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.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Looking both ways - including to fairyland Warsaw, (making a) difference at Roehampton and my Herculean resolution for 2020

The last few weeks have been energy-creating and hectic: so much so that I need a bit of time to pull together the various things that I have been doing and their implications for this blog's topic. This includes the many things I gained from a recent Ciceronian excursion to Warsaw, some of which are indicated among these photos:

Among the Ciceronians:
1. asking a question while blown away by what I'd just learnt about a 16th-century commentary on the de Officiis;
2. in the Herculean interiors of Wilanów Palace;
3. with delegates plus posters from 1989 and 2019 Warsaw Cicero congresses;
4. in the Wilanów winter fairyland

This also includes what came out – for the students, and for me – of a session I taught on myth and (making a) difference during a second year module I convene at Roehampton: Myths and Mythology. I’ll be posting on these – probably now in early January.

Looking ahead… I have agreed give an update in early spring on the activities on the Choice of Hercules to colleagues in Special and Inclusive Education at Roehampton, following up from a session I did just over a year ago. Around this time, I shall be speaking on the same topic at a Myth and Education conference at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. Then, in May 2020, I’ll be in Warsaw for the last of the three conferences for ERC Our Mythical Childhood Project: Our Mythical Nature.

And… during 2020, I shall be WRITING A BOOK. This book will present the Choice of Hercules activities. While I was Warsaw I agreed a deadline for submission of the book with Katarzyna Marciniak, the editor for the series of books linked with the Our Mythical Childhood Project. This deadline is... 15 December 2020. So: my New Year’s Resolution is this: to write the book. And I’ll use the events for spring 2020 detailed above as deadlines for the completion of stages of this book.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Love the Max: thank you!

This current posting is a very short one - possibly the shortest I've ever written. I've just discovered the existence of Love the Max: A blog about kids with disabilities who kick butt. I had been checking the ‘top referrers’ for my previous posting – the one I wrote not long before I headed to Warsaw for a Ciceronian excursion. One of these referrers is Love the Max's weekend link-up for 13 December 2019. I’d like to thank the kind person - whoever you are! -  who put up this posting alongside some snapshots of the huge amount of current blogging relating to disabled children.

I'll blog again soon - including in relation to the trip to Warsaw...


Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Hope 12 - Ciceronian thoughts on the Choice of Hercules ahead of a Congress in Warsaw informed a little by Binary Computation

When I last blogged at the end of last week, my session at the British Museum about Hercules and his choices was about to take place. This has now happened. I had some unexpectedly useful feedback, including from one of the participants who raised the potential of considering Hercules' Choice in the context of Computer Science and binary computation. I’ll say more about this as soon as I’m ready to get my head around this wonderfully unpredicted possible new path.

Tomorrow I’m off to Warsaw to take part in a congress on something that is more within my disciplinary comfort zone – it’s on a Roman rather than an ancient Greek topic. But that topic is Cicero, one of the few ancient authors who wrote about the Choice of Hercules. The key thing I will be doing is making a presentation during a session led by Katarzyna Marciniak. This sesson will be setting out work underway by members of The Cluster for the Past and the Present and the Our Mythical Childhood project. The presentation I shall make will be on the Choice of Hercules. The exact content is a surprise, so I’ll keep that a secret for now. Instead, I’ll say a few things here about Cicero’s take on the Choice of Hercules, as I will refer to this during my presentation.

Cicero raises the Choice of Hercules in the de officiis, a treatise concerned with how best to live and behave including where a conflict emerges between different obligations. Referring to the time when a youth, i.e. a male youth…, will need to decide which calling in life to take up, Cicero says that this is is ‘the most difficult problem in the world.’ For:

it is in the years of early youth, when our judgment is most immature, that each of us decides that his calling in life shall be that to which he has taken a special liking. And thus he becomes engaged in some particular calling and career in life, before he is fit to decide intelligently what is best for him. For we cannot all have the experience of Hercules (1.117-18, W. Miller Loeb tr.).
Cicero’s Hercules, then, is faced with a simple choice – between hardship that would bring great eventual rewards, and a life of pleasure. But it is always so simple for Hercules? Or perhaps I should put it like this: the choice might be simple. But does Hercules ever commit himself? He does… and he does not… And it is this lack of clarity in terms of the outcome that makes the episode so full of potential, as a talking point and as an opportunity for reflecting on moral positions and about dilemmas one might face in life. Making choices can be difficult for anyone. It is possible to feel caught in indecision. Looked at one way, the choice involves a clear decision between two things as opposed as Virtue and Vice, where the heroic career is reduced to a choice between things as extreme as they come, with none of the ambiguities that often accompany a choice in life. Or there is complexity (Computer Science, I’ve learnt since Saturday, is likewise moving beyond binary thinking – I’m itching to discuss this with the participant I mentioned above…).

