Exploring the Intersection of Autism and Trauma7 min read

Editor’s note: this article con­tains men­tions of domestic abuse and alco­holism.  Please read at your own dis­cre­tion.

Every time I cry or even laugh, people act sur­prised.  As if they’re sur­prised I have feel­ings.  I’m per­haps even more sur­prised because I am a whirl­wind of emo­tion, yet most seem obliv­ious. Maybe it’s not that sur­prising.  People who are autistic often express emo­tions dif­fer­ently from allistic indi­vid­uals.  Moreover, even in the non-autistic com­mu­nity, everyone has cer­tain emo­tions that are dom­i­nant.  In the same sit­u­a­tion, one person might react with anger while another reacts with sad­ness.  I have always grav­i­tated toward fear. 

To my knowl­edge, I’m the only one in my family who is on the spec­trum. I don’t know much about what I had in common with my father because for the 26 years I knew him, I never saw him sober It was only after he died that I learned he took up drinking at the age of 13  because he had social anx­iety.  He didn’t know how to func­tion in society without self-medicating.

Autistic indi­vid­uals often expe­ri­ence a litany of trau­matic events.  Even the pres­sure to con­form to arbi­trary social con­ven­tions can cause trauma, whether it’s the con­stant harass­ment to make eye con­tact or the inva­sion of per­sonal space that seems to come so nat­u­rally to most people. 

Yet, so many people on the spec­trum have added trauma.  We’re more likely to become tar­gets of bul­lying, while sexual assault remains a major issue in the com­mu­nity.  The iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness that often comes with autism can also have lasting effects.  I lucked out.  I missed out on the severe bul­lying.  I’d like to think it was because my rep­u­ta­tion for revenge pre­cedes me.  But I just turned social seclu­sion into a damn sport.  

When other kids were learning how to ride bikes, I was learning all about emo­tional numb­ness, avoid­ance, and com­plete detach­ment. 

This weekend marked one year since my dad died.  I hadn’t real­ized how much of my child­hood I blacked out until my family started sharing mem­o­ries of my dad—memories I should, well, have mem­o­ries of.  My sister went on and on about how my dad hit me once and she got into an alter­ca­tion with him and threat­ened him.  He punched her in the face. 

She imme­di­ately moved out and went at least a year without speaking to either of our par­ents.  This was when I was in high school.  I don’t remember a damn thing about any of this.  The con­ver­sa­tion started because my cousin was trying to remember a name of a restau­rant we used to go to for family brunch.  Everyone in the family remem­bers this restau­rant except my sister because by the time she rejoined the family, the restau­rant had closed. 

I remember the name of the restau­rant, but not half of my child­hood.

I don’t remember all the hit­ting and the fighting and the yelling.  I mostly just remember the fear. I remember shut­ting down. I remember with­drawing into myself.  I remember the feel­ings of panic and anguish.  I remember the anx­iety. I remember the paral­ysis.  I remember the scram­bling to regain a sem­blance of my human­ness. 

Research indi­cates that autistic indi­vid­uals are more likely to go through adverse child­hood expe­ri­ences than the average person.  This includes sub­stance abuse in their fam­i­lies, social exclu­sion, divorce, and other traumas that can have long-lasting effects on mental health.  Yet, there hasn’t been a lot of research on the com­plex­i­ties that emerge when autism spec­trum dis­order inter­sects with trauma. 

Years ago a guest speaker came to my school who dis­cussed assault. My friend made a joke about it. I became angry at him and noted that if anyone assaulted my sister like that, I’d kill them. 

Of course, I remember none of this. I’m not sure if I was in ele­men­tary school or junior high. The only reason I know about this day at all is because my mother was with me when the guest speaker came and relayed what hap­pened to my sister. What I allegedly said is far from the truth. I can’t handle con­fronta­tion.

