Coming out on Top: Autism, Covid, and Posttraumatic Growth6 min read

I’m starting this post with a disclaimer:

It is not my intent to belittle the intense and furious struggle us autists are having with the coronavirus shutdowns. The disruption of our worlds affects us in ways most allistics could never perceive.

I myself alternate between anxiety, confusion, depression, anger, and a whole host of other emotions. I’m hoping to inspire others to feel that there is hope to survive this pandemic feeling better about ourselves than we did when the pandemic started.

Learning from others’ crises

In the 1970s, Peter Levine writes in Waking the Tiger about a school bus full of children who were kidnapped and driven to an undisclosed location where the bus was buried completely with dirt, leaving the children inside to face an indescribably horrifying fate.

At first, all the students were paralyzed with fear, stuck in the “freeze” option of “fight, flight, or freeze.” Then, some of the older students began to dig a way out. They soon began encouraging the younger students to help; some did and some didn’t.

Eventually, they dug their way to freedom, but the trauma of the event stayed with all of them.

Levine further writes about a longitudinal research study investigating this group of children’s traumatic experience. The study explored their experiences directly following the traumatic event and their rescue; then, the study evaluated the children many years later to examine the long-term effect the trauma had on their lives.

What this research found was groundbreaking:

Those children who actively worked towards their rescue and dug the tunnel, leading them to freedom and life, reported little-to-no problematic experiences from the event.

Those who did not dig reported the exact converse: more indicators of posttraumatic stress. Depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicide were among the difficulties they faced in the years following the kidnapping.

What does this teach us?

When we study the body of literature focused on posttraumatic growth, or how the psyche tends to flourish after experiencing a traumatic event, we see a common denominator in the number of people who experience personal growth. It’s quite high.

The unifying factor?

Action.

Those who act during traumatic events are less likely to be as affected by them later in life than those who don’t.

The degree of action also determines how much the person will thrive after surviving the event. Each time the person succeeds in overcoming the trauma over and over again in their mind, they are building corrective emotional experiences and rewiring their brains. So, this psychic system perpetuates itself.

Perhaps this is why we see a correlation between severity of posttraumatic stress and the age of occurrence (or the age when the trauma happened).

The younger a child is, the more dramatic the effect of trauma on their lives, and the younger a child is, the less likely they are able to act in a traumatic situation. Early childhood traumatic experiences tend to remain hardwired in someone’s brain far into adulthood, where it takes great effort to rewire the traumatic response behavior with corrective emotional experiences.

Getting help matters

In a literature review of posttraumatic growth research, another commonality is found: the speed with which the traumatic event is addressed has an effect on its eventual severity.

Psychotherapeutic triage for victims of large-scale, extremely traumatic events (9÷11, Hurricane Katrina, etc.) is common, often happening on-site within minutes or hours.

Often this doesn’t happen with children who are abused or people who are sexually assaulted because, due to the nature of their trauma and the sociological environments surrounding them, these two victim groups have low incidence of reporting.

It is not their failure to report that is the problem, it is society’s tendency to let these vulnerable people fall through the cracks. It is heartbreaking.

Coronavirus

We are currently going through a large-scale traumatic event.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a global natural disaster, affecting everyone’s lives in disparate ways.

Autists and our neurodivergent cousins may feel this trauma sinking in even deeper as it affects us more than the allistics.

We tend to thrive with our established routines and coping skills, and for many of us, those routines and skills have been stripped away by the necessity of stay-at-home orders and quarantining.

In fact, quarantining is a reported coping mechanism of autists right now who are feeling anxiety about contracting the virus, but it comes at a cost.

This is a large-scale trauma event, but there are no stations for psychic triage like there were at Ground Zero or in New Orleans. I know about these stations because I was asked to be a part of one for a tornado once back in my therapist days.

Hell, most of us can’t even meet with our regular therapists unless they have access to doing care online. Mine just started — we meet next week on Zoom.

How to survive and thrive

So, here we are: a very vulnerable group with seemingly no tools to dig our way out of our intended burial.

If you read my previous post on my experiences with this pandemic, you’ll see I myself am stuck in a circle of negative emotions and inaction (video games, movies, cannabis, movies, nap, eat, sleep, repeat).

What in the world can we do to come out of this experience all the better for it? What can we do to prepare ourselves for the next traumatic event in our lives? Is there anything we can change about our situations?

Visualizing Change

My therapist and I have often talked about change and conditions for change. The takeaway: change is an action.

