Autists are like the canary in the coal mine of mainstream society. We are amongst the first who are affected by pathologically hyper-competitive cultures.What society can learn from autistic culture | Autistic Collaboration
Troublemakers Are the Caged Canaries
The classic example of an animal sentinel is the domestic canary, used in the early twentieth century to alert miners of deadly carbon monoxide in the coal mines. The miners brought these caged canaries with them into the mines. Because the birds are small and have particularly sensitive respiratory systems, the poison kills them more quickly than it would a human being, leaving the coal miners enough time to save themselves. I remember learning about the miners’ canary, shaken by the images of these starkly bright yellow birds, tiny, fragile, beautiful—caged in the dirt and the lightlessness of those mines.Troublemakers : Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School
The troublemakers are the caged canaries, children who are more sensitive than their peers to the toxic environment of the classroom that limits their freedom, clips their wings, and mutes their voices. The canaries’ songs warn us of the dangers—dangers to children’s learning and development, to their self-worth, to their physical health and emotional well-being—as the misbehaving children struggle for visibility and voice in an institution that works to ensure their invisibility; as they work to be embraced by their classroom communities but behave in such a way that will ensure their exclusion; as they seek interdependence in a setting where the norms of independence prevail; as they raise their voices louder and louder hoping to be heard, but know they will be silenced.Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education Harvard University in Troublemakers : Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School
We cannot simply exclude autistic pupils for entering meltdowns. Meltdowns are part of autism for a good number of autistic young people.
Whilst mindful that of course everyone needs to be safe, the way to achieve safety is to stop hurting the autistic children. Punishing them for responding to pain is not something any of us need to do.Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, School, Exclusion. What’s fair?
The picture shows a school classroom as I see it, as an autistic person. A kaleidoscope of shape and blinding lighting, with vague outlines which are probably other students. Deafening noise. The stench of different smells. The confusion of many voices, including some heard through walls from neighbouring halls and classes. School uniform that feels like barbed wire on my skin.
In the chaos, a different voice which I have to try to listen to. It’s so hard. My brain doesn’t want to tune the rest of the noise out. Apparently I’ve been asked something, but I miss it. The voice gets more strident, the class turns to look at me. The intense stares overwhelm me. The person next to me jostles me and it feels like an electric shock on my skin. Only six more hours of hell to go…. only six….
Some of our autistic pupils simply cannot do this alone, without ‘time out’ to recover from the pain and exhaustion during the school day. Not for hour after hour of puzzling painful chaos.
We’ve turned classrooms into a hell for autism. Autistic children mostly could cope in the quieter schools of decades ago. Not a hope now.Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, School, Exclusion. What’s fair?
Thinking of these troublemaking children as canaries in the mine is not my own idea. I learned it from Thomas, the father of a five-year-old boy who could not and would not comply with the behavioral expectations of his kindergarten teacher.2 Teachers, school administrators, medical doctors, and psychologists all searched for pathology in the mind and body of this child. Their assumption was that the arrangements of school were normal and good, so any child unable to tolerate those arrangements had to be abnormal and bad.
Though the child suffered from a mood disorder, a diagnosable brain illness, Thomas challenged the assumption that the disease made his son inherently broken or bad. Much like the canary’s fragile lungs, this child’s brain leaves him more susceptible to the harms of poison. He’s more sensitive to harm than the average child. Still, the problem is the poison—not the living thing struggling to survive despite breathing it. After all, in clean air, canaries breathe easily.
With this perspective, Thomas drew attention away from his son and instead toward the toxic air of life in schools—the daily harms that less susceptible children can breathe in more readily: being told what to do and exactly how to do it all day; the requirement to sit still for hours on end; the frustration of boring, disconnected, and irrelevant academic tasks; shockingly little time for free play; and few opportunities to build meaningful relationships in community with other children and loving adults. These were the daily realities his son complained about, reacted to in the extreme, and refused to tolerate. Yet they are all too common in the life of schools, invisible because of their everyday normalcy. Thomas’s son made them visible, signaling their danger with his hypersensitive reactions to the harm. He was a miner’s canary, warning us all about threats to freedom that we might not otherwise see.Troublemakers : Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School
Needless to say, the dining hall, as well as being busy, crowded and a source of multiple odours, was also very noisy, as trays were picked up and clattered back down, cutlery jangled, and metal serving dishes clanged against metal hot plates. Meanwhile, the children, squeezed into rows of tiny seats bolted on to collapsible dining tables, grew louder and louder to make themselves heard over the racket. Indeed, the lunch queue alone can be the place where sensory problems ‘can turn into a nightmare’ (Sainsbury 2009, p.99). Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, all of the child contributors to this book – Grace, James, Rose and Zack – identified noise and crowds as being the most difficult aspects of school from a sensory point of view.Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom
Indeed, the school environment can present autistic children with a multi-sensory onslaught in terms of sounds, smells, textures and visual impacts that constitutes both a distraction and a source of discomfort (Ashburner, Ziviani and Rodger 2008; Caldwell 2008). There was also clear evidence from my own study that sensory issues, and noise in particular, can be highly exclusionary factors for autistic children in schools.Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom
Neurodivergent People Have Significant Barriers to Accessing Safety
Hyper-plasticity predisposes us to have strong associative reactions to trauma. Our threat-response learning system is turned to high alert. The flip side of this hyper-plasticity is that we also adapt quickly to environments that are truly safe for our nervous system.