It is not clear how to read the episode and how to determine what choice the hero made. It is this simultaneous simplicity and complexity that I shall be drawing on in my resources for autistic children. The episode offers potential for getting any user to reflect on a choice in life, and to think about different possibilities and what the implications of these possibilities could be including around where they fit in the world, between themselves and others. Meanwhile, it is this simplicity of Hercules' choice – the very thing that distinguishes Hercules’s choice from that of other young people according to Cicero – that counts as one of the reasons why the story has so much potential for use with autistic children. This is because it can enable children to think about moral dilemmas and to think about contrary ways to respond to making a decision in life. By doing this, the children for whom I'll be creating the resources will have the opportunity to engage in a process that has engaged others as well, including those for whom the particular representation of the choice was likely created.

I’ll come back to this on my return from Warsaw. Plus, I’m looking forward to learning from the assembled Ciceronian expects, which include my Roehampton colleague Kathryn Tempest. What I discover might well impact on my appreciation of the use of the Hercules example in the de officiis, especially as a strong focus of the conference will be Cicero’s vision of education.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Hope 11 – Hercules, Blue Story, British Museum… thinking about children's choices

With this posting, I turn in earnest to Hercules. I pretty well got there with the previous posting. Here the hero gets centre stage some more.

Tomorrow (Saturday 6th December 2019), I am going to be talking about Hercules at the British Museum. Specifically, I shall be talking about the Hercules who is relevant to the autism activities I am developing. The event is a study day on classical myth - to tie in which a new exhibition, on Troy, at the Museum. It's the cover of the exhibition guide that is illustrated to the right. I shall be talking about myth as it can be relevant today, and I shall speak about how it came to matter in the eighteenth century, and before then in Rome, and before that, in Greece. I shall talk about its appeal in particular as a way to think about an aspect of what children can experience as they are on the path to adulthood – namely what choices to make between different paths in life.

I shall include a reference to something very current: the film Blue Story which has recently been in the news in the UK: here for instance. The film's poster is illustrated to the left. In an interview on the radio the other week, probably on the Today programme, I heard the director, Rapman, saying that it is a film, above all, about making a choice between two contrary paths.
From a quick search, I’ve found a few references to the director talking about the film in these terms. For example, Rapman is reported in the Sunday Times for November 28th 2019 in a piece by Fariha Karim as stressing that the film "was intended to make youngsters involved in gangs think about their choices."
The film is innovative and timely. Its themes are perennial too. In the next posting, I’m planning to come at the angle of choice-making faced by young people – this time from the perspective not of something contemporary, but from the perspective of… Cicero.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Hope 10 – The Choice of Hercules could be “brilliant”, like Odysseus

Over the course of these Hope-themed postings, I have mentioned Hercules from time to time, mostly to say that Hercules is the focus of the activities I am designing for autistic children. With the current posting, I am going to turn in more depth to Hercules – to give a sense of why I have chosen this figure. I shall start by following up on one thing I looked at in the previous posting namely the activities developed around another mythological character by Nicola Grove and Keith Park. This is Odysseus. As I said in the previous posting, one reason Grove and Park pick Odysseus is his enduring popularity. Because of just how rooted Odysseus is in a shared cultural heritage, there is the potential for opening up a cultural experience to people who might find such experiences difficult to access. I shared some views a few views I have around this... I am going to keep reflecting on these, but, for now, I am going to turn to some of the other reasons for the selection of Odysseus.

According to Grove and Park, the story of Odysseus is “a brilliant story which everyone can enjoy”. As they continue, this story can enable a teacher to “nourish the imagination and emotions of students, as well as providing them with practical skills.” Among the reasons why the Odysseus story is so “brilliant” and so full of potential for stimulating the imagination, and for engaging the emotions, is its concern with a traveller, who keeps reaching new places. There is a good fit here with Hercules who, like Odysseus, is a traveller who keeps reaching new places: some pleasant, some strange, some full of dangers to negotiate.

This leads me to a second point about the parallels between Hercules and Odysseus. Hercules is often regarded as one who achieves his successes thanks to his distinctive strength. This is often true – but not always. Hercules often finds a way to succeed in a given task though cunning, a quality above all linked with Odysseus among classical mythological figures. But Hercules, like Odysseus, keeps getting himself out of a particular difficulty not so much by brute force but by finding some clever solution. The image that illustrated my previous posting showed him wielding his club above the Hydra, one of his victims, but how he defeats the hydra isn’t though superior strength, but is through finding a way to stop the hydra being able to grow new heads. Hercules does this, mind you, by an act of violence – by searing the severed neck of each Hydra head he cuts off.

