Exploring the Intersection of Autism and Trauma

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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