by Guy Shahar
Published: 28th November, 2022
Almost all – if not all – autistic people are subject to trauma from the earliest moments of life. It happens because differences in communication, sensitivity and tolerance are not understood and therefore not accommodated, leaving the autistic person with repeated experiences of being unheard and having their needs ignored.
In many cases, these experiences taken individually may appear to be relatively small and easily manageable.
It may just be that something that the person says about what they need is not taken into account, which happens to everybody now and again. But the fact that they are repeated on a very regular basis in many different ways by many different people in many different situations reinforces the potency of the experience and of the messages that are imparted through it.
Along with the enhanced sensitivity inherent in autism, this means that each trigger situation invokes the pain of all of the situations that went before it. This is likely to lead to a reaction which appears from the outside to be disproportionate. What isn’t appreciated is that the reaction is not only to what’s currently going on, but to the cumulative backlog of similar occurrences, which, when combined, become an intensely traumatic experience.
It gets to the point where even the anticipation of such an experience is enough to incite panic and to itself invoke the intensity of all the past experiences. This may happen when a situation reminds the person of something that happened in the past, or if a sequence of events seems to be occurring that typically leads to that sort of situation. The reaction happens before the event itself comes about.
Profuse hormones are released into the body and then no amount of positive thinking or genuinely coming to terms with and accepting the situation can help. It’s no longer a mental issue, it’s now chemical, and all that can be done is to undergo whatever form of expression we need to go through and then wait for it to be processed through our system, which can mean days or longer effectively out of action, and can mean rarely, if ever, recovering to an optimal condition before the next episode comes along.
This is post-traumatic stress. But it’s different from what we often think about when we hear the words post-traumatic stress (or PTSD). It doesn’t come from one single event like a horrific attack or an experience during a war. It comes from the accumulation of much smaller incidents which reinforce and build on each other. This is sometimes known as Complex-PTSD.
Why Is This More Common in Autism
I would suggest that this is almost universal in autism, and the main reason is simply a mismatch in communication style between autistic and non-autistic people.
The essential neurological differences between autistic and non-autistic people are pretty small – different ways of processing information including a much deeper experience of sensory and emotional inputs (or possibly blunter for some senses), some difference in preferences around managing practical things and some differences in communication styles (I would also suggest that there are many additional highly positive attributes that are very common in autism – this is elaborated in my Ted talk, The Beautiful Reality of Autism).
None of this suggests that autistic and non-autistic people are different species, wholly incompatible with each other. Far from it. Plus, there’s enormous diversity within both of those groups too, so these differences between them don’t seem to be hugely significant. As long as there is tolerance and understanding in both directions, there’s no reason they can’t co-exist and happily interact.
However, the fact that the autistic community is such a small proportion of the population, and the norms and judgements of society are tailored around the general needs, style and preference of non-autistic people, means that the needs and preferences of autistic people are most commonly not recognised or understood, and it’s therefore not possible for most people to tolerate them. It might be that a tone of voice is understood to be confrontational or negative or awkward when that is not at all the intention – it’s just a different voice pattern. A request for a quieter workspace or somewhere out of direct bright lights might be interpreted as picky or seeking perfection, when it’s actually due to an intense sensory sensitivity that makes the current arrangements intolerable. The actions and communications of autistic people are judged against the values and preferences of the non-autistic majority, leaving the autistic person feeling unfairly judged, misunderstood and rejected. This happens both implicitly and explicitly and with a frequency that a non-autistic person would find hard to imagine.
The fact that it is so overwhelmingly common for autistic people to be in this situation and to react accordingly has led to many people to associate autism with the symptoms of trauma and to define autism by such reactions.
Protecting oneself from interaction with others, finding small ways to control one’s environment often by rigid rules that don’t seem to make sense to others, an inability to cope with everyday interactions, and so on, are all widely considered to be characteristic of autism, but they are not.
An autistic person who had always had a safe environment and was free from trauma (sadly still a hypothetical in contemporary society) would not be likely to display such symptoms, while a non-autistic person who had undergone intense trauma would be very likely to display them.