This takes me back to the heading of one of my previous postings: “But Hercules is horrible…” He often is. But what I am going to look at is Hercules as the hero in a strange place: the hero when he finds himself in a location which is overpowering – a place whose rules he needs to work out. This is a hero who needs to work out what to do in this place because, here, he is faced with making a choice: a choice over the road he will take from this point on, and a choice between two very different ways of living – hard work and pleasure. It is a stark choice, and choices that people encounter in life are not likely to be so stark. However, for autistic people, choice-making can be especially difficult, and what I would like to propose is the following. Hercules’s choice can provide an opportunity to engage with choice-making. And there can be a fit with other aspects of being autistic too, including feeling out of place in some spaces and, conversely, finding other spaces pleasant or reassuring. Another is going though sensory and emotional experiences, both pleasant ones and ones that are so intense that they are too much to deal with.

In the next posting, I shall turn in earnest to this particular episode: the choice Hercules faces and makes.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Mythical Hope 9 - Cultural heritage or cultural baggage?

Over the course of the Hope-themed postings I’ve been putting up since late September, I have written on a few occasions about worlds – the world of non-autistic people, and the world of an autistic person. I have stressed that this is an over-simple way of dividing up autistic and non-autistic experiences. But I am also aware that it can be helpful to think in terms of an autistic ‘world’. And one thing I am seeking to do with the activities I am developing is to engage an autistic way of being, feeling, thinking, and engaging with others. 

I am driven by a view that classical myth can bring something distinctive here. But there is one thing I would like to stress in this posting. This is that I am not trying to give classical antiquity as some kind of ‘gift’ to autistic children. One view of ‘outreach’ activities is as follows: it's that outreach can open up cultural heritage to those who might otherwise be excluded from this heritage. There is a lot that can be great about such activities, but there is also a risk here that those doing the outreach are trying to bring in the ‘reached,’ less ‘privileged’ ones – and I am worried that the result might be that certain, elitist, notions of classics might be being perpetuated.

But there is another way of coming to this issue. This is the way proposed by Nicola Grove and Keith Park in their book Odyssey Now.[1] This book adapts some of the adventures of Odysseus and his companions for disabled people, especially those with profound disabilities. They stress that one reason for picking Odysseus was this: the very heritage of the Odysseus story. What they are offering is an opportunity for people who might be excluded from aspects of a shared cultural heritage to participate in stories and to encounter characters whose roots runs deep into a shared culture. And they make the case that basing their activities around the story of Odysseus, with all its cultural heritage, can open up cultural experiences to those who might otherwise lack an access to intellectual life.
There are some problems with all this. One is that the intellectual life in question is a ‘Western’ one. More than this, it is one shared by a narrow group within such a ‘Western’ civilisation.

My first gateway: Tales of the Greek Heroes:
Retold  from the ancient authors
by Roger Lancelyn Green. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Date given 1958, but this is presumably to a hardback edition?

Activities using classical myths can help provide ‘cultural knowledge’ to those who might not easily access such knowledge. By ‘cultural knowledge,’ I mean shared beliefs, customs and systems: what Eva Loth describes as “socially shared models or meaning systems, beliefs about the world, which influence the way we perceive, construct, think about, define, and interpret the social world and our experiences in it.”[2] Such activities can also extend people’s experiences in a way that fits what Lev Vygotsky said in his study of cultural-historical psychology about human learning. This was that such learning “presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” [3] Could classical myth do this? Could it help autistic children become part of a wider intellectual life?

Maybe – but I want to come at things from yet another angle. This is the angle of a child discovering classical myth. I’m meaning a specific child – myself, aged about ten. This was a very personal discovery. There wasn’t any classical myth told by, or known by, those around me. My experience of discovering classical myth would have been different if I had experienced classical myth at home or school. Rather, I was given a book retelling stories from classical myth by my grandfather, who didn’t himself know any of the stories. And reading it opened up a world that fascinated me – but in part because it fuelled my sense of being different. If it helped me, it was because it gave a kind of refuge.
So… to draw this posting to a close, I would like to stress that I can see benefits in giving people access to a shared cultural heritage – to stories of such heroes as Hercules, who has been part of culture – ‘high’ and ‘low’- at various points since antiquity. But I am not only seeking a way for autistic children to ‘grow into’ the intellectual life around them. I am also looking for a way to stimulate or engage children’s own inner lives.
In a future posting, I plan to say more about the use Grove and Park make of Odysseus and to discuss how their approach to Odysseus might have some Herculean applications.

