As an autistic classicist, one of the things I’ve always struggled with is social interaction. In class, I teach students about Bourdieu and habitus and cultural scripts, while all the time feeling that, whatever the cultural script of our time is, mine got lost in the mail. I’ve spent my life pretending (without much success) to understand people and the codes that underpin their actions. The easiest solution for me has always been to hide because, when I’m on my own, I’m not uncomfortable, awkward, or afraid.
But hiding sends the wrong message and models the wrong behavior, as I realized when my son was diagnosed with autism, too. How can you advise a child to pretend to be like everyone else, because difference makes them a target? How can you warn them that their honesty will make them an outcast, their sensitivities will make them vulnerable, and their hyperempathy will make them a victim? How can you commit to inclusion in your professional life while accepting exclusion in your personal life?
You can’t — or, at least, I couldn’t.
Suddenly, hiding wasn’t an option anymore. I needed to do better. I started to reach out, using online spaces to connect with people like me in (or on the fringes of) Classics, people whom I would never otherwise have met. I found that a lot of them were doing the same: cautiously being open about their differences, in the hope of meeting with some understanding. I also found that there were far more neurodivergent classicists than I would ever have expected.
Meeting other neurodivergent people in Classics is fascinating. Typically, we start with apologies — “sometimes I can be a bit awkward”; “‘I have no filters”; “people struggle with my sense of humor”; “I get carried away when I’m enthusiastic about something”; “just tell me if you need me to tone it down” — because we’ve all been told so many times that what we do or say is wrong. But when we get past that, things start to happen. I haven’t yet met a neurodivergent classicist who isn’t fizzing with ideas. It’s not really that we “think outside the box”; it’s more that we’d have to make a huge effort to find the box in the first place.
It was those connections with other people that brought about Asterion.
Asterion isn’t really an organization, or even a network. Rather, it’s a safe space for neurodivergent classicists to explore their ideas, showcase their projects, and find inspiration in new ways. It isn’t a community in any traditional sense, but our individual willingness to be visible as neurodivergent classicists connects us. There aren’t any rules or structures or preconceptions. Asterion will evolve into whatever we need it to be.
Asterion was only launched a few months ago, but we’ve accomplished a lot in that time, with much more to come. Our profile page is expanding steadily, as new people find us and write for us. In many ways, this is the most important part of our site, because it’s our way of standing up and saying that we exist as neurodivergent people in Classics (a warm shout-out here to the CripAntiquity Twitter Profiles series, which led the way in making disability visible in our discipline). Being open about difference is a big personal and professional risk for our contributors, because of the prejudices and misconceptions that they might face as a result. For every classicist represented on our profile page, at least two others have contacted us to say that they support us but can’t be open about their own neurodivergence, because it might jeopardise their reputation or — in some cases — actually cost them their job. It hurts that this is our reality, but it also shows why Asterion is needed.
Our blog offers neurodivergent people in Classics (primarily in the UK, but welcoming contributors from all over the world) a chance to talk about the experiences that have inspired them or held them back, in the hope that raising awareness will lead to greater understanding within the discipline. Recent topics have included the challenges and strengths of being a dyspraxic classicist; an exploration of bipolar diagnosis through reading Catullus; and a reflection on the joy of knowing that you are not alone as a neurodivergent academic.
Our pedagogy section will host and platform inclusive teaching ideas from around the world. There are several in progress, and we hope that, when these are ready to share, they will kick off some conversations about what can and should be done to accommodate difference in the teaching of classical subjects.
We’re hard at work on initiatives that we hope will begin to shift perceptions of neurodiversity in Classics. One such initiative is a panel for the 2022 Classical Association conference — which we hope will be innovative in its form as well as its content — to showcase the creativity that often characterizes neurodivergent communication and teaching. Another is a program for in-person conferences to make events more accessible to people who find social interaction a barrier to participation. We’re talking to several major Classics organizations about events and future collaborations, and we’re looking at what we can learn from neurodiversity provision in schools, as well as considering what we can offer to schoolteachers in Classics. We’re also very aware of the need to explore intersectionality with race, class, gender, and sexuality, and this will be at the heart of our plans.
But most importantly, right now, we’re trying to reach the people who feel alone, to show them that they’re not.