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.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Mythical Hope 9 - Cultural heritage or cultural baggage?

Over the course of the Hope-themed postings I’ve been putting up since late September, I have written on a few occasions about worlds – the world of non-autistic people, and the world of an autistic person. I have stressed that this is an over-simple way of dividing up autistic and non-autistic experiences. But I am also aware that it can be helpful to think in terms of an autistic ‘world’. And one thing I am seeking to do with the activities I am developing is to engage an autistic way of being, feeling, thinking, and engaging with others. 

I am driven by a view that classical myth can bring something distinctive here. But there is one thing I would like to stress in this posting. This is that I am not trying to give classical antiquity as some kind of ‘gift’ to autistic children. One view of ‘outreach’ activities is as follows: it's that outreach can open up cultural heritage to those who might otherwise be excluded from this heritage. There is a lot that can be great about such activities, but there is also a risk here that those doing the outreach are trying to bring in the ‘reached,’ less ‘privileged’ ones – and I am worried that the result might be that certain, elitist, notions of classics might be being perpetuated.

But there is another way of coming to this issue. This is the way proposed by Nicola Grove and Keith Park in their book Odyssey Now.[1] This book adapts some of the adventures of Odysseus and his companions for disabled people, especially those with profound disabilities. They stress that one reason for picking Odysseus was this: the very heritage of the Odysseus story. What they are offering is an opportunity for people who might be excluded from aspects of a shared cultural heritage to participate in stories and to encounter characters whose roots runs deep into a shared culture. And they make the case that basing their activities around the story of Odysseus, with all its cultural heritage, can open up cultural experiences to those who might otherwise lack an access to intellectual life.
There are some problems with all this. One is that the intellectual life in question is a ‘Western’ one. More than this, it is one shared by a narrow group within such a ‘Western’ civilisation.

My first gateway: Tales of the Greek Heroes:
Retold  from the ancient authors
by Roger Lancelyn Green. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Date given 1958, but this is presumably to a hardback edition?

Activities using classical myths can help provide ‘cultural knowledge’ to those who might not easily access such knowledge. By ‘cultural knowledge,’ I mean shared beliefs, customs and systems: what Eva Loth describes as “socially shared models or meaning systems, beliefs about the world, which influence the way we perceive, construct, think about, define, and interpret the social world and our experiences in it.”[2] Such activities can also extend people’s experiences in a way that fits what Lev Vygotsky said in his study of cultural-historical psychology about human learning. This was that such learning “presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.” [3] Could classical myth do this? Could it help autistic children become part of a wider intellectual life?

Maybe – but I want to come at things from yet another angle. This is the angle of a child discovering classical myth. I’m meaning a specific child – myself, aged about ten. This was a very personal discovery. There wasn’t any classical myth told by, or known by, those around me. My experience of discovering classical myth would have been different if I had experienced classical myth at home or school. Rather, I was given a book retelling stories from classical myth by my grandfather, who didn’t himself know any of the stories. And reading it opened up a world that fascinated me – but in part because it fuelled my sense of being different. If it helped me, it was because it gave a kind of refuge.
So… to draw this posting to a close, I would like to stress that I can see benefits in giving people access to a shared cultural heritage – to stories of such heroes as Hercules, who has been part of culture – ‘high’ and ‘low’- at various points since antiquity. But I am not only seeking a way for autistic children to ‘grow into’ the intellectual life around them. I am also looking for a way to stimulate or engage children’s own inner lives.
In a future posting, I plan to say more about the use Grove and Park make of Odysseus and to discuss how their approach to Odysseus might have some Herculean applications.

