by Guy Shahar
Published: 1st February, 2018
How trauma may be at the heart of many autism “symptoms”, and how that would make early intervention all the more important.
We have written and spoken a lot about the anxiety that forms the backdrop of the lives of most autistic people. Tony Atwood, in the short clip below (you can see the full lecture here), identifies that many of what are generally thought of as “symptoms” of autism are actually symptoms of anxiety.
So where does this anxiety come from? There is no widely accepted answer to this question, but if we assume, as we have suggested, that Sensitivity and Idealism lie at the heart of the autistic condition, then we have a good starting point to understand how a child’s system could become overwhelmed with stress. It is not only the now widely accepted sensory sensitivities that constantly assail an autistic person – with light or sound or touch experienced in a heightened way that strains; it also works, with even more consequence, on the level of feelings. Autistic children can be ultra-sensitive to the feelings of others, meaning that their social environment has a colossal impact on them. To an extent, this is true of most children, but it is the degree of sensitivity that is outstanding here. Along with this, there is often an idealism in terms of how people behave towards each other (and often towards animals, plants, even toys, etc), adding additional possibilities and dimensions for pain.
So clearly, there is scope for the autistic child to be constantly affected by such stimuli. Homes tend to have the television or music in the background much of the time, over which many conversations take place. Social situations have multiple streams of conversation going on at the same time, often with loud chatter in the background. Flashing lights, bright colours, banging music and raised, excited voices permeate advertising and entertainment, and are impossible to avoid. And on top of that sensory onslaught, modern life tends to be lived at a fast pace. We have multiple responsibilities and an acute sense of the scarcity of time. Our consciousness tends to be split into many concurrent streams, resulting in an inner stress of which we may not be aware (we are so used to it) but our autistic children are – often feeling it as if it were their own. And, this pace of life means we have less time and patience for each other, leading us towards more routine brusqueness and even coldness. Most devastatingly, our competitive lives and a prevailing sense of entitlement can lead us in the direction of more pointed unkindness to each other on a more and more routine basis. This, of course, is likely to deeply affect people with autism.
I notice in our own son that when there is a lot of sensory stimulation, he can close down for a while, and then needs a recovery period when it has passed. However, when exposed to an acute degree of personal unkindness, there is a far more serious and long-term consequence.
So, with these triggers of anxiety going on all the time, it becomes easier to see how they can accumulate and become intolerable to someone so sensitive, leading to a feeling of being overwhelmed and eventually to meltdowns. As this pattern is repeated again and again, there develops anxiety at a much earlier stage in the cycle due to the expectation of meltdown, based on past experience, and it develops into a post-traumatic stress reaction.
Thus, it becomes easier to trigger reactions such as meltdowns. Events that might outwardly seem insignificant can provoke the vivid recall of the accumulated trauma of these past experiences.
When this develops, the child is really in a difficult situation, as they rarely get the chance to recover from one episode before the next is provoked by an apparently tiny incident, further deepening the trauma and ensuring that it can be provoked even more easily next time. So they never get the chance to live up to their true capabilities and potential.
And this sort of stress is different from “normal” stress. With “normal” stress, you can use your mind to alleviate it – you can think about happier things or do exercise or fun activities, or confront the issue head on and resolve it either individually or with another person who was involved. With this sort of stress, there are no such options. Once it has been triggered, it is in the system and will remain there until it has been slowly and painfully processed out. There’s little, if anything, that can be done about it. Even if the trigger is so trivial that it is not even remembered, or even if there is a balanced perspective and a real deep understanding that nothing is really wrong, the stress within is unaffected and must still be seen through.
This is just one area where autistic people are misjudged and misunderstood. It is often assumed that they are weak and unable to cope with even small instances of adversity, when in actuality, they are constantly living life against a backdrop of ongoing stress that a non-autistic person cannot imagine (just as an autistic person may find it difficult to imagine a life free from such constant torments) and would likely be unable to tolerate themselves.
And this ongoing stress can exacerbate other aspects of autism that may well be inherent in the condition. The apparently reduced understanding of or interest in interacting with others is one example. This may manifest in many ways, for example in the avoidance of eye-contact. Eye-contact represents an implicit openness to a degree of intimacy. What would be the attraction of intimacy with another person – with all its confusing rituals, unaligned expectations, probability of eventual disappointment due to misunderstanding and so on – to someone who already has so much to contend with that they don’t feel able to take on yet another enormous challenge? Especially when even the people who love them the most – who are completely dedicated to optimising the quality of their life – themselves inadvertently cause them suffering through misunderstanding their needs and their experience. Is it any wonder that they might seek to protect themselves from it? Would we be any different in the circumstances?
Turning a blind eye to the conversational needs of others and focussing instead on the single-minded expression of a particular idea or interest serves a similar function. It clearly gives the message to the other person that this relationship cannot become more intimate.
