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, 5 February 2020

Roehampton myth and children's culture researchers off to Cambridge including me to talk about autism...

I'm off to Cambridge later this month to take part in a conference I'm excited about and delighted to be playing a part in organising along with Frances Foster and Sonya Nevin. Why I'm mentioning the event on this blog is because it will be at the conference that I'll give the first of several presentations this year on my activities for autistic children.

The title of this posting is from the Roehampton News item on the event. This goes out to students and staff at the University - so here's the text for non-Roehampton people. Do click the link to the Cambridge page which includes Sonya's poster and more information about the event.

Roehampton classicists Professor Susan Deacy, Kimberly MacNeill, Jean Menzies, Dr Sonya Nevin and Dr Katerina Volioti will be joining an international team of academics, teachers and museum professionals in Cambridge on 18 February for a conference at the Faculty of Education exploring the place of classical myth in teaching and outreach.
The event, a follow up to 2017's Mythology and Education: Theory and Practice, also held in Cambridge, will explore the benefits - and pitfalls - of teaching myth and share practices and innovations.

The programme includes presentations by Susan Deacy on myth-themed activities for autistic children and by Katerina Volioti on leadership in children's books about classical myth. The event will also include a round table discussion by members of the Roehampton team contributing to a major international survey of classics in children's and Young Adult culture for the European Research Council project Our Mythical Childhood.

More information about the conference can be found here. 

Friday, 17 January 2020

On where my autism and myth activities fall between 'classics' and 'education', informed by Lisa Maurice's article on Hercules receptions in the latest Journal of Historical Fictions

I am going to address big questions in this posting – about what I ‘am’ in disciplinary terms and about where the activities I am designing for autistic children sit in disciplinary terms. I have been asked questions that in some way relate to these questions over the years.  At job interviews in the 1990s and early 2000s, for instance, a question I used to anticipate was this: ‘are you a Classicist or an Ancient Historian?.’ And, on one occasion, when I told a colleague that I was going to teach a module on historiography for first year History students, she responded ‘but you’re not on the History Team.’ Why I am saying this now is because I was asked something about the activities that I didn’t give an adequate answer to at the time. This was in a meeting with an autism expert in Education who asked whether the activities are envisaged as Classics ones or Education ones. I answered by going back to the origins of the project – so, perhaps I gave a classicists’ answer, one which took refuge in the apparent authority of origins?

I told my colleague about how it began for me at a meeting with a Special Needs teacher at a secondary school who told me that she had experienced autistic children enjoying classical myth. I then began to wonder whether, with my academic interests in myth, there was something I could contribute.

As I am writing this now, I am thinking that this was a good enough answer after all?

What I am trying to do is to use my experience in researching classical myth, especially mythological characters to design activities using classical myth – activities which try to engage and ‘speak’ to autistic children. I am not seeking to educate the children about classics as a primary goal, although inevitably the activities will involve some degree of learning about myth – and this is hopefully not a bad thing. As I have reflected previously in this blog, experiences with classical myth can make a difference to people, and not because there is something somehow edifying or worthy about classics or classical myth. I am aware that classics is linked with elitism, and that a knowledge of classics is seen as appropriate as a mark of a ‘good’ education. And I am aware that the figure of Hercules has loomed large in such an education.

But there is also that ‘other’ way to encounter classical myth, and Hercules: via such adaptations as The Legendary Journeys and the Disney film and, recently, such inventive works as Camp Hercules, where ancient myth comes into contact with the life of a young boy who solves Hercules’ labours in contemporary America – or, in time travel fictions such as Helping Hercules, where a girl is transported into classical myth, solves problems of Hercules and others and ends up changed though her experiences.

I have recently read an article by Lisa Maurice which is highly relevant here – in the latest edition of the Historical Fictions Journal. Lisa surveys books for children which foreground Hercules published in the UK and the US between 1970 and 2018. One recurrent theme she identifies in works published before 2003 is the following – the works tend towards an ‘elitist’ view of myth, classics and Hercules. In these books, myth is used as something worthy for children to learn about. This includes books that came out in response to Legendary Journeys and the Disney film. There is a disjunction, here, as Lisa shows, between the inventiveness of the TV series and the film and the books, which are characterised by didactic elements.

But, in the years since 2003, spurred on in part by the Percy Jackson phenomena, there has been a turn to more inventive uses of Hercules. These works often engage with classical myth, though without being confined to the ancient evidence as some kind of ‘master narrative.’ It is here that Camp Hercules comes in – where ancient myth and the present are ‘remixed’ the result being the potential for issues to be dealt with, including bullying, popularly, courage and depression. There is space, too, in such receptions for female characters, Susan for example, who helps Hercules but as the hero more than the helper.