Seeing change as an action shows us our way through this long, dark night. We must change to adapt to this traumatic event. It’s how we’ll survive and how we can use decisive action as nourishing water to help us grow when we emerge.

I’ve often talked with my therapist about sweeping changes I’ve needed in my life in order to feel whole and about how thinking about these sweeping changes overwhelms me into inaction.

Avoiding Burnout

I will always remember the response she and I came up with: change one thing.

We say “change one thing” because change cascading change can snowball. If we can manage to change one thing in our lives, many more tend to follow.

Many autists aren’t so great with change. It’s one of the reasons a lot of us are struggling so hard right now. But we need to change if we’re going to survive this psychically and emotionally intact, let alone thrive.

My challenge to you

The one thing I am challenging everyone, including myself, to change is their daily routine.

Our old daily routines don’t work anymore. We need new ones. We need routines we can follow each day so we feel more organized, more compartmentalized.

I keep a routine sheet that has pre-set daily activities like brushing my teeth, meditating, and taking my meds, but it also has empty spaces for me to fill in each day.

Over the past month, it’s been hard to complete these sheets and stick to the tasks they list.

It’s time for me to re-work this sheet for the pandemic. I need to add things I know I can accomplish. I need to add things that are necessary and prune that which is superfluous at a time like this.

Then, the real action happens: I need to follow it.

Maintaining goals

Maintaining momentum has been the hardest part of this pandemic– and the reason I haven’t been filling out my sheets.

This tells me the sheets need to change. They need to reflect more of what I can do each day rather than what I want to get done. They need to be the opposite of overwhelming, since this entire situation is overwhelming enough.

Getting one productive thing done each day seems like a much more reasonable expectation than getting 5–6 productive things done each day.

And who knows? Getting one productive thing done each day on a consistent basis may lead to getting two productive things done and so on.

And if I can’t get my one thing done each day? Forgiveness, grace, self-empathy. It’s a hard time, after all. We can’t expect to be perfect.

The way to combat this ongoing trauma is through action, and change is action.

We can dig ourselves out, then we can help others around us to dig. It’s a truly beautiful thought to see myself surfacing in a year or so, more emotionally stable than ever before, all because of what changes I made in reaction to the trauma.

If I let it, it can even excite me.

Russell James
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2 Comments

  1. hmm…I don’t know. You challenge me to change one thing about my daily routine? My reflexive reaction is offense: you don’t know me or what I’m struggling with right now. You don’t know anything about my daily routine or how important each step is to me. You don’t know what you ask when you ask me to change it.

    I just started reading a book on recovering from CPTSD and I was overcome with relief when the chapter on building healthy human relationships started out with the acknowledgment that some people have been abused too badly to ever trust another human again. Then the author said that it was unfair of someone to ask such a survivor to build another human relationship and instead suggested that they get their healing from pets or internet contacts, or skipped that step entirely. This author is someone whose advice I’m likely to heed to because he understands that we’re all different and we have our own agency, even if we don’t have all the answers.

    1. Author

      Hi! Thanks so much for your comment. Seeing as how the autism experience is a pretty big umbrella, I’m never going to write something that applies to everyone. This article was more directed at people who are feeling stuck in a routine that is harmful due to this traumatic event that we’re going through. By challenging our routines we are becoming active agents during this event and therefore resisting the creation of PTSD as a result of the pandemic.

      PTSD is also a big umbrella and experiences may vary. There are cases of PTSD that people don’t recover from, and that isn’t their fault. There are people who never trust anyone again, or don’t have the capacity to trust humans. In my research, these cases are mostly excluded to severe and long-running childhood trauma. As children, there isn’t much we can do to “dig ourselves out” so the capacity to heal is diminished and the severity of the life-long traumatic response is increased. This can, and often does, result in life-long, chronic PTSD, and can have more severe outcomes (I’m speaking here of self-injurious behavior).

      When I was a therapist I worked mostly with chronic PTSD most commonly rooted in horrific abuse of all kinds, and I learned that these techniques help survivors cope, but they didn’t “heal” so to speak. So I agree with you, and I’m also not ready to give up on the idea of hope. Hoping is in coping. It’s true, people may never trust again, but they can learn how to cope with this feeling. I have to believe that because I’m a survivor of severe and horrific childhood abuse.

      There is a lot of great work out there on Post-traumatic Growth, and it offers a lot of hope. I need hope. Thanks again for reading.

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