Building Asterion: Support for Neurodiversity in Classics

Dr Cora Beth Fraser, autistic classicist, Honorary Associate at The Open University and Director of Asterion

How do you build a community for people who prefer to avoid unnecessary social interaction? How do you achieve visible representation of a group who risk discrimination at work if they talk too frankly about their problems? How do you ask people to take part in an initiative when they’re exhausted and facing multiple challenges with minimal help? How do you challenge social perceptions which threaten the safety, the freedom and even the right to existence of people with particular differences?

Those are the sort of questions I’ve been wrestling with, in attempting to set up an organisation to represent neurodiversity in Classics. I don’t have all the answers yet; but at least I have a place to start. That place is called Asterion.

Asterion emerged from a series of conversations I had about autism, with several remarkable people. I was diagnosed with autism myself a year ago, a few years after my son was also diagnosed. Perhaps if it had just been me I would have kept quiet about it, as many people choose to do; but I worried that that might send a message to my son that being autistic was something to hide. So I began talking to people, and researching, and making connections with other autistic people and with disability organisations like the inspiring CripAntiquity. I wrote too, for my own blog and for others, and after a lifetime of trying very hard (and mostly failing) to fit in, being open about my differences was a relief. That was where the conversations started. It took me weeks to respond to all the comments, questions and stories that were sent to me when I wrote about my diagnosis, and I began to realise that there were far more people in Classics with a connection to autism than I – or perhaps anyone else – had noticed. And all of them were going through the same process of learning by trial and error, often floundering for lack of support, and feeling alone.

This seemed like something that could be addressed on a practical level. I started wondering about whether it might be possible to create a website which would make autistic people in Classics feel less alone. There was no need for a network or additional social pressure: even just the representation of other autistic people in Classics might do a lot to legitimise autistic experiences in the discipline, and to highlight the sort of adjustments that might make life so much easier for autistic classicists.

But one of those conversations – with a neurodivergent friend who is now a co-Director of Asterion – raised the objection that representation of autism in Classics would only do half a job. There are students and staff in Classics with ADHD, dyspraxia, bipolar, Tourette’s, dyslexia and other differences, and many of them are going through much the same struggles as autistic classicists. So we decided that the scope of Asterion needed to be expanded, to connect with all of the neurodivergent people who are quietly doing their best to find their way through a world that wasn’t built for them.

Other conversations led to other key elements in the formation of Asterion. It became clear, for instance, that formal diagnosis of autism, or ADHD, or OCD, or dyscalculia, isn’t straightforward for everyone; women and people of colour, in particular, are hugely disadvantaged in the diagnostic process, which was set up originally to accommodate young white boys with a very specific set of traits, and which still does not sufficiently allow for differences in gender, race and age. For some neurodivergences, diagnosis in adulthood has to be pursued privately, and is unaffordable to many people. So Asterion needed to be inclusive in accepting self-diagnosis as valid, and in supporting self-diagnosis for people who, for whatever reason, might be unable or unwilling to seek a formal diagnosis.

Another critical issue that we encountered very early in the planning process was intersectionality. Many neurodivergent people are also gender diverse, and it was obvious that the intersections with LGBTQ+ communities would need to be acknowledged and represented. We realised that there are also important conversations to be had about race and neurodiversity – conversations which have started elsewhere, but which need to be highlighted and taken further in Classics, given the persistent whiteness of the discipline. Social class is also a big and under-acknowledged issue in talking about neurodiversity, since poverty and neurodiversity are linked in many ways. There is also the hugely important issue of trauma; the combination of a lifetime of masking and heightened risks of violence means that PTSD often accompanies neurodiversity.

In other words, we were going to need a big team of writers, drawn from all of these categories and demographics and experiences, to ensure that Asterion wouldn’t simply perpetuate harmful stereotypes and inequalities by being too narrow in its focus, or too timid in engaging with difficult issues.

It was important that Asterion should always be majority-led by neurodivergent classicists: nothing about us without us, as the disability slogan goes. Everyone I spoke to had a story about how they had been misrepresented or misdirected by medical or support services, based on textbook explanations of neurodiversity written by people without personal experience. We needed to avoid that. We needed to design our initiatives based on emerging neurodivergent approaches, and write from neurodivergent perspectives; and that might mean that we would have to think creatively and examine critically a lot of our internalised ableism. We would have to spread roles across a lot of people, to avoid overloading individuals who might have few spoons left; we would need to accommodate different working styles in setting (or not setting) deadlines; we should also consider different styles of content, particularly those with an artistic or design element, to reflect variety in neurodivergent understandings.

Our Asterion mascot, designed by Laura Jenkinson-Brown

A further important consideration was openness. One of the problems neurodivergent people frequently encounter in dealing with colleagues and supervisors is a lack of understanding of our barriers, our skills and our ways of working. A closed network would not help this. So while Asterion would need neurodivergent directors, writers and editors, it would also need to welcome the involvement of neurotypical classicists. We were also going to need partner organisations to spread the word, to work with us on projects, to invite us to events, and to connect with us in all kinds of ways that might not even occur to us. So although Asterion would have to be led by neurodivergent classicists (at least in the majority), openness and inclusivity would need to be a core principle of the initiative, in order to reach a wider audience.

All of these considerations combined at an early stage, pulling us to the inevitable conclusion that Asterion would need to be very public, very transparent, and very open at all times to new ideas, changes of direction and – necessarily – criticism. We won’t always get things right, because we’re learning as we go along, and because we can’t speak for everybody (nor would we try). We won’t always manage to achieve the balance that we aim for. But when things do go wrong, we will listen and we will do better. Any mistakes we make will be public and open, and everyone will be able to learn from them.

So, after all the thinking and talking and planning, this is where we are now. Asterion has recently launched, and so far we have a website, a Twitter presence, a team of around thirty writers, an Editorial Board, some thought-provoking blogposts to start us off, and some prototype materials. We also have our core principles, which emerged from those early conversations, and some advice and support for self-diagnosis. Along with all that, we have a sense of excitement, and grand ambitions for the future! There is a lot to be done, and we’re only just getting started.

This brings me to my invitation. If you’re neurodivergent in Classics (whether formally diagnosed or not, whether you’re in the UK or not, whether you’re currently employed or studying in Classics or not), do contact us: we’d love you to write for us, or just connect with us! We’re looking for every type of content, from personal experience stories, to book reviews, to activism.

If you’re not neurodivergent but would like to be part of our team, you’d also be very welcome; we need as much help as we can find, and if that help comes from people in the discipline who are passionate about inclusion or pedagogy, we’d be delighted to receive it! If you’re involved with an organisation or school or university department that might benefit from connecting with us, please get in touch too – that would be wonderful!

Most importantly, please spread the word that Asterion exists. If you teach students, please mention us to them; if you have a noticeboard and are willing to put up one of our posters, they’re free to download from our website.

If you know of someone who might like to talk to us, please pass on our contact details: we’re very friendly and approachable! If there are people out there in Classics – at school, or university, or working in Classics, or somewhere in between – who are neurodivergent and running into problems, it might help them to know that we’re here, working through similar problems and sharing our solutions.

We’d like to think that over the coming years Asterion will establish itself as an indispensable resource for pedagogy and support in Classics, which will be known to, and used by, university students, researchers, and teaching staff at all levels. We’d like to represent and celebrate difference, while also advocating for improved support and understanding within the discipline. But we’re going to need everybody’s help to get there.

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