Last spring, when my dad shoved my mom into the wall,  all I could do was stare help­lessly. Last summer, when my brother-in-law slammed my sister against the floor so many times he broke sev­eral bones in her arm, I couldn’t react at all.  Last weekend, when I had to see my brother-in-law for the first time in nine months, all I did was hide in the corner and help­lessly stared out the window while my cousin—who’s much braver than me—cursed him out. I believe her exact words were, “Why would you want to stay here with people who f***ing hate you?”  I wanted to say some­thing. But I only have two set­tings: silence and hand me the duct tape. 

The world is hectic and full of insta­bility. This is true for allistic and autistic indi­vid­uals alike. There is still a lot to learn about how people on the spec­trum expe­ri­ence trauma. It’s dif­fi­cult for anyone to talk about trau­matic events. It is even harder when you have trouble com­mu­ni­cating.

Expressing emo­tion is another chal­lenge. Most med­ical pro­fes­sionals encourage therapy to help with trauma, but any psy­chol­o­gist I worked with even­tu­ally gave up because I couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate with them. I couldn’t talk about my feel­ings with my own family. I cer­tainly couldn’t talk about them to strangers. Shit. I don’t even like talking to myself half the time because I sound like a crying cat who is somehow fluent in inces­sant balder­dash.

I couldn’t muster a single word when my best friend was sex­u­ally assaulted or when the #metoo move­ment started, and I real­ized almost every single person I knew had been raped at least once. All I could do was bemoan the patri­ar­chal system that cre­ated the abom­i­na­tion that is rape cul­ture. There have been so many times when I wanted to scream, or I wanted to speak my mind. But when any­thing bad happens—even if it isn’t to me—I become so over­whelmed I lose all sense of myself. I revert back to the scared little boy who didn’t know how to process emo­tions. 

But not speaking out in times of dis­tress isn’t always a sign of cow­ardice. For many autistic people,  it has to do with poor con­nec­tivity.  Fight or flight becomes paral­ysis and we phys­i­cally can’t com­mu­ni­cate because there is already low con­nec­tivity between cor­tices in the autistic brain, which coor­di­nate all the sys­tems needed to make move­ment and lan­guage happen.  

What can people do? Whether you know someone who is autistic and has expe­ri­enced trauma, or you have expe­ri­enced trauma your­self, it can seem like a hope­less sit­u­a­tion. One sug­ges­tion is to advo­cate for people who have dif­fi­culty com­mu­ni­cating. Some prac­tical ques­tions you can ask include: “Would it be helpful for me to wait longer so that you can gather your thoughts?  I don’t mind,”  and “Would you mind to write down your thoughts and give them to me when you feel com­fort­able?” 

Understand that autistic people often struggle with pro­cessing thoughts, infor­ma­tion, and emo­tions.  Just because they don’t say any­thing right away, doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk. Sometimes, they need to time sift through the chaos hap­pening in their mind.

Many autistic indi­vid­uals struggle speaking orally but excel in other areas of expres­sion. They might have an easier time com­mu­ni­cating if they write down their feel­ings or draw them. So give them a pen and paper. Help them find a path of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that works for them.

A good rule of thumb is to be empa­thetic and approach­able but not intru­sive. Some people struggle com­mu­ni­cating but do want to talk and some don’t. Leaving a note that says, “If you ever want to talk or write, I’m here to listen.” often works better than asking us directly. Offering an open line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is per­haps the best thing you can do.

Meanwhile, the mental health field needs to con­duct research into inter­ven­tions and ther­a­pies for people who have trouble com­mu­ni­cating. Many people who are autistic fail to receive mental health treat­ment because they struggle to com­mu­ni­cate their needs and repress neg­a­tive emo­tions and expe­ri­ences.

Lastly, make your­self someone that people feel com­fort­able sharing their sto­ries with. Autistic people can often sense when someone isn’t tol­erant of dif­fer­ences. Be someone who takes pride in the qual­i­ties that make them unique.


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