[1] Nicola Grove and Keith Park, Odyssey Now, London: Jessica Kingsley, 1996.
[2] Eva Loth, “Abnormalities in “cultural knowledge” in Autism Spectrum Disorders: a link between behaviour and cognition,” in Evelyn McGregor et al., ed. Autism: An Integrated View from Neurocognitive, Clinical, and Intervention Research, Malden MA etc.: Blackwell) 85.
[3] Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978 (published posthumously), 89.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Mythical Hope 8 – Two monster stories... from Hydra heads to Hydra babies

The previous posting stared to relate why it is Hercules that I am offering as the focus of my activities for autistic children. Here, I run further with Hercules, including why this hero, unpleasant for some, favourite of others, is the one I have picked as source of autistic hope – hope, that, is as I have been defining it in these postings.

I have written recently about an autistic world – from where autistic people look into the non-autistic world. But I am not saying that there is one single autistic experience. I am hardly saying anything striking here. There have been a saying going around for a while along the lines of ‘if you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person.’[1] This fits with one move in recent autism pedagogy, which concerns finding a way to negotiate how on the one hand, being autistic involves a particular way of experiencing and being – and on the other that each person is a distinct person.[2]

I am going to explore this further by sharing two things which I have heard about – each two to three years ago, when I was starting to come to the view that Hercules would be a suitable choice for the activities. Both of these deal with hardships, and with hope in some way. And both concern the Hydra, a monster that seems especially appealing in relation to autism. 
Something violent: Hercules getting ready to club - though
not here behead - the Hydra.
16th century CE bronze fountain figure from Northern Italy.
Image details here and here
One experience was from a librarian at a library I regularly visit (‘regularly’ sometimes meaning ‘once a term’ to be honest). Chancing to learn that a visitor to the library was the grandmother of an autistic young child, she told the visitor about my work and mentioned that I was looking, particularly, at the myth of Hercules as a subject for resources for autistic children. The visitor responded that she very much hoped that I would not be including anything particularly violent, like the Hydra’s heads being cut off.

This is precisely one of the features of Hercules’s adventures that I was, then, planning to work on: as one instance where Hercules, journeying into a fantasy land, encounters hardships which he overcomes against the odds. Conversely, in the mundane world, he is often an outsider, who gets things wrong – because the behaviour that is suitable in a fantasy realm is not such in the everyday world.

I am aware that I need to treat the episode with care, including because it is not necessarily possible to control how someone will engage with any aspect of mythology presented to them. For example, the encounter with the Hydra might appear an instance of how to engage in problem-solving to one person. Yet it might be taken as uncomfortably violent by someone else, especially perhaps if the user empathises with the monster rather than the monster’s slayer. Stories of Hercules tend to be presented form the perspective of the hero, but what if a participant in an activity for autistic children identifies with the Hydra instead?

There are various possible solutions here. One is to shake up the question of ‘who is the hero’ and ‘who is the victim,’ perhaps by focusing on how the Hydra deals with the violence of Hercules by growing new heads.

Baby Hercules strangling - or playing with? - snakes.
From Verona after 1506 (poss. cast 19th century CE)
now in the Metropolitan Musuem and Art. Details here
The second Hydra story comes from another  colleague, a classicist who spent a few years working as a teaching assistant with preschool children. The colleague has shared with me an experience she had when reading a picture-book telling the adventures of Hercules with one of her pupils – a pupil whose behaviour is commensurate with autism. This book included the episode where Hercules cuts off the Hydra’s heads. It also includes another serpentine incident: the strangling of the snakes sent to attack the baby Hercules in his cot. The pupil would repeatedly ask to go back and forwards from the picture of the Hydra to the picture of the cradle. She regarded the snakes in the cot as little “Hydra babies” and wanted to go back and forth between the two images in order to reunite the babies with “their mummy.”

One thing to take from this, I’d say, concerns just how open classical myth can be to varied responses: contradictory ones indeed. The little girl in my colleague’s preschool class found a story often seen as violent to be concerned with babies and their mother. There is huge potential for classical myth to engage the imagination of a given user – for them to make their own interpretations and to work though various things in their lives as they make sense of the world – this can include things like family values, and the mother-child bond. Solace can be found in unexpected places, including what is usually regarded as a story of an act of violent killing by a monster-slaying hero. Hercules can be received in many ways. Monster, as here the Hydra can received in many ways too, including by autistic children.

