Why classical myth and autism?

Why classical myth 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, 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…

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