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.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Susan helps Hercules via time-slip fantasy

As I have mentioned in several recent postings, there is a prevailing view – among many – about autism. This is that autistic people don’t have much in the way of an imagination.

But autistic people have can have a rich imaginative life! This can be stimulated by such things as video games, and fantasy literature, and the area dealt with in this blog: classical myth. In this posting I’m going to make a few, preliminary, comments on autism and the imagination in connection with the Show and Tell event at Cardiff University at the end of last month. Thus, as well as continuing to look at autistic people’s imaginative lives, and where myth can fit, I am going to be picking up from where I left off in the last posting but one which reported on the Cardiff event.
That posting concerned various things that came out of other participants’ show and tell items. This one concerns mine: the book Helping Hercules by Francesca Simon. I took it along for several reasons. One was that it is a book I’d borrowed from the University of Roehampton library: the site of last year’s show and tell. Another is that that book concerns various classical mythological characters, not least Hercules, who figures in the first and final stories and whose importance is referenced in the title.

Among the other reasons is this – when I first noticed the book some years back, in the old Schools Experience Library at Roehampton, I took off the shelf and opened it because I was intrigued by the title. Then, turning to the first page, I found that that the first word was ‘Susan.’ So, I’d gone from finding a book on Hercules to finding that a key character - the hero no less – was my namesake.  

The book's cover promises ‘The Greek myths are you’ve never heard them before.’ Indeed, each chapter sticks to key features that recur in ancient versions of each chosen myth, but with the spin that the what happens in each is shaped by the experiences of Susan. This is 'time-slip fantasy.' Susan comes into possession of a magic coin which transplants her to and from ancient Greece. Each time she goes to ancient Greece, she arrives just in time to aid a particular hero – always male – to perform some task. For example, it is thanks to Susan that Hercules manages to clean the Augean Stables by diverting two rivers.
Here I get to a further reason why I made this my show and tell item. The book presents mythological ‘facts’ while also doing something that – I’m thinking – could have potential in relation to the activities I’m designing for autistic children. Simon's innovative take on classical myth might serve as a prompt for children to engage in imaginative ways with mythological themes and characters - and to relate these to their own experiences.

I've commented previously, here for example, on the role that books on Hercules might play in the activities I'm designing. For more on Simon's book - which I aim to add to the list I am sporadically building of children's books which might complement the activities - I recommend Allison Rosenblum's entry on Helping Hercules in the Our Mythical Childhood Database. The entry includes a summary and analysis which manages to be succinct while presenting the book’s subject matter and exploring its use of antiquity for children. It’s thanks to one of the generic aspects identified in the entry that I’ve become aware of ‘time-slip fantasy’ as a distinct genre.

I’ll end with a look ahead to what I’m planning for upcoming postings. I am going to post soon on what happened at another event I took part in over the summer: a workshop showcasing public engagement initiatives at the FIEC/CA Congress in July. Also, I’ll be writing a posting which picks up on where this current posting begins – by responding to a ‘myth’ about autism. This new posting will also return to a topic I’ve commented on in earlier blog postings, mostly from several years back, concerning who Classics is ‘for.’ These reflections will be prompted by something that came up in a reader’s report on a proposal I submitted for a book on the Choice of Hercules activities. The report came in last week and includes an assumption that not many autistic people study classics at university. So – after looking today at one ‘myth,’ autistic people’s supposed lack of an imaginary life, I’ll move to another, namely that students on classical degree programmes are unlikely to be autistic.



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