The stereotypes of meltdowns and self-harm in autism come from the fact that we frequently have stress responses to things that others do not perceive as distressing. Because our unique safety needs are not widely understood, growing up with extensive trauma has become our default.Discovering a Trauma-Informed Positive Autistic Identity
I get overwhelmed so easily My anxiety creeps inside of me Makes it hard to breathe What's come over me Feels like I'm somebody else I get overwhelmed so easily My anxiety keeps me silent When I try to speak What's come over me Feels like I'm somebody else I get overwhelmed All of these faces Who don't know what space is And crowds are shut down I'm overstimulated Nobody gets it They say I'm too sensitive I can't listen cause I'm eyeing the exits --Overwhelmed by Royal & the Serpent
I get overwhelmed so easily My anxiety Creeps inside of me Makes it hard to breathe What's come over me? Feels like I'm somebody else I get over, well, well, well Would you look at that? Another person telling me that I should just relax "Calm down and take it easy everything will be okay" Yeah, sure 'cause that's what they all say --Overwhelmed by Ryan Mack
Truth, Fairness, and Non-Compliance
And, take my word on this, no one can identify and rebel against an unfair system as efficiently as a kid or adult with ID, except perhaps an autistic person. They know the system is unfair!PBIS is Broken: How Do We Fix It? – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?
“I have my principles and am pedantic, and therefore I will not do it.”Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (p. 96). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I know I've ruined a night or two I couldn't hold back my views Family dinner turned off the news Stuck in a silent room And I'd rather die by the truth And hide away feeling shades of blue I've ruined a night or two 'Cause it's hard being hardcore I'll cut the lights and cry in the dark more If you don't feel, then what the hell is a heart for? 'Cause it's hard being hardcore
Everybody's got the same blank face Tough roughing up the place When you're not putting up a front Now you're the crazy one Leather jackets line up at the bar Good at hiding who they are Everybody's got the same blank face So I'd rather die by the truth And hide away feeling shades of blue You want tears, I've shed a few 'Cause it's hard being hardcore I'll cut the lights and cry in the dark more If you don't feel, then what the hell is a heart for? 'Cause it's hard being hardcore --Hardcore by Allison Ponthier
Autism: Part of a Well Functioning Cultural Immune System
Autism is a crucially, vitally, urgently needed human variation—a powerful corrective and counterbalance to the hierarchical, dominance-based mentality currently driving human society and the planet off the rails.
Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society.
Autists are essential to the future of homo sapiens.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
I wish I could find other people who have it, and live among them. A biological conscience is better than no conscience at all.
Maybe it’s like my sharing: One more weirdness; one more crazy, deep-rooted delusion that I’m stuck with. I am stuck with it. And in time, I’ll have to do something about it. In spite of what my father will say or do to me, in spite of the poisonous rottenness outside the wall where I might be exiled, I’ll have to do something about it.
That reality scares me to death.Parable of the Sower (Parable, 1)
The Louder I Will Sing
Reflecting on the school lives of these children, recognizing the refrains in their warnings, I am reminded again of the epigraph that opens this book, from Labi Siffre’s song, “Something Inside So Strong,” sung each morning by children in Freedom Schools across the country: “The more you refuse to hear my voice, the louder I will sing.” The more they were silenced and unseen, the more disruptively they insisted on being objects of attention.
Understanding disruption and transgression as one language children speak helps to reframe misbehavior as an expression of a set of demands—a strategy for being heard and seen. If adults were better at bearing their responsibility to see and hear children, the need for children to rely on disruption as a strategy for visibility might decrease.
The paradox of simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility appears in the experiences of all four of these children. Zora, Lucas, Sean, and Marcus are all hypervisible as troublemakers whose names are regularly in the mouths of teachers and whose behaviors are often actively designed to draw attention. At the same time, they are invisible as human persons with complex identities beyond that of “troublemaker,” as their differences are systematically erased through redirection and medication.
The interplay between hypervisibility and invisibility in each child’s story reminds us, simply, of the power of and promise of visibility—of making one another fully seen and recognized, heard, valued, cherished, and protected.Troublemakers : Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School
But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.
“Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou from Shaker, why don’t you sing?
They’re Selling the Coal
The way you’re playing canary and they’re selling the coalWhat Can You Do but Rock ‘n’ Roll by Ezra Furman
We may only be subordinates but we hear everything All your closed-door conversations, we’re always listening We sense frequencies you’d never hear or think to pay attention to And we can tell what’s on its way here, long before the train comes through
They’ll tell about your system as a system with no teeth The histories will see us as the people underneath The emptiness you’d only heard about was one we intimately knew But an emptiness is turned into a tunnel when a train comes through A transfiguration’s coming, a turning in the song For the brutal static order they’ve depended on so long This train will carry gamblers, it’ll carry us midnight ramblers too A broken heart’s your ticket so be ready when the train comes through