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 (2016-22) 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, including to a book of lessons for autistic children focusing on the Choice of Hercules between two very different paths in life. The image above, illustrating the homepage of this blog, is one of the drawings by Steve K. Simons, the book's illustrator, of a chimneypiece panel in a neoclassical villa at Roehampton in South West London. The lessons centre on this panel.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

The Mythology of Hope: Mythology and Autism - where I would have been right now

I'm writing this post on a day when another of the cancelled events I was due to take part in should have been taking place. Right now, I should have been at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, participating in the 2020 conference of the Israel Society for the Promotion of Classical Studies. I'd have been there specifically to take player in a panel - a panel that bears directly on the topic of this blog.

The panel's topic was: "The Mythology of Hope: Mythology and Autism" and I would have been speaking alongside Lisa Maurice and Ayelet Peer of Bar-Ilan University and fellow participants in the Our Mythical Childhood project - and Shachar Bar Yehuda of the Israeli autism society.

Lisa, Ayelet and Shachar were to talk about their work with autistic children in Israel. I would have talked about my work in the UK.

Here is the panel information, followed by the title and abstract of my paper.

Panel Abstract:

Over recent decades, understanding of autism spectrum disorder has increased ad great deal, and a high percentage of children with special needs are now recognized as being on the autism spectrum.  Such children often feel isolated from their peers and have difficulty integrating into wider society.  This panel aims to demonstrate some ways in which classical myth can be utilised as an educational tool for such children, helping them improve social and life skills. It gives an overview of the theoretical basis and assumptions behind the development of such programmes, and then presents two case studies, one currently taking place in Israel, and one in the UK.

1.              Hercules in the Autistic Classroom: A Case Study from the United Kingdom
Susan Deacy, University of Roehampton

This paper will report on how, as part of the European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood, a programme is being developed for autistic children via figures from classical mythology. In particular, the programme focuses on a series of activities around an episode involving Hercules, who has particular resonance for autistic children. The focal point in this instance is the hero’s choice between two contrasting paths in life, one represented by a woman/goddess named Virtue (or Hard Work), the other by one named Pleasure. The activities implemented seek to empower autistic children, and stimulate new opportunities for cultural participation, utilising the potential of Hercules as a ‘gateway’ towards understanding, identifying, contextualising and conceptualising oneself and others.  They also seek to respond to the social pressures and anxieties often faced by autistic children around making choices, and around recognising, managing and communicating emotions.

As illustration, the paper reports on the outcomes of the first of a series of pilot studies, conducted at a London primary school’s autism base with pupils aged 7-11.  It also explains how the development of the activities is being disseminated via a series of lectures, workshops and public engagement events, and through the project blog (https://myth-autism.blogspot.com), and how the progress of the project is being informed though consultations with autism and child development specialists and with storytellers. 


The work Lisa, Ayelet and Shachar are doing is amazing. Despite not being able to exchange ideas and plans in person, collaborations can continue, especially as we're all part of the network ACCLAIM: Autism Connecting with CLAssically Inspired Myth...

More soon, where I expect to move from what should have been in Israel this week to what did happen in Wales last summer!

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