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.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Talking about Making Choices via Hercules at the Polish Theatre

Yesterday, I blogged on the first of two workshops I ran in Warsaw last week as part of the 2019 programme of events for the Our Mythical Childhood project. Today, and in the hours before I leave a city that’s become like a second home, I am blogging on the second workshop. This was held on Thursday (May 23) in the Polish Theatre to a wide-ranging audience. This audience included the participants from the conference, themselves a mixture of academics and students from many countries. Also present were the high school students and their teachers who had earlier on presented their project on Polish historical figures who shaped, or who were in some way shaped by, the classical tradition. I was delighted when I learnt that the founder and manager of Life is Cool, the café staffed by autistic people where I’d presented the earlier workshop was also going to be present.

As with my posting about the Life is Cool workshop, what follows is drawn from the notes that I took along with me. The posting is accompanied with artwork produced during the workshop, starting here with Anna Mik's. I’ll say more about this at the end.

Today I will share with you some activities that I am creating for autistic children – and you get to have a go. What you’ll do can’t be the same as in the sessions with autistic children – because here we have just half an hour. But I hope to give a flavour of what the children will do.

This workshop is building on a session on Tuesday of this week in Life is Cool, a café staffed by autistic adults. The focus of this workshop, Making Choices, has been inspired by my discussion with one of the café staff who took part in the workshop – more on this later.

When you receive your handout and some pencils, start colouring in. Also use the orange highlighter in your conference pack if you would like. The drawing on the handout is the artefact on which the activities are based. It looks ancient, but it is actually from the eighteenth century, from a villa in Roehampton in London, and so it constitutes an instance of eighteenth-century classical receptions to add to those from Poland that we heard about earlier today.

Colouring in is key to engaging with the activities and with its key figure, Hercules, who has reached a strange place. There is lush vegetation on one side and a rocky landscape on the other side. Two women, or goddesses appear, each representing one side of the scene, and they task Hercules with making a choice, between a life of pleasure on the one hand and a life of hard work with eventual rewards on the other.

The colouring in you’re perhaps doing: one reason for this is to encourage you to LOOK. There are lots of details at the scene, some of which can be missed on first glance (the serpent on top of the helmet for instance, or some of the drinking vessels). This is one thing that makes the image potentially relevant for autistic children, for whom processing information can be a challenge, especially in a new situation. There can be a multi-sensory dimension to this, encompassing sight, and sound and touch. And colouring in can help engage with this, including by letting anyone grasp just how overloading the new place is.

And this is all the more case in relation to Hercules, who has an excellent fit with autism, as those of you who were also at the workshop on Tuesday heard me set out. For instance, nothing is easy for him. Hercules keeps having to learn rules afresh. He is able to do things that others cannot though his strength and cunning, yet he experiences what can look like overload – and as a result he sometimes carries out acts of violence.

Have a look at how he is depicted on the image. Is he being thoughtful as he is trying to make his choice? Is he in shutdown?  If the latter, this isn’t to say that he isn’t feeling anything – it could be that he is feeling lots of things, lots of emotions, all at once. I’ve heard being autistic as like a recurrent panic attack, including coming out of needing to process lots of information in one go.

The activities are seeking to deal with two key things. Firstly – fitting with what I’ve just been describing - they are concerned with understanding, regulating and communicating emotions. Secondly, they are concerned with making choices. Making choices can likewise be a challenge for autistic people, whether the decision is over something ‘big’ or something ‘small’, for example what to have for dinner.

There are four stages in the activities, which are designed for children aged 7-11 but can be adapted for older or younger children, namely:
  • Introduction
  • Emotions
  • Choices
  • Where next? (how the present turns into the future)

In the workshop in Life is Cool on Tuesday, we focused on emotions. Today, I’ve decided to move the focus to choices. This is in response, in part, to the colleague from the café who took part in the workshop with whom I had a great discussion about what choice Hercules would have made.

The activity falls into three parts:
  • Story
  • Discussion
  • Creative activity 

If we had more time, we could all have a go at trying out the activity; for now, however, I’ll talk you though the various stages, though I will also give you a brief opposite to have a go at doing some aspects of the task.

Story: here we get to the point where Hercules makes a choice between the two paths in life.

Discussion: here the participants think about a time when they had to make a difficult choice, however ‘big’ or ‘small’ this might appear to be. Indeed, have a quick think yourselves about a difficult choice you’ve made. It could be something like whether to accept a job offer; or it could be what you chose to have for breakfast this morning, or were you decided to sit in this room.