[1] Nicola Grove and Keith Park, Odyssey Now, London: Jessica Kingsley, 1996.
[2] Eva Loth, “Abnormalities in “cultural knowledge” in Autism Spectrum Disorders: a link between behaviour and cognition,” in Evelyn McGregor et al., ed. Autism: An Integrated View from Neurocognitive, Clinical, and Intervention Research, Malden MA etc.: Blackwell) 85.
[3] Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978 (published posthumously), 89.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Mythical Hope 8 – Two monster stories... from Hydra heads to Hydra babies

The previous posting stared to relate why it is Hercules that I am offering as the focus of my activities for autistic children. Here, I run further with Hercules, including why this hero, unpleasant for some, favourite of others, is the one I have picked as source of autistic hope – hope, that, is as I have been defining it in these postings.

I have written recently about an autistic world – from where autistic people look into the non-autistic world. But I am not saying that there is one single autistic experience. I am hardly saying anything striking here. There have been a saying going around for a while along the lines of ‘if you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person.’[1] This fits with one move in recent autism pedagogy, which concerns finding a way to negotiate how on the one hand, being autistic involves a particular way of experiencing and being – and on the other that each person is a distinct person.[2]

I am going to explore this further by sharing two things which I have heard about – each two to three years ago, when I was starting to come to the view that Hercules would be a suitable choice for the activities. Both of these deal with hardships, and with hope in some way. And both concern the Hydra, a monster that seems especially appealing in relation to autism. 
Something violent: Hercules getting ready to club - though
not here behead - the Hydra.
16th century CE bronze fountain figure from Northern Italy.
Image details here and here
One experience was from a librarian at a library I regularly visit (‘regularly’ sometimes meaning ‘once a term’ to be honest). Chancing to learn that a visitor to the library was the grandmother of an autistic young child, she told the visitor about my work and mentioned that I was looking, particularly, at the myth of Hercules as a subject for resources for autistic children. The visitor responded that she very much hoped that I would not be including anything particularly violent, like the Hydra’s heads being cut off.

This is precisely one of the features of Hercules’s adventures that I was, then, planning to work on: as one instance where Hercules, journeying into a fantasy land, encounters hardships which he overcomes against the odds. Conversely, in the mundane world, he is often an outsider, who gets things wrong – because the behaviour that is suitable in a fantasy realm is not such in the everyday world.

I am aware that I need to treat the episode with care, including because it is not necessarily possible to control how someone will engage with any aspect of mythology presented to them. For example, the encounter with the Hydra might appear an instance of how to engage in problem-solving to one person. Yet it might be taken as uncomfortably violent by someone else, especially perhaps if the user empathises with the monster rather than the monster’s slayer. Stories of Hercules tend to be presented form the perspective of the hero, but what if a participant in an activity for autistic children identifies with the Hydra instead?

There are various possible solutions here. One is to shake up the question of ‘who is the hero’ and ‘who is the victim,’ perhaps by focusing on how the Hydra deals with the violence of Hercules by growing new heads.

Baby Hercules strangling - or playing with? - snakes.
From Verona after 1506 (poss. cast 19th century CE)
now in the Metropolitan Musuem and Art. Details here
The second Hydra story comes from another  colleague, a classicist who spent a few years working as a teaching assistant with preschool children. The colleague has shared with me an experience she had when reading a picture-book telling the adventures of Hercules with one of her pupils – a pupil whose behaviour is commensurate with autism. This book included the episode where Hercules cuts off the Hydra’s heads. It also includes another serpentine incident: the strangling of the snakes sent to attack the baby Hercules in his cot. The pupil would repeatedly ask to go back and forwards from the picture of the Hydra to the picture of the cradle. She regarded the snakes in the cot as little “Hydra babies” and wanted to go back and forth between the two images in order to reunite the babies with “their mummy.”

One thing to take from this, I’d say, concerns just how open classical myth can be to varied responses: contradictory ones indeed. The little girl in my colleague’s preschool class found a story often seen as violent to be concerned with babies and their mother. There is huge potential for classical myth to engage the imagination of a given user – for them to make their own interpretations and to work though various things in their lives as they make sense of the world – this can include things like family values, and the mother-child bond. Solace can be found in unexpected places, including what is usually regarded as a story of an act of violent killing by a monster-slaying hero. Hercules can be received in many ways. Monster, as here the Hydra can received in many ways too, including by autistic children.

