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Autism and classical myth

Written by Susan Deacy |

Prof. Susan Deacy (Roehampton) reports on a public engagement project supported by the ICS.

A little over a decade ago I tentatively began to develop a project whose goal was to develop activities for autistic children focused around classical myth. Last year, thanks to an ICS Public Engagement Grant, I was able to run an event which has transformed what I’m doing.

The idea for the project began at a meeting in 2008 with a special needs teacher, who mentioned that, in her experience and those of her colleagues, autistic children often engage with learning about classical myth. Starting with this anecdotal evidence, I began to wonder why this might be the case, and whether – as a classicist who researches classical myth – there was anything I could do by way of creating resources. I reached out to many people, including dramatherapists and special needs teachers, and I kept getting encouraging responses. The result was something that has transformed various aspects of my practice, including taking on the role of departmental disability coordinator. And I started a blog, Mythology and Autism, to set out my gradual, and often sporadic, progress. For a while, the blog broadened into a disability blog more broadly. This was until I teamed up with the ERC-funded project Our Mythical Childhood (2016-21), which is based in Warsaw and was set up to trace the role of classics in children’s and Young Adult culture. My own main contribution to the project is to explore where classical myth might sit in autistic children’s culture by producing three sets of activities.

I completed the first set of activities in February 2018. This is based on a specific episode in the myth of Hercules: the point where he is tasked to choose between two contrasting paths in life. I opted for Hercules as a figure with what I consider to be particular appeal to autistic children. These reasons include the potential for Hercules – as the hero who repeatedly experiences hardships and who is ever needing to learn all over again how to respond to what life throws at him – to ‘speak’ to some of the challenges that autistic children encounter. More specifically, the activities concern Hercules when, on reaching a strange place, he is tasked with making a choice between what is on one side of the landscape and what’s on the other side.

I designed the activities as a means to help autistic children deal, though an immersion in the experiences of a mythological figure, with some of the challenges they might encounter, including how to read body language or facial expressions, how to understand how the present can turn into the future, and how to deal with changes in routine. As well as seeking to respond to the challenges autistic children face, I was working on the premise that there is potential, via classical myth to empower them and to draw on their strengths. The activities centre round the Choice as it is represented on an 18th-century chimneypiece panel in Grove House, which is part of the University of Roehampton: my workplace. I included some highly provisional drawings of the panel, created on my PC, to accompany the resources.


‘Choice of Hercules’ decoration on a late 18th-century chimneypiece panel by the Carter Workshop in the Adam Room, Grove House, Roehampton. Photograph: Marina Vorobieva


After publishing the activities, I began to seek feedback, including via a couple of online sessions. Most of the feedback came from academics in classics and other Humanities subjects, and also some autistic people, whose feedback was especially helpful. At this time, I also gained useful feedback from classicists whenever I spoke about my project, including when I took part in a Public Engagement workshop run by Emma Bridges at the ICS in March 2018. What I hadn’t sought yet, however, was feedback from specialists in autism and child development, or others who work with autistic children, or indeed from the most important people in this: autistic children. The Public Engagement grant enabled the former, once Emma had reassured me that a suitable ‘public’ was external partners whose insights might inform my research and enable me to refine the resources. I wrote to potential participants to find out whether they might be interested in coming to Roehampton to discuss the project should the application be successful. This included some of those whose work had been inspiriting me over the years, such as the pioneering autism specialist Rita Jordan, and Nicola Grove whose adaptations of myths and other stories had long inspired me.

When I received news that my application for an ICS Public Engagement Grant had been successful, I was delighted and nervous at once at the prospect of putting my work up for discussion. In the interim, I made further progress with the project. Notably, along with Effrosyni (Effie) Kostara as Researcher, I made preparations for a pilot study in a London primary school’s autism base. Effie, who is an Education professional whose first degree was in Classical Philology, also prepared a guide to the activities for teachers. I also presented the activities for first time in Warsaw in May, with adults in a café run by autistic people. I also did practical things like finding a date for the public engagement event that would work for all. Some people needed to drop out; some of the participants put me in touch with others for example, two members of The Participatory Autism Research Collective (PARC), which is promoting the participation of autistic people in autism research. I prepared materials for discussion, emailing them in advance and printing out hard-copy versions for the day. These comprised an introduction to the activities, the activities themselves and the draft version of the guide for teachers.