Creative activity: Based on what you’ve coloured in, and based on the discussion activity, what choice do you think that Hercules makes? Put a tick by the side you think he chooses, or a smiley face perhaps. Tell me – perhaps via email – what you decided. And note that there is no correct answer. Hercules is the great doer of hard work. Hercules is also recurrently depicted as a great lover of the pleasures of life. This lack of a right or wrong answer points to one further reason why I’ve picked this particular episode – whichever path people choose can lead to a further engagement with Hercules…

What I’ve not yet blogged on is how much I gained from the feedback from participants afterwards including from the manager of Life is Cool. I understand, too, that one of the schools who took part have shared their colouring in via social media. I’ll link to that in a later posting.

The artwork accompanying this posting was done by two of the participants: Anna Mik and Giacomo Savani. Anna’s spin on the Choice adds a stunningly unexpected third voice to those who are tasking Hercules with making his choice. Giacomo has animalised - as wild cats - the three human-like figures.

The present turns to the future: I’ll end with this segue. The work of both Anna and Giacomo anticipates the topic of our next gathering, in May 2020, on the theme of Mythical Nature.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Talking about Emotions via Hercules in the "Life is Cool" cafe

In my previous posting I mentioned that, on the days before and after Lisa Maurice and I announced the launch of ACCLAIM – a network for anyone interested in the potential fit of autism and classical myth – I had run two workshops linked with the activities that I am currently developing. In this posting I am going to deal with the first of these, which took place at Life is Cool, a café in Warsaw, established by the Foundation Ergo Sum in 2016 whose workers are autistic people. What follows here is based on the notes that I prepared for the session. 

For a sample of these notes, see the blue sheet included in the photo at the top of this
posting, although on the day I deviated from what I’d put down where suitable, including in relation to what Lisa Maurice, and Liz Hale, had already raised in their sessions including on the role of myth in education around the world (Lisa) and on the role of emotions in children’s literature (Liz). I’ll also add links to relevant to relevant websites and to previous postings on this blog.

A year ago, something wonderful happened in this very space: I shared my first set of activities for autistic children based on the Choice of Hercules between two competing paths in life. I had written them in February 2018, and it was apt that the first time that there were shared in a workshop was first at gathering for the Our Mythical Childhood project and secondly here, in an autistic space. The experience of running the workshop with you all transformed the project and took it in a new direction. Today, I shall offer a quick report on what has happened since then. Then I shall outline where I am going next, including in relation to this year’s conference theme: Our Mythical History (emphasis added).

Last year, I used a very provisional line drawing of the Choice of Hercules, made crudely on my computer. Now – people did great things with this including Anna Mik, who is here again today, and also staff at the café. But, there has been one development – namely the creation of a high-quality set of drawings by Steve Simons. While I am talking, please, if you would like, do some colouring – use any colours you would like, perhaps bright colours for one side of the scene and duller colours for the others. Tear or cut out any parts of the scene if you would like, and add captions.

Indeed, I will be taking Hercules out myself for a next set of activities, where I put Hercules in the context of sixth-century Athens, a time when this figure was particularly popular. This will be in part in response to what the children in a pilot study I conducted a few months ago said – namely, ‘when did Hercules live?’ The answer is never – but that people thought he had/ presented it that they thought he had. What’s more, Hercules meant a lot to people at certain times and places.

In brief, to sum up what’s happened since our gathering last year, over the past year, I have given several papers and workshops including in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the CAMWS conference last month – where what was especially well received was the multisensory aspect of the activities, including from a neuroscientist at a US university who was on the same panel. I have also conducted the pilot study mentioned above, met with a group of autism specialists – on which, more below – and engaged in regular blogging to share my progress.

I’ll now rehearse some this that came out the session with the experts, as this has had a particular impact on the direction in which the project is going.

Firstly, the session bore out my conviction that myth can be a source of interest for autistic children. On the one hand, there is a well-delineated iconography, bearing out my conviction that myth can be a source of interest for autistic children. But, on the other hand, there is also a remoteness – the rules of myth are alien to everyone, and thus there is no disadvantage for autistic people.

Secondly, the experience confirmed that Hercules is a viable topic, with potential appeal for autistic children. For example, he regularly does something that others cannot, with potential appeal for autistic children, yet he also experiences what might look like emotional overload and distress or meltdown.