Last year, I was involved in a pilot study of the initial version of my activities for autistic children with a group of children aged 8-11. It was the Hydra that they especially liked. I need to think more about the Hydra. I also need to think about how Hercules and the monsters he encounters are presented in books for children. Some of my Myths and Mythology students at Roehampton have been examining how mythology is presented for children – often with violent episodes sanitised or even erased. They have been thinking about the ethics of this, and also at how far this creates a skewed image of classical myth.

All this raises questions including what the role of retelling classical myth should be – should one seek to keep as close as possible to ‘the original’? What - if so - even is the ‘original’? At some point soon, I’m going to review the books on Hercules discussed to date in the Our Mythical Childhood survey, including to see what patterns emerge, and to go deeper into various issues raised in this posting. This will include looking into how children respond to monsters and to heroes, and contemplating what the lessons might be for me as a develop my activities. for children.

I advised a student just this afternoon that an ideal maximum length for a blog posting is 1000 words – I’ve gone over this, so I’ll stop for now. More soon: where I go down one of the Herculean paths that will emerge out of this posting.

[1] See, for example,  “Understanding Autism,” Autism Empowerment, online at https://www.autismempowerment.org/understanding-autism/  (accessed July 21, 2019) (“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”)
[2] See, for example, Rita Jordan, “Preface,” in Rita Jordan and Stuart Powell, eds., Autism and Learning: A Guide to Good Practice, London and New York: Routledge, 2012 (updated edition; first edition: 1997).

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Mythical Hope 7 - But Hercules is horrible...

Hercules being horrible? Hercules and Lernaean Hydra, 
California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco.
Details here

In the previous posting, I said some things about the hope which classical myth – along with other imaginative things – can offer in relation to autism. This, as I discussed, concerns hope as something that can make a difference for autistic people. I also discussed how hope might apply for those non-autistic people who want to reach into an autistic person’s world. I discussed how, if they succeed into reaching into this autistic world, they might discover something unexpected. For they might find that the autistic loved one has been looking into their world all along: seeing what they see, and also seeing differently – with insights that might take the non-autistic person by surprise.

Here I am going to turn to why, specifically, Hercules is the hope-provider on which I am focusing. I shall start with a discussion of why I have opted for this subject: because not everyone likes Hercules. For example, I was in correspondence with the mother of an autistic girl recently after she wrote to ask whether there were any books on classical myth that might appeal to her daughter. When I mentioned some Hercules-related books, she let me know that her daughter does not like Hercules, because of the way he behaves in classical myths. I get what she means.

One response might be that every mythical figure is potentially awful, including those whom many people regard as empowering. Which ancient deity is not selfish and vindictive, for example? So, let me stress that I am not picking Hercules as an instance of one who is invariably, or even mostly, ‘good’. When I have been in the audience at academic papers where Athena is mentioned by the speaker, and where Athena is going to do something unpleasant, the speaker has sometimes begun by saying something like ‘sorry, Susan’. The reason I’ve been singled out like this is because I have done quite a bit of work on the topic of Athena, and the speaker feels a need to apologise for portraying this deity in an unfavourable light.

But I don’t think that you need to like what you write about... Athena is a lens through which to see much of antiquity and its reception – including patriarchalism, violence and morality based around helping friends and harming enemies. This potential of Athena as a lens is what I like about this deity. I’d say the same about Hercules.

Now I’ve dealt with this issue of how to deal with mythological figures who are, in some way, unpleasant, I shall turn, in the next posting, to how I am using Hercules. I’m expecting to go on a bit of a monster journey in this posting thanks in part to some recent things I’ve been writing about Athena as a monster-sided deity. Also, just this morning I’ve been listening to an interview with Liz Gloyn on the Endless Knot podcast about her new book on classical monsters…

Monday, 4 November 2019

Mythical Hope 6 - Hope: gateway between worlds, from Pandora to Iago...

With this posting, I turn back – explicitly – to Hope. One thing I have been trying to covey so far with these postings is that Hope in relation to autism might not take the form someone – perhaps a non-autistic someone – expects it to take. These postings are not concerned with hope somehow to make an autistic person less ‘autistic’. Plenty of autistic people are already pretty skilled at trying to seem non-autistic as it is – via their skills at masking.[1] Thus, the hopes of those round them for someone divested of autism might seem to have been realised or, so adept might they have become at masking their autism, their autism may never have been discovered in the first place. 

I received a lovely response from one of my Our Mythical Childhood colleagues to my fifth ‘Hope’ posting. He said that previously he had viewed autism as something sad. Now, he said, he sees it differently. I’ll ask him whether he would be okay with me quoting his words.  

