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Autistic People ‘Canaries in the coal mine’?

In the last few weeks, I have heard and read several references to Autistic people being the ‘canaries in the coal mine’, the analogy being that we are the first to identify danger and threat, succumb to it, and are a warning sign to others before they too experience it.

As I so often do, I rolled this thinking around in my brain, reflected and ruminated on it, and questioned whether it had any substance. My instincts were telling me it wasn’t wrong, the very instincts that were being alluded to, but I continued to search for the evidence.

We know that Autistic people make up just 1-2% of the population, but our prevalence in the places that illustrate human suffering e.g. mental illness and physical illness services, victimisation services, and others, is not 1-2%.

We show up in the places of suffering at disproportionately high levels. Sadly, this includes suicides and the suicide statistics.

If we look at the causes of suicide in Autistic people, they can be linked to many contributories, co-morbid illnesses such as mental and physical illness(es), bullying and abuse, lack of effective support, and a number of other factors all too prevalent in the Autistic lived experience.

Some of these are further exacerbated where diagnosis of Autism is late. It is also be the case that when exposed to these things, Autistic people may experience them in more profound ways, leading to a higher incidence of trauma and complex trauma.

Add to this our empathy and hyper-sensitivity (in some sensory areas hypo-sensitivity) to people and environment, we feel at great levels. This would provide some of the qualities required for Autistics to be early detectors of danger (provided we don’t miss, dismiss, or devalidate what we feel for experience).

A further factor, common in many Autistic people, is our heightened ability to pattern-spot. We seek and see patterns and trends more readily than our Allistic counterparts. On test, I pattern spot 87% faster than other people.

As a mental health training business owner, I find this invaluable, as I can spot changes in the market more quickly than others might, and so I adapt earlier. For the 45 years prior to my own Autism diagnosis, I actually thought I had an ability to fortune tell!

If it was negative (particularly a negative sense about a person), I would often dismiss and devalidated it, but I was abandoning valuable and vital information, which at times would protect me (and sometimes others).

Post diagnosis, at age 45 in 2021, I would learn this was my ability to pattern-spot twinned with elevated levels of empathy and the ability to sense things. You decide how far you would like to take the fortune telling, but I can see a clear scientific explanation, which is far less left field than fortune telling! With this instinctual ability, I often notice things before others on many occasions.

The last significant event where this happened was in February 2020. I had noticed a little bit of news about a virus. I watched, I listened, I ruminated, and then I took some of the publicised facts and calculated the numbers. I could clearly see that we were going to be in big trouble by June 2020, if what I could see was to happen, especially if people did not act. It did – Covid-19.

Knowing Covid-19 was about to put my own and my families health at risk, and that my mental health training business would lose all of its work, maybe go out of business altogether, I tried to alert friends, family, and business associates who do similar work to me. Whilst people were not directly rude, they did not take my concerns seriously. I sensed they viewed my concerns as over-reacting and nothing to worry about.

Family saw no need to cancel our son’s birthday party on the Saturday before the schools closed, and no need to act irrationally. I saw it as totally rational, but as is sometimes the case, Autistics are not always the first to be listened too.

My family and friends finally took heed when our then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told them they must listen and act. It still smarts that my friends and family would rather listen to Boris Johnson than their friend and loved one! But I am letting that one go (nearly) 😉 What I had done on this (and other occasions) is worked out the threat and potential extent of consequence before others could yet see it.

Unfortunately, I am still doing this. I currently foresee a world that is becoming increasingly difficult to live in, for me and for others, but detecting that Autistic people are showing the signs of difficulty first, earlier than others.

Our Autistic children are struggling with an education system that has evolved very quickly into something which is debilitating for them.

Our Autistic elders are struggling with workplaces that have evolved to such levels the demands are outstripping their resources. Suicide in disproportionate numbers, and Autistics are showing a shortened life expectancy compared to Allistic people.

After over-thinking and ruminating on the notion that Autistics are ‘the canaries into the coal mine’ I have come to agree with it. I can see patterns and past experiences that illustrate this.

Through Autistic lived experiences, we are a warning to the world that what we have and are creating is no longer a hospitable environment to live in. It is evolving faster than we are able to adapt, and if we are unable to adapt, we will die off. The consequence is simply manifesting in us before the others – the canaries.

I have a pond in my garden, with about fifteen fish happily living (and breeding – always a good sign), but if I were to take a bottle of bleach and squirt it in my pond today, they would not be alive for very long. The moment I make their environment inhospitable, give them no time to adapt, they become ill and quickly die. The most vulnerable will be the first to go (likely the one with a bulging eye socket which has so far managed to survive in spite of the visual limitations).

Have we ‘bleached’ our world, and are the Autistics simply the first to notice? If we have, and Autistics are the first to show the warning signs, now is the time to act, not when it is too late.


About Jane McNeice, Speakers Collective and Support

If you are interested in Jane McNeice speaking at an event or providing training please contact or call on 020 8123 8250.

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