Trauma-informed care is increasingly becoming the preferred standard when working with neurodivergent folks with autism spectrum differences. Autistic individuals tend to experience more trauma for a variety of reasons as they continue to try to adapt to living in a world with neurotypical standards. Individuals with developmental differences, such as autism spectrum, are more vulnerable to trauma experiences during every age and stage of life. We are still learning how the brain and body of autistics store traumatic experiences and memories, but the impact of this on their well-being should not be dismissed or overlooked. Good trauma-informed therapy for autistic individuals and families should consider that the neurodivergent brain may perceive, experience, or communicate traumatic events differently.
So knowing that autistics may be experiencing higher levels of trauma, how can we support them in healing? Eye Movement Desensitization Training, also known as EMDR, is an evidence-based trauma therapy approach that can be an invaluable healing therapy for this population with a unique set of individualized needs.
Why EMDR Therapy for Autism-Related Trauma?
In particular, EMDR is a therapist-assisted, proven trauma therapy technique. Individuals with autism tend to have a whole internal life experience that we don’t necessarily know about or can understand at times. Therefore, they may have loads of trauma stories in their brain and body, without us really truly being able to understand their experiences. For example, stimming is a self-regulating behavior that autistics may engage in to regulate their internal experiences. With EMDR, we can help autistics heal their internal dysregulated systems that may hold negatively stored experiences and unhealed traumas. EMDR can also help autistic individuals decrease anxiety, improve social skills, support healthy communication and teach self-regulating skills.
Though neurodiverse individuals may need some modifications in therapy to accommodate their brain differences, the methodical, predictable, safe structure of EMDR’s phases of treatment is ideal.
Helpful Considerations and Accommodations for EMDR & Autism Spectrum
Autistic individuals or otherwise neurodivergent folks often need accommodations from neurotypical standards to feel connected and safe. It is highly trauma-informed and best practice to provide these accommodations as a response to their individualized needs. As a result, by using the modified autism EMDR protocol created by Sherri Paulson, LCSW, the therapy can be more easily accessible and comfortable for autistics. For example, a neurotypical individual may prefer eye movements for bilateral stimulation (BLS), however, this can be too over-stimulating or frustrating for autistics. As a result of this consideration, using tappers or hand tapping for the BLS is recommended best practice. At the very least, make sure the autistic individual gets to choose the way to do BLS that is the most comfortable for them.
Other considerations and accommodations for EMDR therapy and autism spectrum should include:
- Speech and language needs. Providing accommodations for communication needs such as social stories and visuals to support the trauma processing.
- Attention needs include difficulty holding attention and shifting attention and accommodating lots of breaks if needed in the session.
- Processing needs, the therapist should go at the individual’s pace and attune to their individualized needs
- Difficulty with noticing, tolerating, and regulating emotional experiences which can lead to nervous system overstimulation and sensory overload
- Challenges with identifying feelings and noticing body sensations and interpreting regulating needs as a result
- Easily overloaded sensory systems
EMDR Supports Traditional Autism Therapy Approaches
Typically recommended evidence-based treatments for autism are generally behavior based such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and applied behavior analysis (ABA). However, trauma-focused therapy also has the capacity to do so much more on a deeper, nervous system level for healing and regulating experiences. Think of this in terms of an iceberg, at the top of the iceberg above the water are all the externalized behaviors (e.g., aggression, non-compliance, refusals, avoidant behaviors). Underneath the water are all the triggers (e.g. past traumas and internal experiences) that feed into the externalized behaviors. EMDR therapy takes this so much further by treating the source of the behavior. EMDR, specifically, can support neurodiverse individuals in managing their autism spectrum needs in a neurotypical world that doesn’t always feel safe for them. EMDR can help individuals with autism better understand their internal experiences and learn ways to communicate their needs to support a healthier and safer engagement in life.
Let Us Help You Manage Trauma and Move Forward
If you are curious about EMDR for your autistic child, or self, please make sure to find a provider who is specialized in neurodivergent needs and provides, affirming care. EMDR for autism also requires several specialized modifications, and it’s important your therapist can offer this as part of your EMDR therapy. The therapist should be able to consider and provide a supportive therapeutic environment that can:
- Create a structured and agreed-upon schedule for sessions (often using a visual schedule is helpful)
- Have options and resources available in the therapy room to support emotional regulation and any sensory system overload
- Individualize the EMDR therapy for developmental age and needs
- Create a safe and supportive relationship with the individual prior to engaging in trauma processing and EMDR therapy.
Organized, affirming, and responsible EMDR therapy for autism can help you work toward sustainable and lasting healing. Be sure to find a neurodiversity-affirming therapist to help promote a healing space that celebrates the unique qualities that make you who you are. Take time to interview and meet with several compassionate and qualified professionals to make sure it feels like a good fit for you or your loved ones. Healing is possible and you deserve the safe space to move forward and get unstuck from past traumas. Please read more about individual therapy and reach out for a consultation soon.