Then, last week, another collaborator on the project, Liz Hale, posted on a Hope-themed topic on her Antipodean Odyssey blog: Once there was a boy–and the politics of Pandora . . . (October 28th 2019).

The Hope discussed here is the hope that Pandora enables – here Pandora is expressed via the girl in a children’s book, Once there was a boy, by an Australian author, Dub Leffler. The girl’s curiosity leads her to go where she has been asked not to. I have not read the book yet – I have experienced it only via Liz – and I refer you to her delicate posting. From what I have experienced via Liz, this is Hope for a future when the life – perhaps the whole landscape – of someone has been changed, and with this change, the past, a golden age, might not be recoverable. Or, if it is recoverable, this could be in a new, different way, with a companion rather than by oneself – a companion who needs to change just like the other person needs to. So, out of an inappropriate act, an act coming from curiosity, there is… Hope.

As I said in previously in this, well, I suppose, series, I have been re-reading Ron Suskind’s book on his experiences in the wake of his son Owen’s diagnosis, as a young child, as autistic. Ron’s expresses these experiences on several occasions in relation to hope – from the hopes he had had for the little boy, to losing this hope, to finding a way into Owen’s world and into the discovery that Owen was aware of his, Ron’s, world – indeed, was observing it with acute insight. What started this discovery was Disney. They would communicate – Ron, Owen and their family – via Disney characters, including characters from Disney’s Hercules
Ron Suskind in 2012 delivering the C. Douglas Dillon Lecture: details here

The result on Owen and Ron is charted, in the book, and in a film. And there had been impact on others as well, thanks to support form high-profile people who have helped Ron and Owen convey what it can mean to be autistic, and for a non-autistic people to engage with autistic people, including Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of Iago from Aladdin.[2]

One thing I take from this is that characters from stories can make a difference to autistic people, and to those in their lives. One reason is that they relate to them. Another is that there is something about them that can give a gateway between worlds: the world of an autistic person – the world I write about in posting 5 - and that other world, the world of non-autistic people - ‘neurotypicals’ as they are often designated.

In the next posting, I shall turn to why I am opting for a focus on Hercules - beyond the role played by this character in what Ron Suskind sets out - though what Ron discovered is informing what I am doing...

[1] For instance Alis Rowe – focusing here on masking by autistic girls - outlines various reasons for masking, including to ‘hide they difficulties they’re having’ to ‘fit in’ and ‘avoid standing out,’ to ‘stop family/friends from worrying about the’ and to ‘pretend that they are OK because they think that if they pretend enough…they will actually be okay.’ Asperger’s Syndrome in 12-16 Year Old Girls, London: Lonely Mind, 2nd edn., 2018: 54.
[2] See e.g. “Gilbert Gottfried Did A Scene From Aladdin With A Young Man With Autism And Your Heart Explodedhttps://www.buzzfeed.com/alivelez/gilbert-gottfried-did-a-scene-from-aladdin-with-a-young-man (accessed 4 November 2019).

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

On cripantiquity and becoming an ancientist :)

Hope-themed postings will resume soon - though in a sense everything I write on this blog is hope-fuelled?

I'm sharing something that happened recently - late last week. This was gaining a profile on cripantiquity which, in the words of @cripantiquity, is:

"Amplifying crip voices & building ancientist community among artists, students, activists & academics."

I picked the photo - also included here to the left - because it's of me talking about things linked with the topic of my autism work. This was at a roundtable session for Our Mythical Childhood Survey authors at a conference in Cambridge a couple of years ago. If you're able to read what's on the whiteboard behind me, you'll see both that event's hashtag and the twitter address @OMChildhood.

The cripantiquity profile is here:  Scroll up - and in the future down as well... - to see the others!

One final thought: 'ancientist' in the cripantiquity description. I love it. The more I think of the term, the more I love it. It gets away from elitist associations that 'classicist' calls up. 'Ancientist' rather than 'ancient world' gets away from an implication that the ancients 'owned' their world...

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Mythical Hope 5 - From an autistic place unlike earth, and why there's no need to mourn

I called my previous posting “So: Mourn For Us?” That posting was concerned with the hardships autistic people supposedly face – how they supposedly go through life, like their families, bereft of hope. But note that I included a question mark at the end. This was to signal that it isn’t necessary to mourn for people because they are autistic. 

