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, 11 October 2018

How Classics might reshape the - autistic - world: notes from a conference at Reading University in October 2018

I am writing this posting during a lively time for my autism and classical myth project. On Tuesday of last week, I spent an afternoon in the Adam Room at Roehampton with a group of experts on autism, including two people – Rita Jordan and Nicola Grove – whose work has been instrumental to this blog and whom I’ve cited many times. Tomorrow (Friday 12th October), I shall be involved in a pilot study, at a local school, of the first set of resources I’ve written. Last Saturday, I spoke on my project – this time to a group of Classicists at a conference at Reading: Ancient World and Modern Societies: How Classics help reshape our world.

Here is a written-up version of the notes I prepared for the event. On the day, I departed from them but I covered pretty-well everything here.

It’s an honour to be here! It was at an event at Roehampton around a year ago that I met Andreas Gavrielatos [the organiser] when I was on the same programme as him, and others here today. That event was trying to find ways to – well – make the world a better place via Classics. There were two focuses. One was how we can find ways to create a diverse curriculum – to meet the needs of more students and potential students than is often the case in this, still, most elitist of subjects. The other was think about ways of reaching into the world – to make a difference. 

One thing that came out is that there is a lot we can tap into here. For instance, many people are engaging with Classics, without necessarily knowing they are. One way in question is through video games. Classical myths are frequently an aspect of video games, sometimes at the forefront, sometimes not so. Seeking to understand this key feature of contemporary classical reception will help move on Classical Reception Studies. It might also do something else – something that links into the topic of this current event - namely to help us find ways, via Classics, to make a difference to the world.

What I am going to discuss this morning concerns a project that I have been developing for a decade or so – and which I am about to take to a particular public – a public of autistic children. When I spoke at the event at Roehampton a year ago, I was getting ready to write a series of activities forautistic children based on the Choice of Hercules. I wrote these in February 2018. During the summer, thanks to funding from my University, I was able to engage a researcher, Effrosyni Kostara – to write a guide for teachers to accompany it. Effie, who was also at the Roehampton event last year, has been the perfect person to write the guide, not least as someone with a classical degree and an Education background.

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, I ran an event – with ICS public engagement funding – at Roehampton. This was a workshop for experts on autism to discuss my resources.  I’ll say more on this soon. I’ll do this because of what their feedback was on the resources, and also because what they said is relevant to this event, one of whose goals, as stated in the blurb, is to bring together those interested in how antiquity ‘has the potential to improve aspects of everyday life.’

Being at this event is very timely for me. Next week, Effie and I will be going into a local primary school with an autism unit for a pilot study of the activities – with a view to running more in the future – so if you know of a school that might be interested, let me know!

The activities are around this artefact: a representation of the episode where Hercules encounters two women who represent two very different paths in life. As currently set out in the activities, I’m envisaging some colouring in being done by the participants.

The autism expects didn’t like this activity because of a concern that children colour in too much at school. After reflecting about what they said, I have decided, for now at least, to retain the activity, and make clearer than I have to date why I’ve opted for the colouring in. One reason is this: it will potentially help with a sub-goal of the activities, namely to give an opportunity for the children – if they want to take it up – to learn about ancient Greece. The urban centres of ancient Greece would have been colourful places – sculpture wouldn’t be white, at it has come down to us – and as it is received in most postclassical architecture.[1]

Also, I do think that, via colouring in, there is an opportunity to look – each in our own way – at the artefact, and to bring something of ourselves to it. This is something that I was struck by – way beyond what had anticipated - while I spoke about the resources at a conference in Warsaw earlier this year, in May. Do, please, do some colouring in now – or throughout the day if you’d like.

I will end with one thing that came out of the event with the autism experts. I was asked ‘why Classics?’, ‘why classical myth?’ and ‘why Hercules’? – beyond the fact that classical myth is something that I enthuse about – although this can, itself, be a way to engage others as we discussed. But would any other set of stories do as well, they, asked, for example Winnie the Pooh.

The question bothered me: there is a tendency among classicists to see Classics as some kind of gift that we give to the public to – well – make them better citizens (cf. e.g. Boris Johnson on the potential ofclassics to end knife crime). This approach concerns me – it is as though Classics is some privileged space that ‘we’ open up to others. And when we try to say, as classicists, why Classics should be used in school education we say vague things about how it helps critical thinking and how it is at the roots of Western Civilisation.

Here are the two responses to these concerns. Firstly, Classics is part of culture – and one thing I am seeking to do is to open up Classics to a public whose engagement with shared culture can be challenging. Secondly, a turning point on Tuesday came when I described Hercules as this figure bears on the resources.

I described how Hercules is at home in the wilds – his own space – where he is capable of things others cannot manage – and where he needs to learn the rules of each new scenario he experiences, each time having to find a new way to deal with a fresh situation. But whereas he keeps managing to overcome obstacles in the wilds, when he gets to civilisation, something tends to go badly wrong.

The response from an autistic academic was: ‘that sounds like being autistic.’ He had said that what has always interested him in fantasy and other forms of literature are villains, outsiders, monsters and so forth. We discussed the potential of Hercules as one who is an outsider yet also the great insider as a hero, god and civiliser.

I have put copies of the activities and the guide on each table.  More work is needed – for example there is too much currently on resolving hardships – and not enough perhaps on how the activities might engage the imagination. Feedback is very welcome!

The responses to my paper were really helpful, including from the Reading students who were present, one of whom, a student on the autism spectrum, mentioned several autistic societies with whom I might make contact. I also learned about a school in Reading with whom I might make contact for a potential pilot study of the resources – and I had a wonderful conversation about the possibility of running activities in the Ure Museum.

I am writing up my notes on the Thursday after the paper at Reading. It’s tomorrow, Friday, that I will be visiting the local school for the pilot study!

[1] The photograph heading this posting was taken this morning by me at the British Museum. I’ve opted for this because it seeks to give a sense of just how colourful ancient art could be – in contrast to the whiteness, exemplified by the figure also shown in the photo, that we see today. The reconstruction is founded on a 19th-century reconstruction of part of the Parthenon frieze.