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, 26 September 2019

Mythical Hope 1 - what I plan to do on this blog during autumn 2019

I have been collaborating with Professor Katarzyna Marciniak for several years now - Katarzyna is the Principal Investigator of Our Mythical Childhood, for which I'm creating activities for autistic children. Quite regularly, we are struck by coincidences which take place connected in some way with the project. Earlier today, I was contemplating a theme for set of blog postings for the next few weeks. The topic I was considering was around 'Mythical Hope,' the first of three themes for the project team's collaborative research. While I was doing this, I began rooting round in my office desk to have a tidy-out and I pulled out a lanyard which turned out to be mine from the Our Mythical Hope conference in Warsaw in May 2017.

Here it is, in the photograph at the start of this posting, along with the conference information that was attached to my conference bag, also found in my desk. For this rest of this posting, I shall elaborate on the coincidence while also introducing what I'm planning to blog about in upcoming postings.

Earlier this week, I met a group of students for the first time. These are the new first-years in Classical Civilisation and Ancient History at Roehampton who will be taking a module I convene on ancient Athens ('History and Myth'). During the class, I mentioned this blog while we were discussing how the module will be assessed, which is either by a reflective journal or a video diary. I mentioned my blog as an example of the kind of writing that might be found in reflective academic work rather than in more traditional academic books and articles. But the students were interested in the topic of the blog, including why I came to develop a project on autism and classical myth. As a result, I have decided upon a particular focus for the rest of September and into October and perhaps November too.

This will be to reflect on why I began the blog in 2009 and how it has developed since then. This seems a suitable way to close out the first decade since I got started. My plan is to focus around the theme of Hope as noted above. This was the first of three steps where, as Katarzyna phrases it in the conference booklet for Our Mythical Hope, we explore "the role of Classical Antiquity as a marker of changes on a regional and global scale" (p.16). Over the weeks, then, I'll look back at what prompted the blog, how it grew, and how it took a 'Mythical Childhood' turn, and - from there - a Herculean one.

Soon - hopefully in the next post (I think I write the word 'hope' quite a lot when I blog...), I'll put out some reflections on the potential of Hercules as a bearer of hope, though not hope as some might expect it to be phrased in relation to autism...

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Getting colourful and creative at 'Diversifying Public Engagement' during FIEC/CA 2019

Too often when I am caught up in the moment of a particular event I don't think of taking or requesting photos - and then I wish afterwards that I had. Working though the photos from an event that took place a couple of months ago in London, I wish that I'd taken more than the handful that I did manage. I especially wish that I had taken a photo of just how messy the table, pictured here before the event began, eventually became: as visitors used the pens, paper, stickers and line drawings I had set out. I wish this because this could have captured just how lively the event became.

By the end, I was happily drained - after meeting with a series of people who came by, some of them because they were curious about what the things on the table could be, others because they had sought me out specifically.

The event was a public engagement showcase organised by Emma Bridges and Zena Kamash. Here, several classicists displayed work relevant to their on-going projects. As more and more people dropped by, the energy levels kept going up in the room - and I ended up taking about my project many times, and some people had a go at doing the activities. One classicist came with her daughter, whose 'Virtue' is shown in the photograph to the right.

Among the visitors was Alastair Blanshard, whose book on Hercules has been somewhat of an influence on the activities. It was a lovely experience to explain the project to him, and for once I did think of having a photo taken.

Most of the visitors had especially sought me out because they wanted to find out more about the project - including because it chimes with their own interests or experiences. Several talked about their own experiences of autism.

Indeed, I would like to share a pattern that I have been observing. Autistic people keep saying encouraging things about the work I am doing; others can be more sceptical, asking things like: why I am doing something based on imaginative rather than factual material? or: why I am specifically designing activities for those with 'high functioning autism'? Those who share their experiences of autism with me don't pin down the activities in such a way - at least I can't recall this ever happening.

Two of those who came by wrote in my 'guest book.' Here are their words, written in the colours they selected to do this:
Really loved hearing about the project and all the attention and heart you put into it. Thank you for brightening the conference! 
Dear Susan, this project is so special. It means a lot to me that there are people supporting (but maybe it’s not the right word)- better: LETTING autistic children know the classical heritage on their terms – and find ways to express their inner worlds on their terms. This is making the world a more colourful and creative place – I love this – Thank you.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

"It's all Greek to me": 10 years on

In my previous posting, I said that I intended in a future one to reflect on something raised by a reviewer for a book proposal on my Choice of Hercules activities for autistic children. Here, I shall do that reflecting.

