Canary in the Coal Mine

Hello my Zebras and Spoonies! Thank you for coming and hanging out with me. I’m glad that you are here.

Today I want to talk about how neurodivergents are the canary in the coal mine. Those of us with neurodivergence frequently talk about needing accommodations because we are not able to tolerate the environment that we are being asked to work or learn in. But the truth is that these environments are harmful to all humans. The difference is that those of us with neurodivergence are more sensitive to our environment and thus are more likely to experience an overt negative outcome from a poorly designed environment. The reality is that this topic is huge and way more than I can possibly cover in a single post. There are entire books written on this topic. [14, 15] Because of that, I’m going to focus on the topic of being able to freely move within our environments as an example, but keep in mind that there is much more to this such as the lighting, the noise level, the amount of space each person is afforded, the uniforms required for the job and so much more. So, let’s get into it!

All children need to move. This is not exclusive to the ADHD child who is fidgeting in the classroom. “Movement is a natural, inherent tendency in young children.” [2] There are multiple benefits to allowing children to move more freely in their learning environment. The first thing to note is that movement helps regulate weight and build muscle mass. Given the rise of obesity, it is more important than ever to encourage our children to be in motion. We develop our habits early in life. If we want our children to maintain their health with movement when they are adults, we need to allow them to develop this habit as a child. [6] Just like learning to read, children need to learn motor skills. By allowing them to move in schools, we allow them to build the fundamental foundation which they can build more complex motor skills onto later in life. [6, 14]

But there is more to it than that. “Additionally, brief moments of physical activity in the classroom can improve children’s attitude, attention, memory and content achievement.” [1] “…linking movement to teaching practices establishes a mind-body connection that enhances children’s learning.” [2] Children that exercise perform better in their academics. [2,7] Additionally, these early life experiences will shape the way that their brain develops and how they engage with the world for the rest of their lives. [15] If we want our society to be filled with good thinkers who can tackle the many complex problems plaguing our world today, we need to ensure that we are raising and teaching our children in an environment that fosters good brain development.

Denying a child their basic need for movement can have a negative impact on their social development. When a child’s needs are not met it significantly impacts their ability to manage stress. [15] “Therefore, the relationships a child experiences each day and the environment in which those relationships play out are the building blocks of the brain.” [15] “It is precisely during these valuable stages of childhood that many fundamental aspects of one’s personality traits are formed… Once set, they are difficult to undo, replace or build later on in life.” [16] It is fundamentally important that children feel that their needs are being met so that they can develop healthy attachment styles and feel safe in their environments. [15]

What does this mean for our schools? What does allowing more movement look like? This can mean offering children structured times to engage in physical activities guided by the teacher or it can be structured rules for allowing children to move while waiting in line [1]. Allowing more movement into our schools will not result in chaos. When we allow children to move when their bodies need movement, we are proactively preventing behaviors and improving learning. Movement “helps release stress and channel energy in constructive and creative ways…” [2]. Movement often prevents many of the undesired behaviors we see in children because it helps them regulate their mood and reduces their stress levels. Allowing children movement means they are less likely to have a meltdown.

This isn’t just about our children. The current research shows that exercise improves mental performance, regardless of age. [2, 3, 4, 5, 8] Humans evolved in motion and need that movement to maintain a healthy state. Exercising at work has been shown to reduce work related injuries. [9] However, the benefits of allowing people to move isn’t limited just to their cognitive performance. Research also reflects that exercise helps maintain a person’s mental wellness. [10, 11, 12] With many of us spending 40 or more hours a week working, being in a work environment that promotes movement is essential for good health. Physical activity is a well established corner stone for both preventing and treating illness. [13] Healthy people are in motion.

The risks associated with spending the entire work day sitting down are well established. [17, 18, 19, 20, 21] Despite this evidence, most work environments continue to be set up on the desk model with the expectation that workers will sit at their desks for the duration of their work day. However, workers are likely to have an increase in productivity when encouraged to move. Physical activity increases cognitive performance. [2, 3, 4, 5, 8] Allowing people to move while they work will increase job satisfaction through improved mental wellbeing. There is no down side to allowing people to move while they work.

What’s the take away from all of this information? All people benefit from being allowed to move freely in their environment, not just people who are neurodivergent. While the neurodivergent person is more likely to have an acute stress response from not moving, all humans experience adverse consequences when not allowed to move freely within their environments. Accommodating the neurodivergent’s needs isn’t about accommodating something special or weird. It’s about making sure that our environments are human friendly. When we make sure that the neurodivergent person can thrive in an environment, we are also making sure that the neurotypical can as well. Everyone benefits from having a better and healthier environment. Let’s work together to make sure that our offices, schools and homes are human friendly, because right now they aren’t. We need to make these changes. Not just for the sake of the neurodivergent, but for the sake of all humans.


