Caged canary in a dark mine


Autistic man Freestone Wilson suggested in the 1990s that autistic people are functioning as the “miners’ canaries” of civilisation. When the air in the mine is poisoned we do not prevent canaries being born in case they suffer from the poison and upset us: we clean the air or close the mine.

Discussion paper on eugenics and diversity

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

We are marginalized canaries in a social coalmine and Rawlsian barometers of society’s morality. It is deeply subversive to live proudly despite being living embodiments of our culture’s long standing ethical failings.

Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up.


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

I think of the children who make trouble at school as miners’ canaries. I want us to imagine their behaviors—which are admittedly disruptive, hypervisible, and problematic—as both the loud sound of their suffering and a signal cry to the rest of us that there is poison in our shared air. That is, when a child is singing loudly—and sometimes more and more loudly, despite our requests for silence—we might hear that song as a signal that someone is refusing to hear her voice. And we might learn to listen, heeding her warning and searching our air for the toxin triggering her suffering, the harm that simultaneously silences her and forces her to scream out.

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.

Shalaby recognizes that seeing schools as primary sites for teaching love and learning freedom is countercultural, even revolutionary, and oppositional to the ways that schools are traditionally organized, contrary to the ways teachers are trained, evaluated, and rewarded, counter to the ways our society perceives and places value on children. It requires a radical reframing of the values and goals embedded in definitions of achievement and success in schools, a recasting of classroom rules, rituals, and pedagogies, a redrawing of the boundaries of community, and a reshaping of the hierarchies of power and authority in schools. Shalaby knows, and warns us, that the work of transforming our schools is hard and beautiful, tough and generous. It is filled with minefields and misunderstandings, breakthroughs and revelations. The work is one of re-imagining what a free and loving learning place might be, and children are the best source for beginning this envisioning and liberating project. They are, after all, the great imaginers: they will lead the way, the troublemakers at the front of the line. We must begin by listening to them.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education Harvard University in Troublemakers : Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School

Toxic Environments

We’ve turned classrooms into a hell for autism. Fluorescent lighting. Endless noise. Everywhere, bright patterns and overloading information. Groupwork and social time. Crowded hallways and relentless academic pressure. Autistic children mostly could cope in the quieter schools of decades ago. Not a hope now.

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?

Meltdowns are alarm systems to protect our brains.
Without meltdowns, we autistics would have nothing to protect our neurology from the very real damage that it can accumulate.

I don’t melt down because I’m Autistic.
I melt down because something in my environment is intolerable, and I am having a normal reaction of pain and/or anxiety.

The Protective Gift of Meltdowns — THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM

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.

Understanding supposedly broken children as miners’ canaries focuses our attention on the toxic social and cultural conditions of schools that threaten and imperil the hope of freedom. Our work as educators and as parents must become an effort to clean our air instead of condemning young people, forcing them and actively training them to tolerate the poison.

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

Neurodivergent people are hypersensitive to mindset and environment due to a greater number of neuronal connections. They have both a higher risk for trauma and a large capacity for sensing safety.

Neuroception and the 3 Part Brain

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.

Because of our different bio-social responses to stimulus, autistic people have significant barriers to accessing safety.

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

…at the same time, Asperger insisted that the non-compliance of his patients, and their tendency to rebel against authority, was at the heart of what he called “autistic intelligence,” and part of the gift they had to offer society.

THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies

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?

Justice, equality, fairness, mercy, longsuffering, Work, Passion, knowledge, and above all else, Truth. Those are my primary emotions.

Very Grand Emotions: How Autistics and Neurotypicals Experience Emotions Differently » NeuroClastic

Imagine that you have a neurodevelopmental disability that gives you some challenges with social skills and possibly the occasional rigid adherence to things like truth and fairness. Chances are good that you’ve been explicitly and implicitly told that you are pedantic, rude, blunt and not considerate enough of others’ points of views for your whole life.

I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder: A Memoir: Kurchak, Sarah: 9781771622462: Books

This is the clincher. You have to live up to autistic standards of honesty if you are to convince us to follow a different path or to change our minds.

If you aren’t willing to make sure that what you ask of us or want us to believe is reasonable, fair and true, then you won’t have our respect and the relationship is doomed.

The influences that distort the morality of those around us simply don’t penetrate our conscious minds.

Autistic Black & White Thinking… Autism & Relationships * Morality & Justice * – YouTube
Autistic Black & White Thinking… Autism & Relationships * Morality & Justice *
Autism Life: *Communication & Morals* Truth & Lies & Autism

To retain their sanity, autistic people consistently work against in-group competition, and they often suffer the consequences for doing so (Dexter 2020b].

Autistic people within human societies counteract what Steve Silberman has fittingly described as the “truth dysfunction” in non-autistic people.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
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/neurodiverse thinking and collaborating styles have a critically important role to play as an antidote to the currently dominant neurotypical social-ranking/dominance approach—a critically important role to play in bringing modern society back into some kind of sustainable balance, functionality, social justice, and sanity.

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.

These children are examples of the power of disruption. They disrupt the expectation of conformity, boldly and brazenly wearing their difference and their creativity. They disrupt the demand for compliance, questioning and challenging and negotiating authority. They disrupt the requirement for quiet and stillness, fiercely insisting on their right to be both seen and heard. And they disrupt too-narrow definitions of what it means to be good, leveraging their assigned identities as troublemakers in the fight for permission to forge identities of their own choosing.

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.

As Maya Angelou reminds us, the caged bird will always sing of freedom. From their precarious perches at the entrance of the school mine, these four children not only alert us to danger, but urge us toward freedom. They urge us toward a conception of community in which power is shared, and in which there are no throwaway lives. None are sacrificed to serve the needs of others. They make human being visible, recentering the fundamental needs and rights of the person: to be understood, to be loved, to be powerful.

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

It seems impossible to blame a caged bird for its own death in a toxic mine, but we nonetheless manage to do so.

Troublemakers : Lessons in Freedom From Young Children at School

The way you’re playing canary and they’re selling the coal

What 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

Train Comes Through by Ezra Furman

But it’s the hidden and unspoken that will thunder when the train comes through

Train Comes Through by Ezra Furman

Further reading,