cages – safety or control?

A while back there was a huge media frenzy and a spate of departmental head-rolling over a purpose-built cage being installed in a classroom for a child with autism.

Yes, you read correctly — cage.

This word will conjure up different images for different people, but essentially it is what it is — a secure structure into which something, or someone, can be locked and which is difficult to get in to, or out of.

ID-100220187 cage
Image courtesy of sakhorn38 at


As a teacher, I am not allowed to go into detail about this event, even though I know more about the truth of the matter than was reported by the media. No surprises there.

I believe the media frenzy extended not only nationally, but reached international shores as well. There was a lot of comment and a significant amount of finger-pointing.

But, who reported what and who knows what is irrelevant.

Whether or not approval was sought, or whether or not the parents condoned it, is irrelevant.

The only important fact to know is that a cage was built and intended for use with an autistic child, presumably (but not definitely) during times of severe meltdown. Whether the intention was to keep other children safe, or to give the child a ‘safe space’ is unclear … and also irrelevant.

It was a cage!

My first reaction, upon reading the news report in our local paper, was ‘NO WAY! Somebody has made this up.’ After all, we’re not talking about the 19th Century here; what school in this day and age would install a cage as a management tool for any child?

My second reaction was anger; ‘How dare they?’ This anger was directed, somewhat haphazardly, at two camps: the media — how dare the media report such a thing without finding out all the facts?; and our school system — how dare any school treat a child with autism with such a low level of respect? I knew the media had ‘creatively’ represented the facts, but the cage bit was true.

Questions flooded my mind:

Why would any teacher allow a child in their care to be put in a cage?

Why would any parent condone their child being put in a cage?

What about the child? Maybe the child felt special and safe in the cage? Or maybe the experience was petrifying …

The fact it was a cage, as opposed to a safe corner, or a safe room, made it so much worse. The word ‘cage’ carries a whole host of negative connotations; in fact, I can’t think of one positive one.

The ‘investigation’ and media coverage went on for months. At some point during this period, a memory of another ‘cage incident’ was triggered in my mind.

When Geordie was in Kindergarten, the school (not his current one) had an outside play area built off the Learning Support Unit (LSU). This play area was fenced; not a small picket fence, or a waist-high chain fence, but a tall, solid fence with thick bars — not unlike a cage you might see at the zoo … or in a prison.

The purpose of this area (and the fence) was to provide a safe space for the students in the LSU to play. Inside the bars was a very nice courtyard with a grassed area and a sandpit; the bars served their purpose as many of the students in the unit (several of whom had an autism diagnosis) were runners.

At some point, during a staff meeting (and after School Board approval, I think) the decision had been made to ‘allow’ other children to also play in the caged area during recess and lunch. I hasten to add, these children also had a diagnosis of some sort and often needed structured play, or to be away from large groups of children.

I am ashamed to admit this now but, at the time, I thought nothing of this decision. Nor did I see the play area as ‘caged’.

Then, many weeks later, one of my students came to find me at lunchtime with this message:

‘Geordie is in the cage.’

I was livid.

I stormed down to get him out.

The image of Geordie standing sad-faced at the fence, hands gripping the bars, face pressed into the gap, is one I will never get out of my brain.

I was furious, and my anger was not only directed at the teacher, a colleague, who had put him in there; the bulk of it was directed at myself. How could I have let this slide without saying something; without being an advocate for all of the children like Geordie?

There were three things that grated at me during this incident:

  1. I hadn’t been asked before they put him in there.
  2. He clearly didn’t want to be in there.
  3. Nobody could tell me why he had been put in there.

I complained, I persevered trying to find out why … I got shut down.

The caging of Geordie, while it never happened again, was not the only factor that prompted our school change at the end of the year, but it made a significant contribution to our decision.

The question I ask myself is: If Geordie had been happily playing in there when I went down, would my reaction have been different?

If I am honest, I don’t think it would have been different … just less severe.

And then, the next very hard question I have to ask myself is: Why was I ok with this whole procedure up until the point it involved Geordie? Why was it ok for others, but not for him?

The answer is: It wasn’t ok. And I am still dealing with this, in myself, now.

So much of what we do to ‘manage’ and ‘support’ children on the spectrum is dependent on the child. Geordie reacted poorly to being caged, but many of the other children seemed to love it.

Does this mean I condone ‘caging’ children? Absolutely not — but maybe we do need to look deeper into individual circumstances before we judge the methods that are used.

But, cages? They will never be right.