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.

Friday, 27 November 2020

"How classics can be more diverse and inclusive": Our Mythical Childhood Show and Tell for Black History Month 2020

My last two postings concerned events I was hosting that were, then, forthcoming. These events have now happened, and one of them led to another event in turn. What I am going to do in the current posting – and in subsequent ones – likely to create a trilogy – is to summarise what happened, with a focus on how the events relate to my autism-linked activities.

I do like the challenge of responding to some kind of theme – and all of the events were “for” something: Black History Month, the Being Human Festival and, most recently, Roehampton University’s International Week. 

The first of these, a “show and tell” for Black History Month in the UK, wasn’t directly concerned with the autism activities – although it was showcasing works relevant to the overall project for which I am doing a programme for autistic children. Plus, the event showed me just how well Zoom can enable people to connect: differently from being together in person, but enabling a different kind of connection. I am struck at the possibilities for drawing together people who would not be able to, or want perhaps, to travel to be in the same physical space.

Among the items shown and told:
Overheard in a Towerblock
 by Joseph Coelho,
who grew up in Roehampton
and Dean Atta's The Black Flamingo

I said above that the event wasn’t directly linked with my autism work but perhaps “directly” isn’t the right word. The event was concerned with issues that connected with what I am seeking to do, including around dealing with issues that run deep into classics and into what happens when classical themes are used in works created from, and by, children.

There is a particular duality that was explored at the event and which I have been exploring in relation to autism and children’s culture. On the one hand, classics can be seen as elitist and exclusive. On the other hand, an encounter with something classical can be exciting and stimulating. No one “owns” the classical world.

But what does it even mean to talk about classics as a world – or even to talk about classics as a thing? As was discussed at the event, works for children using classical topics can perpetuate stereotypes, although classics can also be used to reflect on such issues as the relationships with the environment and with others and about race and class and gender. Such was the case for instance in Joseph Coelho’s book of poems I briefly “show and told” – where the figure of Prometheus forms part of reflections issues including the environment and on growing up. 

Those showing and telling were: Liz Hale, Aimee Hinds, Robin Diver, Sarah Hardstaff, Sonya Nevin and Nanci Santos. The items shown included: Princess of the Nile Barbie; Hades – a new video game by Supergiant games; The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta; Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider; Vita Murrow’s High-Five to the Hero; Dub Leffler’s Once There Was a Boy; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor; Noughts + Crosses by Malorie Blackman; George O'Connor’s Olympians series; Tom Kindley’s Heroes of the Night Sky; and The Half God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams.

Entries for many of these works can be found in the Our Mythical Childhood survey. And Sonya Nevin has blogged here about the works she presented.

One participant, a classicist, said in the chat that they had come to the event because they “want to find out more about decolonising the classics curriculum which [they] think is long overdue.” Another participant, a librarian commented during the session that it: “shows how classics can be more diverse and inclusive, but it is often a matter of being able to find these resources and information.”

Soon I shall reflect on the second event: Hercules CafĂ© for autistic children…

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