For this current posting’s title, I have added a key extra word from Jim Sinclair, the source of the quotation: “don’t.” What Jim Sinclair said, in his address from 1993, was: DON’T MOURN FOR US. Reaching out to non-autistic people, Jim asked that people don’t try to take away someone’s autism – it’s part of who we are: “Autism isn’t something a person has, or a “shell” that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind the autism.”[1]

What Jim sets out here is a pole apart from precisely what many non-autistic people try to do, namely to look for a way to get back a child. Steve Silberman explores such moves in his Neurotribes by looking at some of the organisations that have been set up to try to recover autistic children, or to cure someone of autism. The names of some of the organisations alone are telling: “Defeat Autism Now” is one. Another is “Cure Autism Now.”[2] Occasionally, over the years, comments to my blog have been from organisations akin to some of these telling me about some supplement which, those promoting it tell me, has properties that can cure people of their autism. But, as Jim Sinclair was saying a quarter of a century ago, “Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence.” 

From this perspective, what can it mean to look for a cure? Taking this to a logical extension, from Jim’s perspective, what would you be left with? As Jim continues: “It is not possible to separate the autism from the person – and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with.” Another way to see autism is as a mode of existence: a ‘world’ as one autistic person puts it. This is Sue Rubin, as expressed in the title of her documentary film.
Temple Grandin delivering 
2010 TED Talk. Details here
This is a world where people think, act and behave differently from non-autistic people. What tends to happen is this – the focus is put on how a non-autistic person strives to understand, to reach, the non-autistic person. But Jim, like Sue a decade on, turns it round to the autistic person’s experience. Where an autistic person manages to find a way to communicate with non-autistic people, and to function in non-autistic society, they are, as Jim puts it, “operating in alien territory, making contact with alien beings.” 

Alis Rowe: The Girl with the
Curly Hair. Details

There is an excellent fit here with how Temple Grandin, as an autistic person, seeks to explain what it is like for her to deal with interactions with non-autistic people. As she has put it, she is “an anthropologist on Mars.” [3] Similarly, R. Young, quoted in Alis Rowe’s Asperger’s and Me, writes about “Planet Asperger…where everything seems the same as earth, but nothing actually is.[4] And as Alis herself says: “People with AS often feel like observers. Many feel they are here to simply study the world but never be a part of it.”[5]

In the next posting, I shall look at what implications there can be in all this for my project and what its goals are. Should I be aiming to help autistic children circumvent a strange world?  Or, should the project be about the autistic world and how this world is experienced, and maybe how non-autistic people can discover it? This opens up another question, namely what IS an autistic world like?

More soon…

[1] Jim Sinclair, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” Autism Network International (ANI) website: http://www.autreat.com/dont_mourn.html (accessed July 21, 2019; originally published in Our Voice 1.3, 1993).
[2] On the quest to cure autism, with the launch of organisations including “Defeat Autism Now!” andCure Autism Now”, see Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism, 261–237 (Full details of Steve’s book in previous posting).
[3] See e.g. Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, London: Picador, 1995; Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism; Temple Grandin and Richard Panek, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, Boston–New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013; Thomas G. West, Seeing What Others Cannot See: The Hidden Advantages of Visual Thinkers and Differently Wired Brains, Amherst: Prometheus, 2017, esp. 69–90.
[4] The Girl with the Curly Hair – Asperger’s and Me, London: Lonely Mind 2013: 89, referencing R. Young, Asperger Syndrome Pocketbook. Hampshire Teachers; Pocketbooks, 8.
[5] Asperger’s and Me 117.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Mythical Hope 4 - Life is hard: so mourn for us?

In the decade and a bit that I’ve been blogging on autism and classical myth a lot has changed from the ‘classical’ side, not least due to the rise in interest in classical reception, including, how classics is received for and by children. I mentioned this side of things a couple of postings back. Here I want to switch the focus to developments from the other ‘side’ – not that there really are sides, hence the inverted commas. I want to look at how perceptions of autism have moved on over the past decade. Much of what I’ll look at predates this time, so it’s not that everything I discuss is very recent – it’s more that voices that were once heard in a limited way are increasingly being listened to.

The first of the three themes for the Our Mythical Childhood project – under whose mythical and magical aegis I’m developing myth-themed activities for autistic children - was Hope (followed by History; and next, starting soon, we’ll turn to Nature). Hope was the focus of our conference at Warsaw in 2017. In preparation for this event, I began thinking about what ‘hope’ might mean in relation to autism, and whether a source of hope might be something mythological. I'm current revisiting where I stand in relation to autism and hope.

