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.

March-April 2020

Here is what I am planning to do over several postings this Spring – to straddle Autism Awareness Week in late March and early April. Lately, I have been overhauling my chapter for Mythical Hope, the first of the books from the ERC-funded Our Mythical Childhood project. It was presenting Hope-themed material in the autumn of 2019 that got me to look in new ways at what I had previously written. Here I put my project again under an aegis of Hope, and I’d welcome feedback!

Monday, 23 March 2020

Childhood: a mythical time… (Hope-bearer 1)

Childhood is a mythical time: a time where the imagination can run free, a time of adventure, a time when anything might seem possible. Childhood can be a time of hardship too – a time of not just the “most beautiful” experiences, but also the most terrible. I quote here from the booklet that accompanied Our Mythical Hope in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture... The (In)efficacy of Ancient Myths in Overcoming the Hardships of Life, the conference that brought myself and fellow researchers into classics and children’s culture to Warsaw in May 2017.[1] The experiences of childhood, the booklet – authored by the conference organiser, Katarzyna Marciniak – continues, can “provide or deprive us of a supply of Hope for years to come.” My particular contribution to the conference was a paper on Hope as it applies to a particular group of children – autistic children.[2]

By that time, I had been building up a project on autism and classical myth for almost a decade, and I was in Warsaw to share my progress with a set of activities I was developing as part of a wider five-year European Research Council-funded project, Our Mythical Childhood... The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges, which had begun several months earlier, in October 2016, to chart the place of classics in children’s and Young Adults’ culture.

Fig. 1 - In Warsaw for Mythical Hope -
with Sonya Nevin (middle) and Steve Simons (right)
My autism and classical myth project started out with a goal to ‘reach’ autistic children through classical myth. This was after I learnt, during a meeting with a Special Needs teacher in a UK secondary school, that autistic children often enjoy classical myth. I began to wonder why this might be the case, and whether I could contribute something to existing materials used by teachers: as someone whose interests in classical myth stems from their childhood – and who had been turning classical myth into an area of expertise throughout my career as an academic.

I was vague as to what that ‘something’ could be at first. I discovered classical myth at the age of about ten - from the book illustrated below, here with a suitably Herculean cover . The discovery was a formative a moment in my childhood; classical myth was my refuge, an interest that took me into a world at once vastly different from my own, and yet one which ‘spoke’ to me.

Fig 2 - Tales of the Greek Heroes -
cover showing Hercules and the Lion
In the wake of the meeting with the teacher, I began to wonder whether I could harness in some way my love of myth as something with many patterns, even rules, and yet as something elusive. I started contacting academics in several disciplines, including psychology and education, and also professionals working in various ways with autistic children, and I kept being encouraged to push forward. For instance, the Special Needs teachers and dramatherapists I spoke with consistently said that they were repeatedly looking for new resources and that stories of various kinds provide valuable sources for classroom materials. This led to an unexpected turn in my career towards becoming interested in autism and disability more broadly.

I started a blog, Mythology and Autism,[3] in early 2009 to report on my progress. I decided to begin blogging because I was aware that I had many other projects ongoing, but by blogging as and when I thought I had something to share, I could at least report sporadically on my progress, while opening up my ideas to the ongoing self-critique that blogging fosters. In the first few years after 2009 – indeed, until the European Research Council-funded project began in 2016 I did, indeed, blog sporadically, often with lengthy gaps between postings.

Figs. 3-5 From Jason to Medea to Hercules -
some early images used in this blog
But, what happened, too, was that several specialists who work with autistic people made contact with me and, by the time the funding bid to the ERC began, I had made several valuable and valued contacts. By this time, I had also written around 20,000 words around aspects of autism, myth, and disability studies, including on the possibility of viewing stories associated with Perseus through an autistic lens, on the potential for the Aristotlean theory of catharsis as used in dramatherapy in relation to autism activities, and on how the hero/monster metaphor might inform the quest for disruptive pedagogies in higher education.

During this time, this interest in autism and classical myth led to some unexpected interfaces between my various roles in the institution where I work: the University of Roehampton, London. For instance, I became a departmental disability co-ordinator, and this enabled me to work closely with the university’s disability team. The blog provided a forum for reporting on this new direction in my practice, including a role in organising training for colleagues in supporting autistic students.

