In a perfect world, no one would have to experience traumatic situations. However, they’re more common than we’d like to admit. Traumatic experiences can include everything from child or domestic abuse, to emotional abuse, witnessing a tragic event, or anything that essentially is too much, too fast, or too soon for our nervous system to process safely.
Trauma impacts everyone differently and can have long-term adverse effects. For someone with autism, however, those effects can be even greater.
Understanding how trauma affects someone with autism is important for the healing and treatment process. If you know someone on the spectrum who has experienced trauma — at any stage of life — let this be your first step to better understand how you can help and support them.
A Greater Risk of Trauma
Trauma doesn’t discriminate. It can impact anyone. However, autistic individuals tend to be at a greater risk of experiencing trauma as both adults and children. Research has shown that a significant portion of that risk comes from things like bullying or problems with school or work.
However, these events don’t automatically lead to conditions like PTSD. Rather, it puts people with autism at a greater risk of developing other mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression.
Some people with autism may be at a greater risk of experiencing trauma because of their sensory processing systems. It’s not uncommon for people on the spectrum to experience sensory overload, and when experiences seem threatening or overwhelming, they can also be traumatic.
The Effects of Trauma
The impact of trauma on someone with autism is often long-lasting and overwhelming. Some people on the spectrum might try to mask their autism or hide who they are in an effort to “fit in.” This is often a coping mechanism after they’ve experienced the effects of bullying or name-calling. It’s a defense mechanism. Unfortunately, it can lead to even more anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
Trauma, in general, can also cause people to experience shame and guilt. That’s often even worse for someone with autism. They might struggle with the event, wondering what they did wrong or what they could have done differently. They might become hyper-focused on it, making it difficult to think about anything else.
As you might expect, that puts the traumatic experience at the center of their lives. It creates a never-ending cycle that causes them to relive the experience over and over in their minds while feeling shame and guilt for it all at once.
Finding Peace and Healing
Everyone deals with trauma in different ways, and people with autism are no different. However, because of the risk of masking, it’s not always easy to determine if someone with autism has been through trauma because they might try to hide it.
If you know someone close to you with autism has been through a traumatic experience, let them know you’re there. It’s not always easy for someone on the spectrum to open up, especially when they have a history of trauma. But providing your comfort and support can go a long way.
More importantly, encourage that person to seek the help of a therapist. Autism therapy for trauma can help individuals with autism find healthy ways to cope with what they’ve experienced. Therapy can help them let go of guilt and shame and find better outlets for expressing themselves rather than trying to mask who they are. Therapy can also help someone with autism learn useful skills for moving forward and overcoming the effects of trauma.
No one should have to live with the lasting impact of trauma forever. You might not fully understand what your loved one with autism is thinking or experiencing. But you can encourage them to get the help they deserve. To learn more about our approach to autism spectrum trauma therapy, please reach out for a free 20-minute phone consultation. We look forward to connecting with you soon.