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.

Friday, 26 July 2019

What I'll be doing in Cardiff next week and why it might inform activities for autistic children

Next week, I shall be gathering in one of the libraries at Cardiff University along with a group of other academics interested in making sense of what classics means, and could mean – for children. This will include a morning session where each of us shares an object that in some way deals with an aspect of the classical world. It might be a book retelling classical myth say, or a mini-figure, or a board game.

When we held a similar event last year, in the Roehampton University library, things took a personal turn, when some of us – myself included – brought along things from our own childhoods.
The reason that I man mentioning the event in this blog is as follows. I have been wondering whether a comparable activity might be worth planning – to tie in with the activities for autistic children that I am designing. In thinking this, I am reflecting on a comment that Katarzyna Marciniak made at an Our Mythical Childhood workshop in Warsaw in May of this year – while participates were busy colouring in Choice of Hercules drawings.
I was talking there about one goal of the activities, which is to reflect on, understand and manage emotions, including what makes us happy, what makes us apprehensive and what makes us afraid. Katarzyna’s idea was that children could bring along something that has made them feel happy. It could be a picture from a holiday perhaps, which they could then talk about. So, in relation to this, I am wondering about whether to include a show and tell element in the activities for autistic children. 
Next week’s event might provide useful in letting me think about how and why this might work.
Also, I am wondering how far it will be worth adding a specifically classically-inspired dimension to what is shown and told. What will happen during the afternoon session in Cardiff could especially help with this. After sharing during the morning what we ourselves have brought, we will then have the opportunity to look at items from the archives, pick one and show and tell that.
This might form a model for a session for autistic children where, first they bring along something that, say, makes them feel happy, or some other emotion. Then, after that, they can be introduced to a set of Hercules-related artefacts. They go on to pick one of these and talk about it.
I shall have a better idea after the Cardiff event whether this can go anywhere – but I went form thinking that I would write very briefly on this when I started the present posting to feeling a strong sense, which grew while I was writing the posting, that there is potential here.
There is more information about the Cardiff Show and Tell, and last year’s event, here, on the Roehampton Classics blog. From this blog posting,  you will also see link a to Karen Pierce’s own blog where she reflects on what happened at the Roehampton event.


Wednesday, 17 July 2019

A curriculum for all, autistic imaginations and a bit of Percy Jackson - notes from "Engagement for All in the History Classroom"

A week ago today, I was on my way to Liverpool – to take part in a one-day conference around creating a curriculum 'for all' at John Moores University. The curriculum in question was a History one although the organisers, Peter D'Sena and Lucinda Matthews-Jones, embraced Ancient History and Classics as well. They had invited me to discuss pedagogical innovations that I’m involved in as one of a set of case studies.

From the initial blurb for the event, I could see that the focus was to be on HE pedagogy but very much with a goal of exploring dialogues with learning and teaching in schools. The case study I offered was on based on my autism and myth activities. I stressed that this wasn’t going to involve me discussing initiatives around university pedagogy, but rather that it would concern the work I am involved in as part of the Our Mythical Childhood project’s investigation into the place of classics in children’s culture.
I spent a bit of time introducing my interest in autism and in myth and talking about how what I am doing sits within the work being done by the Our mythical Childhood team. After this introduction, I stated that I was going to be talking about the activities that I am developing for autistic children based on the ‘Choice of Hercules’ at Roehampton. I then said that, rather than sharing a PowerPoint, or a standard kind of academic handout, instead I was going to send round one of the drawings that form part of the activities. This was so that, as I was speaking further, the participants could have a go, if they wanted, at doing the same things that the autistic children will do. With this, people seemed delighted – a kind of ‘woooo…’ went round the room. I’m including some of the resulting artwork in this posting.
There was time afterwards for just two questions – possibly because I took so much time to answer these. I’d love to know what a third person who’d raised their hand wanted to ask. If you’re reading this posting, do get in touch (s.deacy@roehampton.ac.uk) -likewise, anyone who was present who would like to comment on or ask anything.
The two questions were both very interesting and I’m glad that I noted them down afterwards or I might have forgotten what was raised. One participant asked whether autistic girls have responded differently to the activities than autistic boys. My answer was that I’d don’t yet know. But I am gong to ponder on this and revisit the pilot study that Effrosyni Kostara and I conducted last October.
The other question was from a participant who asked why it is that autistic children like classical myth – given that it isn’t 'factual based'. This question took me aback – and it has brought home to me something that is often thought to be the case about autism – namely that autistic people are not likely to have imaginations.
However, many autistic people have rich imaginations! And this is one reason why many autistic people might enjoy such things as fantasy literature and sci-fi and video games. Being asked the question is prompting me to revisit the previous attention I’ve given to autism and the imagination, including in the wake of the event with autism sepecialist6s that I’ve mentioned previously. The question has also emphasised for me how deep some perceptions about autism go.
One final thing, linked with this… I had a chat at the end with one of the participants whose nephew is autistic and loves classical myth - including, because it offers an imaginative space for him. The gateway to myth for this boy was Percy Jackson – this strikes me as another example of how Rick Riordan has done a lot to open up classical myth to a generation of children including autistic children.

