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What is the difference between a cage and a sanctuary?
Autistics Speaking 2015 Participant

There have been a couple of cases recently of schools deciding that the best way to cope with an autist is to restrain them.

One was a primary school. They built a cage. A literal steel cage. In a storage room, where the only two lighting levels were blinding or black, because it was floodlit with the sort of fluorescent searchlight glare that OH&S people tell us is compulsory, and no windows. In a touch of probably unknowing irony, it was painted blue.

This cage was explicitly for the benefit of an autistic student, so that they could lock him in there when he had a tantrum. "For his own safety, and the safety of others", of course.

Of course.

Of course it is obvious that they didn't ask an autist, because then they might have learned that a meltdown is not the same thing as a tantrum, that a meltdown is caused by something, and that what an autist needs to come down from a meltdown is quiet, calm, dark solitude. Well, solitude that child would have, if not privacy. Dark that child would have, if they remembered to turn off the lights, and if "pitch blackness" counts. Quiet would be achieved, because any screams would be muffled.

If they had been looking for a better way to make a bad experience immeasurably worse, it's difficult to see how.


Then, more recently, there was a "box" at a ... well, let's not call it a "school". I doubt anything was taught there. More of a daycare center for autistic adults. (Not that such things aren't themselves needed.) And there, also, was a box.

In this case it was slapped together with 2x4s and plywood, instead of case welded powder-coated steel. And the outside was decorated by the autists themselves. And they had been asked to bring in egg-cartons from home to line the inside.

Now, this one is harder. Because it might be something to lock an unruly autist into, ... but. It might have been a place for an autist to retreat into. Because: quiet, dark, private, enclosed.

Everyone was outraged. There were fulminations on the front pages, and abject apologies from the organisation, and calls for investigation. No-one seemed to consider that it might have been something for the autists' benefit.

I started asking around, and actually got some answers. (From ASAN AuNZ, who did not have to answer the questions of some random from off the street, but they did, to their credit.) And they sent me more photos than had been published.

The box was unlined. That could just mean it was unfinished. But it was clearly crude and unrefined. Of course, that meant also that it was relatively flimsy, and could not contain anyone who really wanted out. But more damning, it was against the windows, and open to the windows. There was little darkness in there, and thanks to the open gaps, little to no muffling. (But then, again, if the autist inside could hear everything outside, so could everyone outside hear the autist were they so minded.) And there were close-ups of a thing on the outside of the door which I was assured was a place for a lock. I couldn't see how it was possible to put a lock on it, but I was assured that that's what it was.

I remain dubious about the intentions of the staff who built that box. I still think it not impossible that they were really, if ham-fistedly, trying to build a retreat box, where an autist could have a semblance of privacy and quiet in which to calm down. Or, everyone else is right, and it was a ham-fisted attempt to build a box in which to punish or restrain an autist who was playing up.

I do believe the press release of the organisation involved, when they said that whatever its purpose, it wasn't fit for it. They dismantled it and threw it away when they found out about it, and everyone who was involved will probably be punished... or at least given a stern talking-to.

But... We autists do need a place to retreat. When at work, we are increasingly being sat, along with everyone else, in overbright, noisy, confusing, full of distraction and detail and movement, every movement public to everyone, open plan office spaces. Every moment in glare, with someone literally watching over your shoulder, with the conversation of a hundred people unmuffled in your ear, with people moving in your line of sight all the time in the corner of your eye. And there is no respite. They may have "cool down" spaces where you can take your laptop (good luck if you are assigned a desktop), but they're designed for NTs, and are still bright and public and loud and distracting. They may have meeting rooms you can book for private work (pity about the whole laptop thing), but good luck booking them over the Project managers' interminable meetings about minutiae and trivia. There is no escape from when you arrive, to when you go home. No escape from the light or the noise or the incessant burble or the movement or the feeling of a predator behind you or the people people people always expecting you to deal with them socially on their terms and immediately.

So the lack of a place to retreat is also a problem. And autists aren't included in the design stage, or the OH&S stage, or, really, the consultation stage. My requirements aren't arbitrary, they are medically necessary. But when I raise them, I am dismissed with platitudes and boilerplate and repeated assertions that this space is designed to be best practice and ergonomic and all sorts of other lies and bullshit.

These spaces are, I'm going to be charitable here and say "unwittingly", designed to exclude autists and make us feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. It's the equivalent of setting up a Mosquito, playing high pitched sounds that adults can't hear, but teenagers can feel on the edge of sensation like the echo of teeth being pulled.

And I work in IT. You'd think IT would take better care of its autists. (Who am I kidding, no organisation gives a toss about its IT department until they can't read their email any more.)

So there is a need for retreats, for sanctuaries, for a place to go to keep the world out, to take a breath before you plunge back into the dazzling glare of a world built for other people but not you.

It's important, though, too, that this place be appropriate, be fit for purpose, and, above all, be voluntary.

What is the difference between a cage and a sanctuary?

It's on which side of the door is the lock.





(We're scheduled to move into the new building by the end of the year.)
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