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.

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.



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