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.

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Managing the Herculean task of getting a room full of academics to practice their colouring in (Lampeter, February 21st 2019)

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:

Lampeter@UWTSD @UWTSDLampeter Feb 21
Really fascinating talk tonight by ' 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!!

Thursday, 14 February 2019

When did Herakles live?

With this posting, I move a little closer to setting out the topic for my second set of autism and classical myth resources for the Our Mythical Childhood project. I also move a little closer to writing my abstract for the upcoming Our Mythical History conference in May of this year.

I said in the last posting that it's comments from children that have given rise to the topic for the second set of activities. These are the children from a local primary school's autism until who were taking part last autumn in a preliminary pilot study of the first set of resources. Now I shall finally share what it was that was said. When the class’s teacher introduced Hercules, what the children wanted to know included ‘when did he live?’ and ‘what historical period he was from?’ The second set of activities offers an answer to these questions. They were also very interested in his club - and I'm considering how to make more of this attribute in future activities.

As a mythological figure, Herakles is from no historical period. As a mythological figure, Herakles was reimagined at various points in history. Indeed, this mythological figure has a richer history in this regard than any other mythological personage. This is something that Emma Stafford was so struck by in writing the ‘Afterwards’ section for her book on Herakles in the Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World series that her work for this section grew into an ambitious project which includes a series of conferences, books and an oratorio. And, as Alastair Blanshard has shown, each age can have its own Herakles/Hercules.

I am going to focus for the second set of activities on a time when Herakles was especially significant at a particular point in history. I shall do this as a route into introducing ancient Greek history. On the one hand, Herakles makes sense against a backdrop of this particular period. On the other hand, the particular historical period can be introduced via a study of one of the figures who was reimagined at this time.

One way to introduce ancient history is through its gods, heroes and myths. With Herakles as a starting point, I aim to introduce an eventful time in ancient Greece – one where culture, society and politics were changing – and where myths were transformed in light of these various changes. This was the sixth century BCE – a time of ferment, change and revolution. Specifically, the time in question is the 560s and 550s, when Peisistratos came to dominance in one city, Athens. This dominance was expressed through various mythological figures, not least Herakles.

In a few days’ time (today is Tuesday – I’ll be doing this on Friday), I have a few hours to spend in the British Museum. I shall be spending this time looking at vases in several galleries to gather together some images of Herakles, of Athena and of chariots. It is this material that, as I plan to show, is especially pertinent to the historical events that will be the focus of the activities.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

What do children see when they encounter classical myth?

As I have set out in the previous two postings to this blog, I am currently beginning to plan my second set of activities for autistic children, which, as I have said, will be concerned with interplays between between myth and history. The current posting reflects on an issue that I am taking note of as I prepare these resources, namely how far I am writing not so much for ‘real’ autistic children as for my own sense of what an autistic child might be.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece for Liz Hale’s Antipodean Odyssey blog setting out my ‘Saturnalian surprise’ of 2017. The surprise in question was my contribution to a set that Liz was collecting from the Our Mythical Childhood team. What I shared was this: despite the best efforts of adults in packaging classical myth in the best possible way for children, the children in question might not respond in the way that the adult expects them to.

One issue here might be a point made by Sheila Murnaghan in an article that I quoted from in the posting, namely that, as it is adults who write children’s literature, their work “inevitably answers to adult agendas and addresses not so much real children as adults’ constructions of children”.[1] Re-reading this quotation a year and a bit on, I am struck by just how well it applies to the resources I am creating for autistic children.

During the early months of 2018, I produced the first of three sets of resources for use with autistic children, based around a particular episode concerning Hercules, where the hero faces a choice between two opposing paths in life. I did this having thought a great deal about what it is like to experience the world as an autistic person. I thought about what the distinctive traits of autistic thinking and autistic experience can be. I thought about how far it might be possible, though myth, to set up a gateway between the world of an autistic person and that of a non-autistic person. I thought about how far, though classical myth, I could help autistic children deal with some of the challenges of living in a world where non-autistic experiences dominate. And I thought about how far, through classical myth, it might be possible to stimulate autistic children’s imagination.

Having done all this, I am now reflecting on how it is inevitable that, as an adult, I have been bringing my own notions of children and childhood to what I write. I am also reflecting on how far the activities I was developing were responding to adult agendas, and addressing my own construction of an autistic child.  I did, however, stress in the Saturnalia piece that it is important to take account of what children say about myth. I said: "Children learn when they encounter myth. We can learn too – from children." Since then, I have been musing on how far it is important to observe what children see when they encounter something classical.

I attended a Q&A session recently – in late November of last year – with Marcia Williams, an experienced and successful children’s author. When asked whether she runs focus groups she replied that she never does. Rather, she writes what she thinks children will find entertaining and interesting. At the other end, I have heard arguments in favour of finding out how children respond to children’s literature. For example, in a review of Katarzyna Marciniak's recent edited collection on Classics and children's literature, Nadya Willliams suggests that one approach might be interview children about how they feel about what they have read on a given topic.

In addition, I have learnt a great deal from the practitioner’s reports that Sonya Nevin has added to some of her entries for the Our Mythical Childhood survey. Here, here and here for instance Sonya discusses how the intended audiences of books for very young readers respond to the material presented for them, including in ways that the author did not intend (for each link, click the heading 'ADDENDA').

In the months after I completed the first set of resources, I began gathering feedback on them – from adults, including a group of autism specialists. I took part in a workshop in Warsaw in a café run by autistic people and some of the staff from the café took part. Again, they were adults. I also worked with Effie Kostara, a classical philologist and Education practitioner who wrote a guide for teachers who might be using the resources. I ran an activity last month with students at Roehampton where their depth of engagement with the activities led to some deeply-engaged responses including the one pictured here. But, again, the participants were adults.

I have learnt a great deal from these various activities, but what is missing from them is engagement with children. However, as well as all these activities with adults, I have also, twice now, been into a local primary school’s autism unit with Effie, firstly to meet the children and their teachers and secondly to conduct a very initial pilot study of the Choice of Hercules activities. It is in response to some of the questions asked by the students that I have come up with the topic for the second set of activities. Soon, I shall post on what the questions were and how they have shaped this new stage of the project.