Last year, I was involved in a pilot study of the initial version of my activities for autistic children with a group of children aged 8-11. It was the Hydra that they especially liked. I need to think more about the Hydra. I also need to think about how Hercules and the monsters he encounters are presented in books for children. Some of my Myths and Mythology students at Roehampton have been examining how mythology is presented for children – often with violent episodes sanitised or even erased. They have been thinking about the ethics of this, and also at how far this creates a skewed image of classical myth.

All this raises questions including what the role of retelling classical myth should be – should one seek to keep as close as possible to ‘the original’? What - if so - even is the ‘original’? At some point soon, I’m going to review the books on Hercules discussed to date in the Our Mythical Childhood survey, including to see what patterns emerge, and to go deeper into various issues raised in this posting. This will include looking into how children respond to monsters and to heroes, and contemplating what the lessons might be for me as a develop my activities. for children.

I advised a student just this afternoon that an ideal maximum length for a blog posting is 1000 words – I’ve gone over this, so I’ll stop for now. More soon: where I go down one of the Herculean paths that will emerge out of this posting.

[1] See, for example,  “Understanding Autism,” Autism Empowerment, online at https://www.autismempowerment.org/understanding-autism/  (accessed July 21, 2019) (“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”)
[2] See, for example, Rita Jordan, “Preface,” in Rita Jordan and Stuart Powell, eds., Autism and Learning: A Guide to Good Practice, London and New York: Routledge, 2012 (updated edition; first edition: 1997).

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Mythical Hope 7 - But Hercules is horrible...

Hercules being horrible? Hercules and Lernaean Hydra, 
California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco.
Details here

In the previous posting, I said some things about the hope which classical myth – along with other imaginative things – can offer in relation to autism. This, as I discussed, concerns hope as something that can make a difference for autistic people. I also discussed how hope might apply for those non-autistic people who want to reach into an autistic person’s world. I discussed how, if they succeed into reaching into this autistic world, they might discover something unexpected. For they might find that the autistic loved one has been looking into their world all along: seeing what they see, and also seeing differently – with insights that might take the non-autistic person by surprise.

Here I am going to turn to why, specifically, Hercules is the hope-provider on which I am focusing. I shall start with a discussion of why I have opted for this subject: because not everyone likes Hercules. For example, I was in correspondence with the mother of an autistic girl recently after she wrote to ask whether there were any books on classical myth that might appeal to her daughter. When I mentioned some Hercules-related books, she let me know that her daughter does not like Hercules, because of the way he behaves in classical myths. I get what she means.

One response might be that every mythical figure is potentially awful, including those whom many people regard as empowering. Which ancient deity is not selfish and vindictive, for example? So, let me stress that I am not picking Hercules as an instance of one who is invariably, or even mostly, ‘good’. When I have been in the audience at academic papers where Athena is mentioned by the speaker, and where Athena is going to do something unpleasant, the speaker has sometimes begun by saying something like ‘sorry, Susan’. The reason I’ve been singled out like this is because I have done quite a bit of work on the topic of Athena, and the speaker feels a need to apologise for portraying this deity in an unfavourable light.

But I don’t think that you need to like what you write about... Athena is a lens through which to see much of antiquity and its reception – including patriarchalism, violence and morality based around helping friends and harming enemies. This potential of Athena as a lens is what I like about this deity. I’d say the same about Hercules.

Now I’ve dealt with this issue of how to deal with mythological figures who are, in some way, unpleasant, I shall turn, in the next posting, to how I am using Hercules. I’m expecting to go on a bit of a monster journey in this posting thanks in part to some recent things I’ve been writing about Athena as a monster-sided deity. Also, just this morning I’ve been listening to an interview with Liz Gloyn on the Endless Knot podcast about her new book on classical monsters…

Monday, 4 November 2019

Mythical Hope 6 - Hope: gateway between worlds, from Pandora to Iago...

