The title for this posting is adapted from a tweet from Dr Magdalena Ohrman, one of the participants at a lecture I gave last week at the Lampeter campus of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Here, in a location very special to me (see below), I introduced the resources – and I also presented for the first time the drawings that the artist Steve Simons has specially created for my first set of activities (also see below). A written-up version of my notes follows - and Magdalena's tweet, along with another concerning the talk, is included at the end.
It’s my pleasure to be here, talking about this specific project which is involving me putting together a set of activities for autistic children using classical myth. I shall be putting together three sets of activities in total, as part of a five-year, Warsaw-based ,European Research Council-funded project, which is currently half way through. I completed one of these a year ago, and I am currently building up the second set. But the project goes back further than the start of the ERC project – to around 10 years ago. I shall say something about this presently.
It is my pleasure to be here as I have said. One reason is that I take advantage to any opportunity to talk about the project. I have found that each time I do so, it moves on in some say – because it gets me to articulate my thinking, and because of the input that I received from those present. Another reason is this. I came to Lampeter as an undergraduate student in 1988. What I loved was classical myth, I had never studied classics at school and, unlike some of my students at Roehampton, I wasn’t brave enough to apply directly to study the subject. This made the University of Wales, as was, appealing. At that time, students would take three subjects in their first year, so Classics (well, ‘Greek and Roman Civilisation’) could be my third in addition to two which were fostering my love of studying texts where myth is rich in various ways, namely English and Theology.
And what made Lampeter seem an ideal place in terms of the curriculum was the emphasis on MYTH, and I duly took a course on myth in my second year. This was taught by [the late] Keith Hopwood, whose refusal that there can even be any truth ‘behind’ anything, and his continually playing devil’s advocate any time I presented ant time I presented anything to him moved me on as a student and then as an academic. Keith went on to supervise my PhD thesis on Athena. When I was in the early stages of my PhD, I proposed to him that I story Athena’s role as helper of heroes, notably Herakles. He dismissed this as a possible topic because of lack of evidence. I stressed that there was plenty of evidence – visual evidence, notably vase paintings, where Athena frequently assists Herakles, or stands by signalling that he is under her protection – and – what? – that he cannot not succeed in his various labours.
Keith’s response was that the visual evidence didn’t mean anything. This took me aback because it was a set of slides that he had presented in the second-year Myth class showing Athena with Herakles that had first got me intrigued as to what it means for a hero to be reliant on another. Is their heroism enhanced, I’d wondered, by their divine patronage?. Is their heroism, indeed, enabled in the first place by the divine patronage – or is it compromised in some way, through their reliance on another. So – this talk is delivered in the memory of Keith Hopwood, whose questioning, and rug pulling, has been enabling for me.
I shall be focusing on the first set of resources – which centre around this artefact [see to the right] a chimney-piece panel in an 18th-century room now part of the University of Roehampton, where I have worked since 2004.
The activities are made up of several stages. They are meant to be assessable to users who know little or nothing about myth - and who might, indeed, never learn anything about classical myth. But they are also meant to be accessible too to those with an interest in myth.
As the activities are currently set out, I don’t start out by introducing who Hercules is. This is because I want the users to find their own way through the story – where, if they want, they can be Hercules, or they can be one of the women. They can bring their own experiences to the activities: their own experiences for example of making choices, of thinking about how the past can turn into the future, or of experiences of being in a strange place, and trying to work out how to operate in that space.
However, I am open to doing it differently. I was able to run a pilot study of the activities in a primary school’s autism unit last year. The teacher began by introducing Hercules (via the Disney film) and then who they considered Hercules to be shaped how they engaged with the activities.
At first, I was working with a very crudely created drawing of the panel – made by me on my computer by using Word. It was far from ideal but it did produce some creative results, such as these above, to the left]. But, now, I have been able to work with an artist, Steve Simons, who has produced a set of line drawings which I now present for the first time in the form of this handout [three of the drawings are below - and in a subsequent posting I shall discuss why the figures are clothed in one of the drawings. I shall also, in the future, share Steve's wonderful drawings of specific objects in the scene]. Please – take colour pencils and start to colour in.
When I presented my project last autumn to a group of autism specialists, they did not like the colouring in idea, saying that it is the kind of thing teachers get children to do to keep them quiet. But – I’ve decided to keep this activity in on the grounds that they’re not there as yet another opportunity to make life easier for teachers – to indulge children’s enjoyment at colouring in just for the sake of it. Rather, it is through colouring in that users find new ways to look at the scene. I stress to users that they should think about what colours to use – perhaps bright ones for the right-hand part of the scene, where there is foliage, fruit and so forth, and duller, grey ones for the other side, where there is a rocky landscape and things like a snake, a helmet, and a steep, craggy mountain.
This can help users perhaps think about the choice Hercules is contemplating, and on what choice they might make. And there is more. One role of the activities can be to introduce the classical world, which, despite how it is often received today, including on the chimney-piece panel, and including at the other side of this library [images to follow in the future…] tends to be as something white or off-white. Yet ancient art will have been colourful, including on monuments, something that is often overlooked in recreations of the classical world.