What would their experience of life be? What potentials would they then have the space and energy to develop and unleash? What could be learnt from them and from the qualities they develop? Until we create a world where there is real mutual acceptance and accommodation, we can only guess at the answers to these questions.
How Can Parents Help?
The roots of trauma often go back to family life at the very earliest ages. The needs of autistic children are different from those of non-autistic children, and parents, however loving and caring, are almost never offered any meaningful guidance as to what these differences are. At the earliest ages, they will also have no idea that their child is autistic.
But even without this understanding, attuning to a child is still possible. We have learnt ways of interacting with children that are generally very successful, but may not work for very sensitive autistic children.
For example, the light in a room might to too bright for them or the sound too loud. A baby will not be able to communicate this verbally, but by observing them carefully, it may be possible to notice their reaction, and then, if appropriate, protect them from such overwhelming experiences.
It’s lovely to play in an excited voice with a small child and see their delighted reaction, but if the reaction to such play is not one of delight, it might be a sign that this degree of emotion is too intense for them, and a calmer display of affection would be appropriate for them.
As the child grows into a toddler and older, it’s a little easier to see what triggers them. If we, as parents, can develop the sensitivity to understand whether the triggers are truly an indication of a need for boundaries (which is probably the case much less often than assumed) or an indication of overwhelm of some kind, and tailor our reaction accordingly, we’ll be best serving our children (whether they’re autistic or not).
Learning to tune into our children in this way is not easy, but it’s probably by far the best thing we can really do as a first step to help to mitigate the risk of their developing life-long trauma. It enables us to give them the tailored parenting that they need as an individual, rather than to apply general rules and norms which may be deeply damaging to certain children. It enables us to act as their partners and to facilitate their growth in all ways and on their own terms. It enables us to be a source of reliable support and security for them, rather than to be someone they need security from.
Sadly, there’s no manual on how to do this, and it’s not something that’s commonly even acknowledged as an essential parental skill. I hope that the resources that Transforming Autism has put out – including our webinars and our articles, as well as our Family Services for those families fortunate to benefit from them – can begin to help guide and support parents in this direction.
What Can Autistic Teenagers And Adults Do To Overcome Trauma?
Sadly, once entrenched, trauma is notoriously difficult to eradicate, and people who have established it (including the overwhelming majority of autistic people, if not all) often embark of a lifelong journey of slow self-development; or else eventually succumb to the pain of the trauma. It’s not by coincidence that the average age of death for autistic people is in their early 50s.
While we want to do everything to protect current and future generations of autistic children from such a future, it might be helpful for those already undergoing it to see the positives of it.
This may initially sound perverse. Who wants to live with the pain of trauma. Well, none of us would have chosen this path, but with the right attitude, much can come of it. Many people are sent down paths of learning, healing, personal development or spirituality which they would never otherwise have found, and which give them benefits that are not so easily available to most people.
In my own case, I knew as a fact in my mid-20s that I wouldn’t make it to 40, and it was only through the discovery of Heartfulness meditation that this was able to change. It gave me the inner-strength I needed to carry on, as well, over time, as a constant inner-feeling of well-being that would otherwise have been unimaginable, and which still has an underlying presence during the difficult periods, which sadly persist. Through my work later in life as an energy healer, I’ve come to arrive at a point where I no longer invite new triggers of trauma into my life (which I wasn’t even aware I was doing), though of course they are still there via pre-existing relationships.
I hesitate to quote the bible (I’m not a Christian), but one famous line always catches my eye. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth”. It sounds crazy at first glance, and conjures up surreal images of a bunch of shy and nervous soldiers inching cautiously towards the capital, where they somehow inexplicably get control of the government and then run the world in an unlikely dictatorship of the meek.
But that’s not what it’s saying (of course). Along with other similar statements (such as “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven”) it is pointing to the fact that for those of us who don’t have everything that others take for granted, we have those things to come. As we slowly come to learn to be able to introduce some of them into our lives, we get to experience them with fresh eyes, not as people who have become used to them and no longer appreciate them. We get to savour them as new wonders, and then look forward to the ones that come next. This can also make it easier to tolerate the dips that come in between, which may sadly always be with us.
Adopting this way of approaching life might be the best advantage we can make of the trauma that we have needed to endure.