What follows are some of the key things that came up out of our discussion – which included some searching questions, and also some pointers as to how to go forward. I am not going to try to cover everything here – more can follow on my own blog, where I’ve already said a few things already about what took place. My colleague Helen Slaney, who was then the Research Facilitator for Humanities at Roehampton, gave invaluable support at all stages including in taking notes of the discussion. 

Why Hercules?

Perhaps the most searching question that came up – indeed it’s a question that goes to the heart of the project – is why I had opted for Hercules as a focal point. Would other sets of stories do just as well, the participants asked, for example Winnie the Pooh? I set out how I think Hercules bears on the resources. I described Hercules as one who is at home in the wilds – his own space – where he is capable of things that others cannot manage. He needs to learn the rules of each new scenario he experiences. Each time, he needs to find a new way to deal with a fresh situation. In the wilds, he invariably manages to overcome obstacles. Then, when he gets to civilisation, something goes wrong, often terribly wrong. One of the participants from PARC commented, ‘that sounds like being autistic.’  He said that what always interested him was fantasy, and Westerns, particularly outsiders and outlaws. He liked how Hercules could count both as a hero – the greatest of heroes no less – and as an outsider. The discussion turned to how Hercules is appealing because he performs feats that others are unable to, which can also be the case for some autistic people. Hercules also experiences emotional overload and distress, and episodes from his myth might be a useful narrative in relation to acute perception.

Why classical myth?

Related to the question of ‘why Hercules?’ was the question of how classical myth in broad terms might be relevant to autistic children. What came up was a consideration of the current thinking around supporting autistic children, which is to encourage an exploration of individual interests and passions. We discussed how far myth might be a source of special interest – because its figures its figures are well-delineated and have a clearly-recognisable iconography. Yet, there is also a remoteness to the scenarios and the figures of myth and it is this that can potentially make them easier to relate to.

Why so much?

Another thing that came up was that the activities I presented were trying to do lots of things at once – which they were! As I had written them, I had been working though how potentially to use the ‘Choice of Hercules’ to do such wide-ranging things as: help in the recognition to abstract concepts; help improve decision-making skills; help in accessing and communication and understanding emotions; and help with recognising objects – all while introducing classical myth. The experts stressed that any of these might be viable, but each would require a specific approach.

This takes me to why it has taken me six months, from October 2018 until April 2019, to write this account of the event. I found that I needed some time – half a year as it has turned out – to think through what, specifically to do next. In the meantime, I ran the planned pilot study, along with Effie, at a London primary school’s autism base. I worked with the artist Steve K. Simons, a colleague on the Our Mythical Childhood project, and co-founder of the Panoply vase animation project. Steve has produced a set of high-quality vector drawings to accompany the activities, including the one illustrated here of the whole scene (Steve has also prepared a version where Hercules and ‘Pleasure,’ the woman to the right, are clothed).

‘Choice of Hercules’ vector line drawing by Steve K. Simons


I also gave several talks about my project, including to the Lampeter and South West Wales Classical Association branch, to the Early Chlildhood Studies Research Group at Roehampton and at a panel at CAMWS in the US on learning differences. Each audience brought some new insight – and all the while I had been thinking through the comments at the workshop funded with the ICS grant.

I have begun deciding which areas I should especially focus on and rewriting the activities in light of this. The areas are above all: making choices. The goals as I currently envisage them are:

  • To present a series of activities for autistic children which fit current thinking around supporting autistic children which includes the exploration of individual interests and passions, one of which can be myth.
  • To show how classical myth can facilitate communication and engagement for autistic children, including by utilising the potential for conceiving characters of myth as ‘gateways’ to understanding, identifying, contextualising and conceptualising oneself and others.
  • To empower autistic children by drawing on their strengths as well as addressing some of the sources of distress they may encounter, such as the sense that their actions are always beyond their control. Linked with this, the activities seek to offer an alternative model for articulating experience and for making sense of the world.
  • To utilise the potential appeal of Hercules for autistic children, including as a character who performs feats that others cannot and yet who experiences emotional overload and distress.
  • To demonstrate relevant aspects of the ‘Choice of Hercules’ myth, including reasons for choices and what choices mean in a given contexts; the concept of causality, namely of assessing the consequences of such decisions in light of the past and future of the ‘Choice’ narrative.

Without the opportunity provide by the ICS grant, I wouldn’t have made all this progress. I am planning further pilot studies and taking advantage of opportunities that come up to talk about my project. I have also submitted a proposal for a book on the subject – while giving thought to the second of set of activities, which are likely also to be Hercules-themed. I shall continue to blog on the topic.