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, 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).

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