Back in the 90s, I used to watch Hercules – and the spin-off Xena – on Channel 5 in the UK. I liked the mix between known mythological characters and inventiveness in how myth was used. This mixing is characteristically postmodern, but this is hardly solely a postmodern thing – Euripides, for instance, was ever subverting and twisting and likely inventing myth. So was Aeschylus before that, and Sappho, and so, likely was Homer – the problem here being the lack of any earlier sources to enable an investigation of how the poet is playing with stories, characters, motifs and so forth.

So – here is what I am doing. I am drawing on classical myth as a space for exploring and learning about such things as dealing with others, getting to know how individuals ‘tick’ and dealing with feelings and emotions, the opportunity to go into another world – a world that remixes ancient and modern and bits in between,

Is this a Classics project or an Education project? Yes.


Thursday, 9 January 2020

What Cicero might have to say to autistic children - with an animated surprise

Around this time last month, I was preparing for a trip to Warsaw to take part in a congress on Cicero. As I mentioned in this posting, of 10th December, the key thing I was going to do was to add a short outline for my autism and classical research project to a session that Professor Katarzyna Marciniak was going to present. In the current posting, I shall outline what I said. I shall also add information about the one thing I kept out of the December posting, namely the surprise I mentioned:
"The presentation I shall make will be on the Choice of Hercules. The exact content is a surprise, so I’ll keep that a secret for now. Instead, I’ll say a few things here about Cicero’s take on the Choice of Hercules, as I will refer to this during my presentation."

This session, on Cicero for children and on the Our Mythical Childhood project, took place at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw in association with the German Embassy in Warsaw. The abstract for Katarzyna’s paper is here. My presentation was accompanied by a handout consisting of one of Steve Simons’ drawings of the Choice of Hercules and the following text:
"The image here is a high-quality vector drawing by Steve Simons of a Choice of Hercules chimneypiece panel in the Adam Room in Grove House in Roehampton in London. This drawing, along with a series of others by the artist, has been created for the activities on Hercules' choice for autistic children which I am creating as part of the ERC-funded Our Mythical Childhood Project. During the Congress, I will briefly introduce the activities through the lens of Cicero's De officiis where the Choice is linked to 'the most difficult problem in the world' faced by young people on the path to adulthood. The presentation will include an animated surprise."

 As Katarzyna had explained beautifully, the Our Mythical Childhood project concerns classics and children’s culture. I then explained that my work is exploring classics in the culture of a particular group, namely autistic children, who often love myth including the myth of one particular figure: Hercules.

In her presentation, Katarzyna had posed the following question: what does Cicero have to say to children? I asked: what does Cicero have to say to autistic children?

I summarised how I am creating a set of activities on an episode where Hercules, in a strange place, is faced with a choice between two contrary paths in life: the way of ‘virtue’ or hard work and the way of ‘pleasure.’ I mentioned how the activities are based around a chimneypiece panel in Roehampton from the 18th century, redrawn by Steve Simons. I outlined how the activities include how to make choices – which can be hard for anyone but which can raise particular difficulties for autistic people. I then spent a minute or so outlining how Cicero deals with this choice faced by Hercules in the De officiis, as part of a concern with how to live and how to behave, including where conflict comes up between competing obligations. This is, according to Cicero, ‘the most difficult problem in the world.’

Having reiterated that choice-making can extremely difficult for autistic people, I next explained that, in respect to the choice of Hercules, there is no right choice and no single wrong choice. As a result the episode gives an opportunity to reflect on choices, and what the consequences might be of these choices.

I then shared the surprise – I explained how Steve Simons is not just an artist but that he is an animator too. I broke the news that Steve has created an animation of Hercules choosing. I showed the animation – and was so delighted when at a key point people laughed: ‘with’ not ‘at’ what they were seeing.

I had some wonderful conversations after the presentation, including with a participant who told me about a colleague at his university who is working on autism. Also, two of the participants told me about how some of the aspects of Virtue I am dealing with link to ancient Roman representations of Virtue and also possibly to some other eighteenth century ones.

And so I have now shared the surprise about the animation via this blog as well! I’ll be showing it at upcoming presentations on the activities at Cambridge in February and then at Roehampton in March. At some point I’ll share it with the world, though this blog…

My thanks to Agnieszka Maciejewska for the photo story!