Our title for the conference in 2017 (Our Mythical Hope in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture... The (In)efficacy of Ancient Myths in Overcoming the Hardships of Life) pointed to how Hope can help children deal with the “hardships of life.” Hope has often been seen as something especially needed where autistic children are concerned, because their experiences of the “hardships of life” might be felt to be especially acute. This sense of autism as involving hardships is often expressed by those seeking to help autistic children – by parents for instance and by teachers and therapists. In this regard, the list of an autistic child is often seen as so painfully difficult, so beset with hardships, that any hope for them is going to be slender. Jim Sinclair put this really well in an address from as long ago as 1993. I find it a bit constricting to give little terms for who people are – ‘the historian such-and-such’ etc. – but I can see that it’s helpful to do this, though it does pin people down to one specific field… I’d describe Jim, I suppose, as the autism rights activist.’[1]

In this 1993 address, Jim sets out how, on learning that their child is autistic, parents often respond with grief - grief at the loss of all their hopes for the child, and regard the only source of hope to be in a possible cure.[2] It’s from this address that I take the ‘Mourn for us’ in the title of this posting. These sentiments bear comparison with those set out in the introduction to a 2014 film about an autistic young woman (here’s me pinning down another person… I hope adequately), Sue Rubin. When she was a child, Sue “did not give her parents much hope. She hit herself. Pulled hair. Bit her own arms and hands. She could not speak.”[3] I’m currently reading Ron Suskind’s Life, Animated where he outlines his quest to be the best parent possible for his autistic son. Here, too, Ron says a lot about hope: the hopes he had before Owen, his son’s, diagnosis and the hopes for a future that might accommodate Owen. Let me finish reading the book – then I’ll reference, and perhaps blog on – this.

As phrased in the literature on autism from diagnostic perspectives, for professionals and parents, autistic children may well find life hard –significantly harder than other children. They may well find it difficult, for example, to know what to say or do in social situations, or to respond to the subtle cues that other children learn more easily. It can be especially hard for an autistic child to do the kind of things that are, or come to be, innate for others, for instance how to initiate or maintain a conversation. Autistic children may find it harder than their peers to read body language or facial expressions, or any form of non-verbal conversation. Interpreting things like tone of voice could prove more difficult too than for other children. Also, developing any rapport with others could be a challenge, let alone to develop friendships.[4] Autistic children might find it hard, too, to gauge what others are thinking or feeling. 

There is more. As often described, difficulties with communication could be compounded by difficulties over processing information. Autistic children might find it hard to think beyond the present and they might well find it hard to understand that the present can turn into the future. They might find it difficult to understand the “bigger picture” in any given scenario, preferring instead to focus on particular details. Autistic children also may well find it hard to deal with changes in routine, preferring instead set and repetitive patterns of behaviour. Added to this, they could experience heightened sensory perceptions such an acute reaction to noise or smell.

These difficulties were articulated in the “triad of impairments” identified by the pioneering British psychiatrist (again I hope this summary is adequate!) Lorna Wing – as involving difficulties and lack: difficulties in social and emotional understanding, difficulties in all aspects of communication, and a lack of flexibility in thinking and behaviour.[5] In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), again the focus is on what is difficult. Here, autism spectrum disorders are categorised in terms of “communication problems,” “difficulty relating to people, things and events,” and “repetitive body movements or behaviors.”[6]

Thus, the life of an autistic child is often seen as one characterised by hardships. And, so, this group of children might be considered to benefit especially from hope – to enable them to develop empathy for instance, or to develop a theory of mind, or to improve their central coherence, or to help them interact with their parents or their peers, or to show that they are able to follow what someone is saying to them.

However, there is another way of looking at what it is to be autistic, and to have (a chance of) hope. I plan in the next posting to I ask how far it should be the role of someone working with autistic people to attempt to deal with the supposed hardships of their lives. I’ll ask what it even means to think of an autistic person’s life as a hard one.


[1] On Jim Sinclair, see the website for Autism Network International: http://www.autreat.com/ (accessed October 14, 2019)/ See further Silberman, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter about People Who Think Differently, London: Allen and Unwin, 2015, 432–441, 445–449.
[2] Jim Sinclair, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” Autism Network International (ANI) website: http://www.autreat.com/dont_mourn.html (accessed July 21, 2019; originally published in Our Voice 1.3, 1993). On the quest to cure autism, see Silbermam, Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism, 261–237.
[3] Sue Rubin and Julianna Margulies, Autism is a World, San Francisco: Kanopy Streaming, 2014.
[4] See e.g. Alis Rowe’s description of finding friendships in The Girl with the Curly Hair – Asperger’s and Me, London: Lonely Mind 2013: 25-28, 45-48.
[5] See, esp., Lorna Wing, “Autistic Spectrum Disorders,”  312.7027,  The Autistic Spectrum: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, London: Robinson 2002 (updated edition – first edition: 1996).
[6] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) 2013, online at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/autism/what-is-autism-spectrum-disorder (accessed July 21, 2019).