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, 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!

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