Lots then for me to think about, including some things I've not (yet) written down - and plenty on which to follow up.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Best... panel... ever: gendering classical myth for children, including using Hercules - at FIEC 2019

L-R: Sonya Nevin, Lisa Maurice (organiser), me, Deborah Roberts (chair), Robin Diver
The photo that heads this posting shows myself, fellow speakers and chair at the panel at FIEC that I blogged about last week as I was preparing my paper. 

It was a very happy event - successful too I think - aided by a supportive and engaged audience whose comments and questions - during the session and afterwards - have been perhaps the most helpful and encouraging that I've ever experienced from an panel I've been part of.

As is my usual practice, I didn't take along a script where everything was written out - but I spoke from notes. And I've written these up now for this posting. 

Caroline Lawrence's photo of the relevant page
of the conference programme
The further photos I'm including were taken during the event, and I'll end with some of the comments that went up on social media, one of which has inspired the first part of the title for this posting.

It’s an honour to be here – at FIEC and on this panel – along with colleagues I have been collaborating with for several years now: on classics and children’s culture, and, included with this, on an emerging topic of how receptions for children of classical myth are done/received by girls.

What we’re discovering for instance is a lot of gender stereotyping… but also a lot that can engage the imaging of young girls – while using classical subjects to help socialise them.

What I’m going to talk about are the resources I am developing as part of the Our Mythical Childhood project – for autistic children.Instead of a ppt /tradtitional handout here’s a picture for you to colour in… So that you yourself get to engage with the activities that the children use…

Caroline Bristow holds up her handout
It’s a drawing created by Steve Simons – of an 18th-century chimneypiece panel at Roehampton showing the hero’s choice between two divergent paths in life.
The activities – in progress – centre around two key things. One is: dealing with emotions, including feeling overwhelmed. The image is suitable as there is so much, e.g. fruit bowls, one with fruit that’s overflowing, and a helmet with a snake on top of it. What’s more there are two very distinct halves of the scene, one on each side, which might impact on how you colour in. The other is making choices – something autistic people find it hard to do. 

Caroline Lawrence's colouring in (and colouring round!)
And: what I am considering is another set of activities, for girls, especially as girls, at least on reaching puberty, often have distinct experiences. These don’t have to be hardships – quite the opposite – but they can be experienced as such because of things like peer pressure and the expectations that society has around what a girl is or should be.

So, I am making an intervention into the myth of Hercules – to enable autistic teenage girls think about their relationship with for example expectations around fitting in versus being different and thinking about taking ownership of their difference as opposed to masking –that is pretending to fit in…

Caroline Bristow's colouring in
Hercules is a suitable, even ideal figure for autistic people for the following reasons. I’m not seeking to diagnose Hercules as autistic – but there are traits evident in experiences of Hercules that can speak to an autistic experience. For one thing, he functions well in his own space, the wilds, with success. He does this mostly alone, or with others but on his own terms. He has key skills – exceptional strength and cunning, as well as the ability to stick to a task – which he uses to deal with a particular scenario.

Then, no soon has he completed the task that he has to start all over again, and learn the rules afresh for the next task he encounters. While he functions well in his chosen space, when he gets among lots of people, things can go wrong – and he can carry out acts of violence which might be experienced as emotional overload.

Me and Robin by Caroline Lawrence
On two occasions, when I’ve outlined ‘why Hercules?’ in a way consistent with the way I have here, autistic people have commented: ‘that sounds like being autistic.’

I’m planning to use Hercules in activities for autistic girls then – and despite the less appealing aspects of this myth – unless we use the myth to show girls that the world isn’t always a nice place – including because of what heroes might do to them…

Now to some discussion of how the activities could help deal with the challenges and positives of being an autistic girl. Life can be hard – for any girl but with particular challenges for autistic girls. For example, relationships become more complex and complicated. School – after smaller primary school - will be bigger and seem chaotic – and yet children are expected to develop independent e.g. manage their diary.

Autistic girls might likely feel anxious around people – feeling like they are observing rather than participating. And they might feel lonely, even among people - and find it hard to relate to others especially those of their peer group.

