of Classics is something like ‘pretend Classics’ – or ‘false Classics’.

The kind of Classics that my colleague didn’t name is the kind that I do. I don’t avoid the study of languages – it’s more that I see the languages as part of the fabric of components that make up the study of classical antiquity. I did feel a little taken aback by the comment – it brought up the sense that runs deep in the discipline, namely that there is a hierarchy between those who do languages and those who do everything else. This division frustrates me – given how complicated, for example, it is to look at a culture and seek to explore its various aspects. This includes what I especially work on: a particular culture’s imaginative processes, including the gods that were created and recreated, and the myths that were vibrant and ever changing.

But what I decided to do was this. I decided to contrast ‘real’ not with ‘false’ but with ‘fantasy’ or ‘dream.’ In French, this works better – there’s the réel (‘real’) and the rêve (‘dream’). This ‘fantasy Classics’ can involve the study of stories that were created in antiquity: the ‘antique fables’ that Theseus describes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as ‘strange’ rather than ‘true’:
More strange than true. I never may believe These antique fables nor these fairy toys.| Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, | Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend | More than cool reason ever comprehends. (1.5.2-6)
Such a ‘fantasy Classics’ can also involve the study of how, since antiquity, classical myth has been able to engage the imagination. The ancient world doesn’t exist any longer. but the very fact that it doesn’t exist could be what makes it have such a hold over us. And it means that we can each of us have our own version of the ancient world – drawn from our own imaginations.

What I am writing here is very much in line with ‘Deep Classics.’ My colleague Helen Slaney is a pioneer of this way of doing Classics. In one of the Our Mythical Workshops in Warsaw last month, she summed it up as follows, building on the volume Deep Classics, edited by Shane Butler:
The ancient world no longer exists and this is why we love it. Acts of reception are a way of making it imaginatively present, a form of deep play.
Grove House, home of the Hercules chimneypiece panel,
as photographed yesterday by Kathryn Tempest
Roehampton is a place where the ancient world can have this kind of presence. It is this potential that makes the chimneypiece panel that I selected for my first set of resources so full of potential (see here for instance where the panel has been 'animalised'. 

This was something that struck me the workshop last month at the café managed by autistic people in Warsaw – where the participants did inventive things with the pictures I have provided of the panel: colouring in, cutting out, adding emojis, adding details, rearranging… 

Thus far, I have shown one of the creations, the one by Anna Mik – at the start of the last posting-but-one on this blog. It's the one I mentioned above - concerning an 'animalised' Hercules. In due course, I shall share others too.

For now, I want to share details of a use I am going to be making of the Roehampton university campus. Along with Helen Slaney, just mentioned, and another colleague, Susanne Greenhalgh, an expert on Shakespearean drama, I will be putting on a series of events for this November’s Being Human Festival. We heard recently that our funding bid had been successful!

We proposed a set of events that deal with the potential of encounters with the classical world to engage the imagination of children. Under the title Antique Fables...Shaping Fantasies we will do three things, some in collaboration with cultural partners. One is this – in the University Library’s archive room there will be a week-long exhibition of illustrated children’s classics. We will also be arranging a talk with an author-illustrator about her work adapting Shakespeare and mythology. I shall say more about this further down the road – when I shall name her! 

Thirdly – and with the most explicit fit with my autism and classical mythology project and indeed with the title of this posting - we will be working with the Flute Theatre, who will stage an immersive performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for children on the autistic spectrum. I’ll say more on this in due course, including where I write about who the Flute are and about the work they do.

Throughout the events, we will be exploring how far adaptations of classically-rich works for children seek to introduce the richness, strangeness, and complexity of human experience. What we will be doing is grounded in a view that classic texts exist in a range of forms and that there is no ‘correct’ way of coming into contact with them. Rather, each participant in our events will be able – we hope – to have their own imaginative engagement with classical antiquity.