  1. Orlowski, M. A., & Hart, A. (2010). Go! Including Movement during Routines and Transitions. YC Young Children, 65(5), 88–93.
  2. Furmanek, D. (2014). Preschool Through Grade 2: Classroom Choreography: Enhancing Learning Through Movement. YC Young Children, 69(4), 80–85.
  3. Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., Kim, J. S., Heo, S., Alves, H., White, S. M., Wojcicki, T. R., Mailey, E., Vieira, V. J., Martin, S. A., Pence, B. D., Woods, J. A., McAuley, E., Kramer, A. F., & Gage, F. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 3017–3022.
  4. Raichlen, D. A., & Polk, J. D. (2013). Linking brains and brawn: exercise and the evolution of human neurobiology. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 280(1750), 1–9.
  5. Taylor, C. B., Sallis, J. F., & Needle, R. (1985). The Relation of Physical Activity and Exercise to Mental Health. Public Health Reports (1974-), 100(2), 195–202.
  6. Pica, R. (2011). Why Preschoolers Need Physical Education. YC Young Children, 66(2), 56–57.
  7. Pica, R. (2010). Linking Literacy and Movement. YC Young Children, 65(6), 72–73.
  8. Åberg, M. A. I., Pedersen, N. L., Torén, K., Svartengren, M., Bäckstrands, B., Johnsson, T., Cooper-Kuhn, C. M., Åberg, N. D., Nilsson, M., Kuhn, H. G., & Gage, F. H. (2009). Cardiovascular Fitness Is Associated with Cognition in Young Adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(49), 20906–20911.
  9. Sundstrup, E., Jakobsen, M. D., Brandt, M., Jay, K., Persson, R., Aagaard, P., & Andersen, L. L. (2014). Workplace strength training prevents deterioration of work ability among workers with chronic pain and work disability: a randomized controlled trial. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 40(3), 244–251.
  10. Taylor, C. B., Sallis, J. F., & Needle, R. (1985). The Relation of Physical Activity and Exercise to Mental Health. Public Health Reports (1974-), 100(2), 195–202.
  11. Martin, A., Sanderson, K., & Cocker, F. (2009). Meta-analysis of the effects of health promotion intervention in the workplace on depression and anxiety symptoms. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 35(1), 7–18.
  12. World Health Organization. (2019). How to promote mental health and prevent mental health conditions. In mhGAP Community Toolkit: Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) (pp. 38–62). World Health Organization.
  14. Martin, L., Sontag-Padilla, L., Cannon, J., Chandra, A., Auger, A., Kase, C., Kandrack, R., Ruder, T., Joyce, C., Diamond, R., & Spurlock, K. L. (2014). WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood? In Off to a Good Start: Social and Emotional Development of Memphis’ Children (pp. 1–10). RAND Corporation.
  15. Lally, J. R., & Mangione, P. (2017). Caring Relationships: The Heart of Early Brain Development. YC Young Children, 72(2), 17–24.
  16. Altalib, H., AbuSulayman, A., & Altalib, O. (2013). Character Building Cannot Wait. In Parent-Child Relations: A Guide to Raising Children (pp. 135–158). International Institute of Islamic Thought.
  17. Kikuchi, H., Inoue, S., Odagiri, Y., Inoue, M., Sawada, N., & Tsugane, S. (2015). Occupational sitting time and risk of all-cause mortality among Japanese workers. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 41(6), 519–528.
  18. Lee, J., Kuk, J. L., & Ardern, C. I. (2016). The relationship between changes in sitting time and mortality in post-menopausal US women. Journal of Public Health, 38(2), 270–278.
  19. Mayor, S. (2015). Prolonged sitting increases risk of serious illness and death regardless of exercise, study finds. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 350.
  20. Møller, S. V., Hannerz, H., Hansen, Å. M., Burr, H., & Holtermann, A. (2016). Multi-wave cohort study of sedentary work and risk of ischemic heart disease. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 42(1), 43–51.
  21. Korshøj, M., Hallman, D. M., Mathiassen, S. E., Aadahl, M., Holtermann, A., & Jørgensen, M. B. (2018). Is objectively measured sitting at work associated with low-back pain? A cross sectional study in the DPhacto cohort. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 44(1), 96–105.

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