Added to this, social things can be overpowering – for example due to sensitivity to things like smell and touch. They may well develop strong personal interests – which others might share too – but more intensely or obsessively. They might pretend to fit in – when they actually feel isolated.

The activities engage with what is overpowering – with what it is like to come into a new, strange place which doesn’t make sense and to try to make sense of it, and find a way to interact with strangers there.

(Or… Hercules is the stranger: intruding into an autistic person’s space...)

The activities can also speak to the positives of being autistic, including: noticing details others might miss; being able to see, hear, and feel intensively; having good attention to detail; being direct and straightforward.

A final point – this episode isn’t all that well-known – so any user can be at a similar staring point – autistic people aren’t’ excluded.

A selection of tweets - as promised:

Not only a handout from Susan Deacy, she supplies pencils and pens for colouring in!!! ♥️

Lisa Maurice calls out what frankly we're all thinking in the panel on gendering myth in the 21st Century; there's not one man in the room.  

Thoroughly enjoyable discussion and questions at our gendering classical mythology for children panel. Thanks all who attended!

Two of the great speakers at today’s session on Gendering Classical Mythology in the 21st Century! 😊

Replying to 
Best. Panel. Ever.



Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Hercules: Why I'm making him the subject of activities for autistic girls

Hercules choosing - drawing by
Steve Simons
Nothing is ever straightforward when it comes to Heracles/Hercules who, as it has often been noted, has a foot in more than one category. For instance, he is at once hero and god – and a perpetrator as well as a victim. As Nicole Loraux most famously discussed, he is ‘super-male’ yet feminine and even, potentially, a woman. In many ways, as I discussed in my previous posting of Monday (today is Wednesday), Hercules could be seen as inappropriate as the subject of resources that are seeking to engage the interest and hopefully enthusiasm of autistic girls.

But, because Heracles is always never one thing, his richness as a tool for classical reception can include being made relevant to anyone. At least I think so – I’m aware that, with Heracles, there is invariably an underside. Then, again, there is something comparably the case with pretty-well any figure from classical myth: it is just that, with Hercules, the situation is generally more extreme.

As I said in the previous posting, in my paper for the upcoming FIEC conference, I am going to be discussing activities for autistic girls. I am thinking teenage girls – so girls of an age which could make certain aspects of Hercules inappropriate – inappropriate if Hercules is to be used as an inspirational figure.

However, what I am struck by is as follows – Hercules has vast potential to ‘speak’ to autistic people. Twice now, when I have outlined to autistic people why I have opted for Hercules, the responded has been: that sounds like being autistic. There is, for example, Hercules as one who is a loner, who functions really well when he is isolated, but who can get overwhelmed and mess things up when he’s among people.

Also, Hercules is good at sticking to a particular task, and at finding creative solutions to that task. But he is ever needing to learn ways to deal with a particular situation. Each time, he comes up with the way to succeed in a given scenario. But, each time, a new challenge follows and he needs to start working out the rules all over again.

Why this might resonate especially with autistic girls is as follows. If we pick certain things from the ancient evidence, what we can find is a hero who can speak to some of the things that teenage autistic girls might experience. I shall discuss in my paper at FIEC how the Choice of Hercules activities I am developing could help deal with the challenges, and the potential positives, of being an autistic teenaged girl.

For example, life can be hard – for any girl, but with particular challenges for an autistic girl. For instance, relationships become more complex and more complicated. Autistic girls are more likely to feel anxious around people – feeling like they are observing rather than participating. They might feel lonely, even – perhaps especially – around people. They might find it hard to relate to others, especially those of their peer group. Added to this, social situations might be overwhelming – and this can be compounded by a sensitivity to things like smell and touch.

They may well have developed strong personal interests – which others might share too, but more intensely and obsessively than their peers. Alis Rowe’s Asperger's Syndrome in 12-16 Year Old Girls is really good on this. Autistic girls may pretend to fit in, when really they feel isolated.

The activities deal with what it can be like to find things overpowering, and with what it can be like to come into a new, strange place: one which, at first at least, does not make sense – and to try to make sense of it, and to find a way to interact with the strangers there (or: Hercules could be the stranger! This is a possibility that I want to think through).

The activities point to the ‘positives’ of being autistic, including: seeing and feeling intensely; having good attention to detail; being direct and straightforward; and noticing details that others might miss - including those illustrated here, from among Steve Simons' drawings of the Choice of Hercules chimneypiece panel.

One final point I plan to raise is as follows. The episode is not all that well known. So any user can be at a comparable starting point to any other. No one – autistic or otherwise – need be advantaged or disadvantaged.

If anyone reading this is coming to FIEC, if you’d like, let me know (s.deacy@roehampton.ac.uk)!