Thirdly, the experience has led me to narrow the focus on the activities. It was pointed out that I needed to narrow the scope of the activities, and I deed I had been seeking to do a range of things. As I currently envisage them, the activities are seeking to offer an alternative model for articulating experience and for making sense of the world, while also addressing some of the sources of distress that autistic children might encounter. This includes the sense that their actions are beyond their control. It also includes not liking changes in routine, or new scenarios. It is not about changing people – that would be like taking away who someone is.

I have reworked the activities in two main respects, both of which are geared to empowering autistic children. The two areas are, firstly, understanding emotions and regulating them, and controlling them and, secondly, making choices. Today I shall deal with the first of these: emotions.

For an autistic person, any kind of social interaction can be hard. There is a multi-sensory dimension to this involving, for instance sight, sound and touch – meaning that emotions can be hard to regulate. There can also be a different way of processing information. For instance, it can be hard to show a fresh emotion after a previous one. An autistic person might not show the ‘appropriate’ emotion, despite what they might be feeling. Indeed, it could be that they are feeling lots of things, and this could lead to an intense response, or a lack of a response – a shut down. The default emotion is often anxiety – and this can mask other emotions, like joy, or happiness.

With this in mind, I’ll turn now the specific activities based around the Choice of Hercules image. Ultimately, there will be four distinct activities, one for a particular session:
  •  reaching the strange place;
  •  dealing with emotions;
  • making a choice;
  • the results of the choice: how the present turns into the future.

The sessions could be carried out over four separate weeks, or over four days or even over a single day at, say, a summer school. Each activity will be divided into three sections: story, discussion and creative activity. I’ll run though what I’m planning to include in each of these three activities here – if we had more time, we could try some of them. Perhaps some other time…

STORY: The story for the ‘emotions’ activity will follow on from the first, introductory, session, so for now I’ll elide the two. Hercules has been carrying out a difficult task, namely wresting a ferocious lion. No one else could do this. He used his strength and cunning to accomplish the task. He is the best; he wouldn’t give up. Then he turned the lion’s skin into a garment to protect him. After that, he goes walking and gets to a strange place which is barren on one side, while the other side contains abundant food and drink and is full of foliage and flowers. Two women appear and each tell that he needs to make a decision about his future, between a life of hardship on the one hand and a life of ease and pleasure on the other.

DISCUSSION: This will be something along the lines of: has anything similar ever happened to you, for example when you got to a strange place, and met strangers there? This could be a new school for example. What did the experience make you feel like (e.g. anxious? scared? excited? happy?).

CREATIVE ACTIVITY: On the handout, write down words for what Hercules could be feeling, or use/draw suitable emojis.

At this point, I drew the session to a close. There was a really good discussion, the outcome of which – including in light of a brilliant suggestion from Katarzyna Marciniak – I’ll share in due course. Most of the participants were those taking part in the Our Mythical History programme of workshops (again see the photo). One of the staff members from the café also took part. It’s their input that helped shared the direction of the second of the workshops, the one on Thursday. The next posting to this blog will detail what happened there. I’ll put it up soon – today is Sunday and I aim to get it out while I’m still in Warsaw. I leave tomorrow.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

ACCLAIM: Autism Connecting with CLAssically Inspired Myth - revealing a mythical surprise

At the end of the previous posting, I mentioned that a ‘mythical surprise; linked with my project on autism and classical myth was going to be launched in Warsaw. This happened a couple of days ago, on Wednesday, at the start of the conference Our Mythical History

The surprise was this: Lisa Maurice and I announced the establishment of something we thought of doing when we met up in London in April. We decided to start a network for anyone interested in some aspect of the potential for myth as a source of inspiration for autistic children. This initiative grows out of the work we are each producing towards producing activities for autistic children – me in the UK, and Lisa in Israel along with Ayelet Peer.

In the weeks between our meeting and the announcement, we decided on a name:  ACCLAIM: Autism Connecting with CLAssically Inspired MythAs I said on Wednesday, and am happy to repeat here, our choice of the forward-looking 'acclaim' reflects the spirit of what we envisage the network to be, namely to engage and empower autistic children - as opposed to solely seeking to help autistic children negotiate the various challenges they might experience.

Our plans include setting up a website which will include links to autism associations around the world and links for teachers, therapists, and anyone interested – professionally or otherwise – in autism. We shall also include here a list of relevant secondary literature. We are planning a conference, ideally in collaboration with the Cluster The Past for the Present. We are envisaging producing a book, or a series of books.

The image heading this posting shows Lisa and me at the launch. The other image shows the slide which Lisa prepared to announce our formation. There are currently four logos – and space for more...