In fact, much of what we observe in autism is similar to what we would expect to observe in a person who has been through intense trauma, as explored in our article on Autism and Social Ability. And it is interesting that when an autistic child is provided over a sustained period of time with an environment of Containment, where the triggers of this stress reaction are largely removed, they recover much of these “missing” abilities and interests.
When the trauma is eased and when there is some sense of safety and security, many of what are commonly perceived to be the attributes of autism change considerably. The level of anxiety lets up a little – meltdowns recede and a sense of greater balance begins to prevail, along with more natural communication. An openness to and active interest in others and in relating to them can emerge. And when the emotional triggers of stress are reduced, then the child’s ability even to manage their sensory sensitivities can improve dramatically.
How does knowing this help us?
Firstly, it gives us insight and understanding into how our autistic children are experiencing the world. This is not to be under-estimated. The acute sense of being completely misunderstood is devastating to anyone – and all the more so to an autistic person who experiences it acutely and constantly. And the more we understand them, the more we naturally adjust our behaviour towards them, which in itself can transform one important aspect of their social environment.
We can then more consciously make changes to their environment and work to provide them with a contained life to give them some much-needed space to heal.
Importantly from the perspective of our charity, it emphasises the importance of early intervention. The less time a post-traumatic stress reaction has to set in and entrench itself, and the less time the stress has to disrupt a child’s system, the easier it can be healed and the more stark the improvements can be to that child’s (and their family’s) quality of life. This is why a key activity of our charity over the next couple of years will be to bring the Mifne Method (described in detail in our book) to the UK, so that very young autistic children can have an opportunity to bring their unique gifts to the world without being fatally hindered by all the interference we have been talking about in this article.
From the very start of our charity, we have always maintained that autistic people have a huge wealth of valuable input to bring to this world in many different ways. Unlocking that input begins with coming to deeply understand their experience of the world and then using this understanding to evoke and nurture their potential. This is what we are dedicated to facilitating.
6 thoughts on “Trauma in Autism”
It is a very informative blog
Thanks for this. I’m an adult on the autism spectrum, and over the last years (since understanding that my differences qualify as autism), I’ve been struggling with matching the standard descriptions of autism to my actual experience and memories, and especially to the fact that a huge part of “it” is basically indistinguishable from PTSD.
I have also observed precisely what you describe, that any increase in what you call containment leads to receding sensory sensitivities and far greater capacity or “mental space” for listening to others and tolerating mismatches etc.
Example, there are specific “safe” people with whom I can even shop in a mall and enjoy it, whereas I can’t do it alone or with others from whom I expect misunderstanding, criticism, rejection, punishment — and this very expectation creates a level of stress that can bring on meltdowns in the worst case without anything really happening, etc.
I’ve been working on loosening some of these entrenched trauma reactions and it helps a lot, even for an adult with a history of decades of bad mental health (which could have been prevented by understanding and support in childhood and in my case especially adolescence).
This article feels good to read because I’ve come to pretty much the same conclusion when reflecting on my adult life and what I’ve needed to partially and slowly untangle myself from the worst of burnout, depression etc. It has been possible because I have been able to (in part) find the healing interpersonal conditions you describe, but heck it was decades of hit-and-miss and little pieces of nourishment and healing here and there.
I have been quite moved by your work and materials, as from my adult autistic perspective I feel that you are correct and what you write is for the greatest part simply true, and a very accurate and empathic description of the subjective experience of people on the autism spectrum — applicable to adults as well (I’ve started verifying with various autistic friends).
I stop here, but I might write you with comments and questions by e-mail.
Thank you a lot for this work and I am wishing you the best possible successes with it.
Thank you very much Sasha. Really glad you have found such healing conditions. Look forward to hearing from you.
OMG – you have described almost exactly the same experience I have been going through. An lot of adversity in childhood, emotional difficulties since my teens, diagnosed with ASD at age 44, and now nearly 3 years later I am trying to piece together what is the impact traumatic experiences and what is the autistic nature? Or both…which led me to this article. Thank you for sharing what you have as I now know it’s not just me. Thank you.
This comment was in reply to Sasha
I am 44yrs and like you, felt like I was reading my experience. I have lived with being misunderstood and not understanding why for a large chunk of my life.
It wasn’t until really hitting a rock bottom and entering online recovery circles such as Adult children of alcoholic & dysfunctional families (ACA) that I started to come across those that also suffered as I did..
The only time I experienced what Guy mentions as those cognitive skills having space to heal and come back on line was doing 10 day silent Vipassana meditation courses.
If I live within containment and principles I feel more balanced and have enough buffer to be in the world but not have it take over me.
However, without this, normal everyday “neuro-typical” life doesn’t allow the space for me to recover and I feel misunderstood in trying to explain my needs to help me carry out work and participate in giving. Currently due for an occupational health assessment & feel frighten of those same misunderstooding, I need an advocate to help, but who?