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, 29 April 2021

Mything out in Reading and London... "Making classics better" while starting summer-term teaching at Roehampton

This week I began teaching a module I have taught quite a few times over the years. The module is Myths and Mythology - it's about myth in ancient Greece and Rome. It's about more than this too - the module uses myth as a vehicle for students, who are in the second year of their BA studies, to reflect on what it means to be studying antiquity at this point in their degree.

There are a few reasons why I am blogging about the module here - in a blog about autism and classical myth.

One is this - during the module we shall be thinking about how myth can resonate beyond "the academy" we shall look at various initiatives including what I'm doing, myth-linked, with autistic children. I've done this kind of thing previously in class, and the feedback each time has encouraged me to keep the session on the syllabus... 

Here are some of the outcomes of sessions with Myths students, starting with a few from 2018, where the students were working from the very initial drawings I had made linked with the artefact I shall mention below:

This second set, from 2019, meanwhile are using the high-quality vector drawings created by Steve Simons:

This time round, I shall be making the most of the remote delivery mode we are adopting due to covid by bringing in a guest tutor, a psychiatrist, based in Italy, who uses Hercules myth with his patients. I anticipate blogging on this session...

For now,  I want to reflect, from an autism-linked perspective on a key things we have been looking at this week. I am doing this because I have felt inspired to thanks to the engagement of the students. I am also doing it because the students are going to be blogging as their assignments for the module - and I thought that, by practising what i preach and blogging myself on something growing out of the session, I'd put out a few reflections,

The "key thing" in question is that shift that has been proposed for some time now away from myth as a thing, a noun, that can be classified, and defined, to myth as a process, or an act, or a moment - a verb, then, rather than a noun. Helen Morales, whose Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction of 2007, is a book I'm very much recommending to the students, is a key figure advocating this move from a classical perspective, while the touchstone work verbifying myth is Roland Barthes' Mythologies from the 1950s.

As I've just said, the shift involves moving from myth as a definable thing to a process, or a moment, or I suppose - fitting the whole ethos of this module, from its inception around 20 years ago - as a "vehicle."

Yesterday, I gave a talk at the University of Reading's summer term seminar series - as part of a set of papers engaged with "Making Classics Better." My focus was on the use I am making of a particular episode as depicted on a particular work of art - a chimney-piece panel in the Adam Room in Grove House at the University of Roehampton showing Hercules trying to choose - or perhaps unable to choose - between two different paths in life. The photos above, from Myths and Mythology classes in 2018 and 2019, show line-drawn versions of the panel. 

I shall blog on the specific things I talked about, and also on the super useful things that came up in the chat and in the questions - further down the road.

For now, I want to start thinking about what can happen when the work of art is seen as a act of "myth-ing." I am gong to throw out a few things here then return to them subsequently. Here goes (and with a note to any of the Myths students reading this blog namely that while not liked in essays, bullet points are fine - and possibly a good thing - when blogging):

  • Each time someone - anyone - engages with the panel they are creating their own meaning - their own act of reception.
  • No one owns the panel - or anyone can - as when the drawings of the panel by Steve Simons are coloured in - or adapted, such as though being animalised, such as in the creation below, by Anna Mik.
  • Back in the 18th century, being myth-ed were likely contemporary ideas, fuelled by the rise of capitalism and industrialisation, of what the right balance might be between hard work, one of the options for Hercules to choose, and pleasure, the other option.

I shall pause for now - and aim to pick all this up later. I have suggested top the student that they aim for a blog posting each week during the five weeks of the module. I shall plan to do the same...

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