I shall keep it broad. The anonymous reviewer raised points I shall be taking on board. But before sharing my responses to these points, I had better share them initially with the editors of the series in which the book would appear. I do hope that it will be acceptable at some point to reflect in this blog on the various issues. Many academics spend a lot of time reviewing book proposals, manuscripts and journal submissions. This work informs, and often makes a huge difference to, work that goes on to be published. But the reviewer’s words, often insightful and full of ideas and suggestions, don’t get ‘out there’ to a wider readership beyond a necessarily general acknowledgment from an author often in an opening footnote or endnote. Plus: as reviews are often done anonymously – as in the present case – few people will know the name of the scholar who has done all this key work.
For now, then, I shall pick up on a general point that was made. The reviewer was asked for their view on what they see as the likely market for the series within which the book would be published. Their response was that the series might be part of initiatives aimed at bringing new groups of students to classics programmes.

It could be that some of the children go on to study Classics. Indeed, the sense I get, from anecdotal evidence, is that an encounter of some kind with Classics, whether in class or though some other means – such a video game, film or book retelling classical myths – can build to a decision to study the subject at university. My book’s goals, however, are focused around engaging autistic children rather than with a view to getting more students onto classical programmes. The goals that I set out in the proposal are:

  • To present a series of activities for autistic children which fit current thinking around supporting autistic children by including the exploration of individual interests and passions, one of which can be myth.
  • To show how classical myth can facilitate communication and engagement for autistic children, by utilising the characters of myth as ‘gateways’ to understanding, identifying, contextualising and conceptualising oneself and others.
  • To empower autistic children by drawing on their strengths as well as addressing some of the sources of distress they may encounter, such as the sense that their actions are always beyond their control. Linked with this, the activities seek to offer an alternative model for articulating experience and for making sense of the world.
  • To utilise the potential appeal of Hercules for autistic children, including as a character who performs feats that others cannot and yet who experiences what they might recognize as emotional overload and distress.
  • To demonstrate relevant aspects of the ‘Choice of Hercules’ myth including reasons for choices and what choices mean in a given contexts; the concept of causality, namely of assessing the consequences of such decisions in light of the past and future of the ‘Choice’ narrative.

The reviewer comments that students they have taught have “even” included “those on the autistic spectrum.” The use of “even” might suggest that an autistic student studying classics is something unusual – at least at the reviewer’s institution. This is the point I want to respond to here.
In the early days of this blog I reflected on what appeal classics might have for autistic students. In two postings from spring 2009 – over a decade ago! – I shared the draft, and then the final, version of the abstract for a session that I was preparing along with a colleague in the – then - Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit at Roehampton for the  2009 Learning and Teaching conference. The title was originally: "‘It’s all Greek to me’: Making learning happen for a Classical Civilisation undergraduate with autism"

I subsequently I shared the final title (where ‘autism’ switched – wish I could remember why! – from ‘autism’ to ‘Asperger Syndrome’:

‘It’s all Greek to me’:
Making learning happen for a Classical Civilisation undergraduate with Asperger Syndrome

Susan Deacy, School of Arts
Bridget Middlemas, Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit
Here is the abstract:
 The session’s title aims to get across the bewilderment that can be a feature of initial forays into the study of Humanities subjects. During the past decade or so, an increasing number of students with disabilities have entered higher education, including those with Asperger syndrome (AS). AS is an autistic spectrum condition, which can result in often subtle differences in aspects of social behaviour, communication and application of mental flexibility. It is more common in male students (Brown & Miller, 2004; Martin, 2008).
Humanities subjects, Classical Civilisation included, are among the programmes found appealing to many autistic students. The session will discuss the various challenges faced by disability coordinators, tutors, student services and the programme team in creating an accessible and inclusive learning environment for students with AS, and also reflect on the student experience from the viewpoint of such students. Teaching methods pioneered in Classical Civilisation at Roehampton encourage and even expect students to take an active role in the learning process e.g. though group work and oral presentation, a focus which risks alienating autistic students. The session will consider what support might be required to enable successful completion of one of the modules offered to first year students, 'Introduction to the Study of Greek Literature'.
The module outline will be discussed in the light of ensuring that sessions are able to address the learning needs of all students in the group. What is the most effective way for us to ensure that the learning outcomes have been met? How will the students’ voices be heard? Is there anything that we might do differently? Good practice guidelines will also be made available for review
[End of abstract!]
Back in 2009, then, I was taking a different view of autism and studying Classics from what the reviewer’s appears to be. Their view – conveyed by that “even” - seems to be that it is unusual to be teaching an autistic classics student. A decade ago, I was asking why it was that increasing numbers of autistic students were attending university, or at least were attending Roehampton University.
Now – a decade on, and in spurred on by the reviewer’s comment – I’m going to revisit the issue of what the appeal might be for autistic student to study Classics.

I intend to try to find out what the figures are for autistic students studying classical subjects. I wonder, too, whether it would also be possible to survey autistic graduates to ask them why they chose a classical degree and what their experiences were at university.
The postings from March and April 2009 are here  (“It’s all Greek to me”) and here (“Making learning happen for a student with Asperger syndrome”). A couple of years later, in March 2011, I wrote a posting “Autism, Asperger Syndrome, Perseus and Athena,”based on an article I’d written for CUCD Bulletin, which bears on this topic. The images in the current posting are copied over from these earlier postings.