Now that you have the pictures and the pencils, I shall say something about the project. It dates to around 2008 when I learnt from a special needs teacher that, in her experience, and those of her colleagues, autistic children respond well to learning about classical myth. From this anecdotal evidence, I began to wonder why this was the case, and whether, as someone especially interested in myth as an academic, there was anything I could do here by way of creating resources. As a result, I reached out to as many people as I could think of including dramatherapists and special needs teachers. And I kept getting encouraging responses. The result was something that has transformed various aspects of my practice, indulging taking on a role that I wouldn’t have thought to put myself up for previously, of departmental disability coordinator. And I started blogging on the topic… For a while the blog broadened into a disability blog more broadly, until I teamed up with a project based in Warsaw, the goal of which is to trace the role of classics in children’s and Young Adult culture. So, my own contribution here is in where classical myth sits in autistic children’s culture.
The ERC encourages – even expects – immediate dissemination. I have always found that my research and writing process lends itself to presenting my work-in-progress and to reflecting on the while research process. In the blog, I shared my increasingly deepening engagement with autism and on why Hercules was a figure I had opted for as one especially suitable for a set of activities. These reasons include the potential for Hercules to ‘speak’ to some of the challenges that autistic children encounter as the hero who repeatedly experiences hardships and who is ever needing to learn all over again how to respond to what life throws at him.
For example, autistic children might find it hard to know what to do or to say in social situations, or to respond to cues that other children might learn more easily. They might find it harder than their peers to read body language or facial expressions – or any form of non-verbal communication. Developing a rapport with others can be a challenge, as can be gauging what others are thinking and feeling. Autistic children will likely find it hard to think beyond the present – and to understand how the present can turn into the future.
The particular artefact that I have selected offers potential to deal with all these challenges, and with others, including the following things that autistic people often encounter. These include understanding the ‘bigger picture’ in any given scenario, instead focusing on particular details; dealing with changes in routine – preferring set or routine behaviour patterns; autistic children will often experience heighted sensory perceptions. I recently heard what it is like to be autistic described as follows – namely that it is like a perpetual panic attach, accompanied by a fear that every situation will be anxiety-inducing, whatever this might be. Though I’m not seeking to generalise here - as the saying goes – “if you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person”…
Plus, with the activities, I am aiming to respond not just to the various hardships that autistic people face. I am also concerned with responding to a distinctive autistic way of thinking and behaving – where people are not just helped to deal with a world where non-autistics dominate, but where there is space to be autistic. This is in line with the move away from the model of disabled people as those who need to change to fit in with society, to a notion that it is society that does the disabling.
With this in mind, I want to share one thing that came out of the session I mentioned earlier with autism experts. One thing that they asked was ‘Why classics?’. Another was ‘Why classical myth?’ A third was ‘Why Hercules?’, beyond that it is something that I myself enthuse about. Would other sets of stories do just as well, they asked, for example Winnie the Pooh?
These questions bothered me – there is a tendency among classicists to see classics as some kind of gift that we give to ‘the public’, including children, to make them better citizens, as though classics is a privileged space that ‘we’ open up to others. I don’t want to perpetuate such a view of classics- it is more that I have seen time and gain that when people experience classics it ‘speaks’ to their. This was my first encounter with classics – after I was given Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes.
|Steve Simons, Chimney-Piece Panel Cut Outs|
A response I gave at the time was this. Focusing on the ‘Why Hercules?’ question, I set out how I think Hercules bears on the resources. I described Hercules as one who is at home in the wilds – his own space – where he is capable of things that others cannot manage. He needs to learn the rules of each new scenario he experiences. Each time he needs to find a new way to deal with a fresh situation. In the wild, he invariably manages to overcome obstacles. Then, when he gets to civilisation, something goes wrong, often terribly wrong.
One of the participants was an autistic academic who is part of a network promoting the participation of autistic people in autism research. He said: ‘that sounds like being autistic.’
He said that what always interested him was fantasy, and Westerns, particularly outsiders and outlaws. He liked how Hercules could count both as a hero – the greatest of heroes no less – and as an outsider.
What he said marked a turning point for me – from which there is no going back - where I felt stronger in my thinking that the project was a promising one, and that Hercules was a promising topic for activities for autistic children.
Now that I’ve taken you to this point, I’ll draw to a close by showing a few things to you, including the Guest Book for the project which I’d be honoured if you’d add to if you’d like, and which includes some work stuck in by participants at the first workshop where I presented the activities. This was a café run by autistic people in Warsaw. You’ll also find here some of the work done by Roehampton students at a workshop linked with a Myth class last autumn.
There was then a rich discussion including on the following points, on which I’m continuing to reflect:
- How the activities address gender, including gender dysphoria and autism
- What the next set of activities will be concerned with
- What ages of children the activities are designed for
- How varied the provision is for autistic children in different parts in the world and how this might impact on the activities
And, finally, the tweets mentioned at the start:
Really fascinating talk tonight by
@UoRClassics' Susan Deacy. Eye-opening perspectives on classical myth and autism. And managed the Herculean task of getting a room full of academics to practice their colouring in!!https://twitter.com/MagdalenaOhrman/status/1098641917141610496 …