If you would like to hear more about ACCLAIM, or indeed join us, please email Lisa (lisa.maurice@biu.ac.il) or myself (s.deacy@roehampton.ac.uk). And do pass on the details to anyone you know who might be interested.

As well as launching ACCLAIM, I have conducted two workshops presenting my Choice of Hercules activities. I shall blog about them soon, hopefully while I am still in Warsaw: I’m here until Monday (27 May).

Friday, 17 May 2019

More deep play with Hercules - next week in Warsaw

Tomorrow I am off to Warsaw for a week of workshops and conference events linked with the Our Mythical Childhood project. This is going to include two workshops where I present the activities I am creating based on the experiences of Hercules.

At these workshops, I shall show how I have refined the activities since last year, when I also ran a workshop on the Choice of Hercules. Like last year, the participants will have an opportunity, if they want, to have a go at doing one of the activities.

For this activity, I shall be presenting the high-quality vector drawings created specially by the project by Steve Simons. These replace the very provisional drawings which I used last year: if drawing is even the right word – they were created on my PC’s word-processing package by manipulating a photograph of the artefact on which they activities are based…

These earlier drawings – I’ll keep with the word for convenience – still managed to produce some awesomely creative work. With the new drawings, I am hoping that the scope for participants to engage with the scene will only been enhanced. 

For now, and in memory of this time last year, this posting is illustrated with some of the products of the May 2018 workshop, which took place at Life is Cool, a café in Warsaw run by autistic people. This is where the first of the workshops will take place, on Tuesday of next week. I am very much looking forward to my return visit! The reference to 'deep play' is taken from annotations to the drawing produced by last year's participants.

One final thing - the conference will open with various introductory talks including one labelled on the programme: "Our Mythical Surprise". This surprise is of an autistic nature. Watch this space - I'm anticipating sharing this surprise in my next posting...


Tuesday, 14 May 2019

What's happened thanks to a Public Engagement grant from the Institute of Classical Studies

Every time that I speak about my autism and myth project, it moves on in some way. Sometimes this is because of comments from people who hear me talk about what I’m doing. Sometimes it comes out of articulating my thoughts in line with a specific event. Back in October 2018, I ran an event at which has led me to revisit what I am doing, and why I am doing it. This was an event, ‘Autism and Classical Mythology: Workshop for External Partners,’ where a group of specialists on autism met to discuss the first draft I had put together of activities around the Choice of Hercules.

The event took place thanks to support from the Institute of Classical Studies’s Public Engagement Fund. It took me a while to write a report on the event – partly because I needed a bit of time to reflect on what took place, and process it all. I finally wrote it the other week. I did it in the form of a posting for the ICS’s blog. It was Emma Bridges, the Public Engagement Fellow at the ICS who invited me to do this – in place of a formal report. And would that all reports could be in the form of blog postings…

The posting was published a few days ago – and it is my pleasure to share it HERE blog-to-blog.

Friday, 3 May 2019

What I've learned about autism from The Girl with the Curly Hair

In one of my postings last month during World Autism Awareness Week, I mentioned that I had booked onto a day’s training provided by the Curly Hair Project. I said then that I was looking forward to the day because it would explore autism from the perspective of an autistic person. The session took place yesterday – and here are some comments on what I’ve taken from it.

The training centred around a set of slides written by the founder of the project, Alis Rowe, who writes prolifically about her experiences as an autistic person. Her writings are geared towards promoting an understanding of autism, and what it’s like to be autistic. She does this not least so that non-autistic people can come to understand what it might be be like to be autistic, and gain a better understanding of how to communicate with an autistic person.

Much of what Alis said though the slides – and though several short videos – spoke powerfully to me, including to my own childhood experiences. I have come away with lots of ideas and notes. I’ve also come away with several of Alis’s books, which were on sale throughout the day. My collection is pictured above.

The trainer stressed that she is not herself autistic but that she works closely with Alis, and has learnt a lot from Alis. She is the mother of an autistic daughter and, in addition to sharing Alis’s experiences and being Alis’s mouthpiece, she mentioned many of her daughter’s experiences as a child, and now a young adult. Most of the participants were parents of autistic children – and the training was very much focused around what it can be like for a ‘neurotypical’ person to parent an autistic child.

Alis’ materials are copyrighted so perhaps I had better not give any details – though I assume that it will be fine to quote from, and reference, her books as these are in the public domain already. I’m very much looking forward to reading these, one of which, What I have learned about Life, only came out very recently. The title of this book has inspired the title of this current posting.