Studies confirm that people who are Autistic often respond to stimuli more intensely than those who are not. Hypo and hyper sensitivities are often discussed when it comes to vision, taste, hearing, smell and touch in Autistic people. Often there is a mixture of both hyper and hypo sensitivities in any one person. (I use these terms because we have a lack of good words to describe these things. Both hyper and hypo sensitivities are subjective and are used in comparison to non autistic people, which is problematic in and of itself, but for the sake of this post, it is the best language I have.) What happens to a person who experiences the world more intensely than the majority of people, particularly when confronted with frightening situations, anger, loud noises, etc?
“Recent studies have confirmed that children with autism have very active Amygdalas; the center of the brain that stores traumatic events.” ~ Traumatizing Events and Autism
When Emma was just two, we went to visit my mother, the proud owner of an adorable German Shepherd puppy. Emma had no fear of dogs, but during that visit, the puppy playfully chased Emma, nipping at her ankles and Emma began to scream in terror. By the time I was able to rescue her, hoisting her up in the air and away from the puppy’s sharp little teeth, the damage had been done. To this day, Emma is frightened of dogs and upon seeing one that gets too close, she will cry, “Mommy pick me up!” Despite the fact that Emma is now much older, the trauma is real and intensely felt. For years I couldn’t understand how something so (seemingly) benign could cause her such incredible, and to me anyway, over-the-top terror. I continued to believe this was a fear she would “outgrow” and that it was only a matter of time before she did so. But so far, her fear, while not as extreme as it once was, is very much intact.
I am on a family picnic. My parents pull out a french baguette, an imported pâté, a coveted gift from my father’s sister who lives in Paris, and some Swiss chocolate. I am hungry and excited as pâté and chocolate are two of my favorite things to eat. On the way home I begin to feel sick. By the time we return home, I am vomiting and have the flu, but associate the feeling of nausea with the pâté. It is almost two decades before I can stand the smell of pâté, let alone taste it without gagging.
These are both relatively benign examples of sensory issues intersecting with memory and causing longer term associations, but what about intense trauma such as physical and emotional traumas? What about the time when the ABA therapist locked Emma, who was only three years old, in her room for 30 minutes, instructing me to stay out or he would pull all our services, while she screamed and begged to be let out? I know how traumatized I was and continue to be because of those 30 minutes, what about Emma’s experience? Did this cause untold damage? Did Emma experience the degree of trauma that I did? Is her experience even more profound? What about how she experienced her own mother not saving her from such a person? How has she integrated these events into her life experience? Is it felt as the ultimate betrayal? How will it manifest in the future?
These are the things I think about. Not because I am intent on beating myself up, but because these are things that happened and I don’t think any of us are served by NOT talking about them. These are the kinds of dilemmas many parents have experienced. These are the questions so many of us have. Questions that are, as yet, unanswered. We have to ask ourselves when we are considering a methodology and those who will come into contact with our children, are they going to be respectful and kind? Does this methodology presume competence, is it respectful of my child? Will the person be patient? Will they treat our children as inferior because they see autism as an inferior neurology and one that needs to be “trained” away?
“What does trauma do to the brain?
“Severe or repeated trauma can re-route emergency systems that are meant to be used only occasionally, and leaves them active, like a switch stuck in the “on” position. This can shrink or damage the part of the brain that thinks and plans, and potentially damages the brain’s ability to feel love and safety in the presence of others.
“To deal with this pain and stress, the individual may become more rigid and inflexible in his or her thinking and develop tunnel vision and selective listening. Over time to compensate for the damage done to the short term memory and ability to sequence by continued exposure to our fight or flight response, or allostasis, the individual may develop rituals, become rigid and controlling or “oppositional”, shut down, withdraw, rage, retreat into a special place, or become over-involved in things that help the individual to escape.” ~ Autism and Trauma: Calming Anxious Brains
It is tragic that the very methods a traumatized Autistic person may use to calm themselves from the trauma they’ve experienced, are often the very things those who are not Autistic pinpoint as “behaviors” or actions that must be stopped. Not only is the person trying as best they can to deal with the initial traumatic event(s), but they are often being punished and told to stop using the only ways they know of that actually help them cope, thus creating further trauma.
“Traumatic events often occur during developmentally vulnerable stages in the individual’s life, and in this process become intertwined with the child’s bio- psychosocial development. How easy it would be to dismiss this in a child with an ASD, who by definition is struggling with development of a sense of self, and is uncomfortable in an alien world, even prior to repeated exposure to trauma.” ~ Commentary: Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Implications for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders—Part II
Trauma, in relation to autism, is something I wish I’d heard about during those first few years so that I might have made better and different choices for my daughter. Those I know who are Autistic talk about their trauma often, yet there is very little written about trauma in relation to autism in the general conversations currently going on. This must change.