The chapter for Mythical Hope develops the Hope-themed exploration of autism and myth that I began in Warsaw in 2017. At that time, I had recently decided on the focus for a set of activities: the figure and adventures of Hercules. Since then, I have been developing the activities, consulting with specialists on them and on the principles behind them, and trialling the activities have been trialled in initial pilot studies with children at a primary school with an autism unit. At the time of writing, I am continuing to share my unfolding ideas via my blog while writing a book which presents the activities.[4] During the time I have been planning and developing the activities, my approach has been shifting from exploring how myth might ‘reach’ autistic children to questioning what it, in fact, means to ‘reach’ autistic people and to reaching a deeper appreciation of the role of classical myth for autistic children.

In the chapter, I shall be exploring the role of Hope in the activities against a background of what Hope, and specially a “mythical” Hope, might signify in connection to autism and to autistic children in particular. I shall also be framing my discussion in relation to the conference’s – and now the Hope book’s – subtitle by looking at the efficacy of classical myth in dealing with the hardships children encounter. But, also, I shall take on board the bracketed “in” before “efficacies” in the title of the 2017 conference and I will discuss whether myth might be inefficacious too. In addition to any potential to resolve hardships, might it actually contribute to hardships for instance?

I shall be discussing where Herakles/Hercules comes in in this regard. Hercules is among the most problematic – perhaps even the most problematic – to present to children,[5] any children, autistic or otherwise. Hercules is the hero whose career is a career of victimising others: from beasts in the wilds, to the succession of women in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women who encounter, sexually, his bia (“force”, “violence”).[6] But, as I shall argue, Hercules is a figure from classical mythology who can particularly ‘speak’ to an autistic experience.

Coming next: “Hope lost?”

[1] The chapter I’m currently completing, and critiquing here, has its roots in the paper I delivered in May 2017 at the Our Mythical Hope conference. Here, I made an initial case for the potential of Hercules as a topic for the first set of activities I was to create as part of the project Our Mythical Childhood... The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges. I would like to thank my fellow participants for their comments, both at Warsaw during the conference and subsequently, including Helen Lovatt, Sonya Nevin, Eduardo Pecchini, and everyone who took an interest in my still-emerging hopes that episodes involving Hercules might become a subject of activities for autistic children. In the years since then, I am thankful for the comments from of specialists in areas such as Classics, Special and Inclusive Education, Dramatherapy and Music Education including Adam Ockelford, Anna Seymour, Leda Kamenopoulou, Lisa Maurice, Katherine Leung and Tom Figueira. Finally, I would like to thank Katarzyna Marciniak for support and vision and that has nurtured and anchored the hopes shared in this chapter.
[2] Throughout this chapter, I use terms such as ‘autistic children’ and ‘autistic people’ rather that ‘children with autism’ etc. I note the arguments in favour of descriptions including ‘children with autism’ and ‘people with autism,’ including in putting child first, before any conditions, but terms such as ‘autistic child’ conveys that autism cannot be separated from a person but is key to how they relate to, and experience the world and how they engage with other people. On various ways of talking about autism, see the overview of names for autism at National Autistic Society n.d., “What is autism?” https://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/asd.aspx (accessed March 16, 2020).
[3] Mythology and Autism blog, online at https://myth-autism.blogspot.co.uk (accessed July 21, 2019).
[4] Susan Deacy, Choosing with Hercules: activities using classical myth for autistic children.’ University of Warsaw forthcoming.
[5] Lisa Maurice, From Elitism to Democratisation: A Half-Century of Hercules in Children’s Literature,” Journal of Historical Fictions 2.2 (2019) 81-101, esp. 86, 89-90 http://historicalfictionsjournal.org/pdf/JHF%202019-081.pdf (accessed March 17, 2020).
[6] Catalogue of Women 1.22 (ἠδ’ ὅσσαισι] βίη Ἡ[ρακλῆος,“all those with whom the bia of Hercules”), 117.9 (Auge), 133.12 (Nikippe).

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