With this posting, I turn back – explicitly – to Hope. One thing I have been trying to covey so far with these postings is that Hope in relation to autism might not take the form someone – perhaps a non-autistic someone – expects it to take. These postings are not concerned with hope somehow to make an autistic person less ‘autistic’. Plenty of autistic people are already pretty skilled at trying to seem non-autistic as it is – via their skills at masking.[1] Thus, the hopes of those round them for someone divested of autism might seem to have been realised or, so adept might they have become at masking their autism, their autism may never have been discovered in the first place. 

I received a lovely response from one of my Our Mythical Childhood colleagues to my fifth ‘Hope’ posting. He said that previously he had viewed autism as something sad. Now, he said, he sees it differently. I’ll ask him whether he would be okay with me quoting his words.  

Then, last week, another collaborator on the project, Liz Hale, posted on a Hope-themed topic on her Antipodean Odyssey blog: Once there was a boy–and the politics of Pandora . . . (October 28th 2019).

The Hope discussed here is the hope that Pandora enables – here Pandora is expressed via the girl in a children’s book, Once there was a boy, by an Australian author, Dub Leffler. The girl’s curiosity leads her to go where she has been asked not to. I have not read the book yet – I have experienced it only via Liz – and I refer you to her delicate posting. From what I have experienced via Liz, this is Hope for a future when the life – perhaps the whole landscape – of someone has been changed, and with this change, the past, a golden age, might not be recoverable. Or, if it is recoverable, this could be in a new, different way, with a companion rather than by oneself – a companion who needs to change just like the other person needs to. So, out of an inappropriate act, an act coming from curiosity, there is… Hope.

As I said in previously in this, well, I suppose, series, I have been re-reading Ron Suskind’s book on his experiences in the wake of his son Owen’s diagnosis, as a young child, as autistic. Ron’s expresses these experiences on several occasions in relation to hope – from the hopes he had had for the little boy, to losing this hope, to finding a way into Owen’s world and into the discovery that Owen was aware of his, Ron’s, world – indeed, was observing it with acute insight. What started this discovery was Disney. They would communicate – Ron, Owen and their family – via Disney characters, including characters from Disney’s Hercules
Ron Suskind in 2012 delivering the C. Douglas Dillon Lecture: details here

The result on Owen and Ron is charted, in the book, and in a film. And there had been impact on others as well, thanks to support form high-profile people who have helped Ron and Owen convey what it can mean to be autistic, and for a non-autistic people to engage with autistic people, including Gilbert Gottfried, the voice of Iago from Aladdin.[2]

One thing I take from this is that characters from stories can make a difference to autistic people, and to those in their lives. One reason is that they relate to them. Another is that there is something about them that can give a gateway between worlds: the world of an autistic person – the world I write about in posting 5 - and that other world, the world of non-autistic people - ‘neurotypicals’ as they are often designated.

In the next posting, I shall turn to why I am opting for a focus on Hercules - beyond the role played by this character in what Ron Suskind sets out - though what Ron discovered is informing what I am doing...

[1] For instance Alis Rowe – focusing here on masking by autistic girls - outlines various reasons for masking, including to ‘hide they difficulties they’re having’ to ‘fit in’ and ‘avoid standing out,’ to ‘stop family/friends from worrying about the’ and to ‘pretend that they are OK because they think that if they pretend enough…they will actually be okay.’ Asperger’s Syndrome in 12-16 Year Old Girls, London: Lonely Mind, 2nd edn., 2018: 54.
[2] See e.g. “Gilbert Gottfried Did A Scene From Aladdin With A Young Man With Autism And Your Heart Explodedhttps://www.buzzfeed.com/alivelez/gilbert-gottfried-did-a-scene-from-aladdin-with-a-young-man (accessed 4 November 2019).