During the last twenty years, awareness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has grown by leaps and bounds. Through a variety of means, society is now familiar with the language associated with trauma and the need for treatment.
As time goes on, we are also gaining a deeper understanding of the impact that abuse, neglect, bullying, and other ongoing forms of mistreatment have on victims. The mental and emotional fallout of which can result in more complex forms of trauma.
Still, most mainstream understanding of trauma is gleaned from neurotypical experiences. It is crucial for autistics and their families to be a part of the discussion on trauma. Autistics are more at risk for complex trauma than most people realize.
To gain a clearer perspective, it’s important to define complex trauma first:
What is Complex Trauma?
Simply put, complex trauma usually occurs in interpersonal situations. It involves multiple events or prolonged, traumatic experiences. Quite often, this occurs during childhood, thereby compromising development. For autistics without support, the vulnerability inherent to neurotypical childhood can last throughout their life due to autistic communication and social challenges.
Specific Symptoms of Complex Trauma
Generally, people struggling with trauma cope with the recognized list of PTSD symptoms:
- Re-experiencing trauma: flashbacks, nightmares, etc.
- Avoidance and numbing behavior: Dissociation, substance abuse, etc.
- Hyper-arousal: disrupted sleep, irritability, intense awareness regarding perceived threats
However, complex trauma also adds these other challenges too
- Negative Self-perception: an overall negative view of themselves. Sufferers often see themselves as different and damaged. They may believe that they are alone in the experience and deal with a level of shame about it.
- Interpersonal problems: difficulty maintaining healthy relationships. People with complex trauma often have distorted perceptions of people, even their victimizers. On one hand, they may want revenge. On the other, they might make excuses for them. Victims have serious difficulty creating, recognizing, and maintaining healthy relationships.
- Affect Dysregulation: difficulty regulating/tolerating negative emotional states. Detachment can be extreme in complex trauma. Sufferers may forget portions of the experience (dissociation) and identity confusion. Resilience and the ability to cope are compromised. Chronic depersonalization (feeling unreal) and/or derealization (feeling like the world is unreal) are common.
What Might Cause Complex Trauma for Autistics Specifically?
For the most part, the aforementioned trauma symptoms are explored and shared from a neurotypical point of view. This complicates the recognition and treatment of complex trauma for autistics. Autistics are always attempting to adapt and navigate life by terms set by and for neurotypical individuals. Thus, lack of awareness surrounding neurodivergent differences continually contributes to complex trauma among autistics in the following ways:
- Perpetual social exclusion and ridicule occur due to a lack of acceptance and understanding.
- Social support and relational buffers that might act as protection from bullying or intimidation are often non-existent.
- Repeated retaliation or targeting in response to their own difficulty regulating emotion and reactivity often occurs.
- Figurative masking of their autistic traits ultimately leads to stress-inducing inauthenticity and poor self-identity.
- Miscommunication and misunderstanding due to verbal delays or comprehension can lead to ongoing abuse or rejection.
- Other mood and behavioral issues often coexist and exacerbate trauma responses and isolation.
- Unqualified therapists or therapy for neurodivergent participants is discouraging.
Unfortunately, without proper awareness and support, many autistics find that their natural way of interacting with the world is fraught with negative interaction. Those interactions are exhausting, frustrating, and demoralizing. All told, the resulting stress deeply impacts the minds and relationships of autistics who already struggle to connect meaningfully.
So What Should Autistics Do?
Treatment for autistics with complex trauma is crucial. Not because your autism is a disorder. There is nothing wrong with you or the way you experience the world. It is vital to reduce the strain of neurotypical standards on your mental health. You deserve to feel good about yourself and live as freely and happily as possible.
Counseling and trauma treatment help most when your chosen therapist is committed to honoring the characteristics that make you unique. Then, developing ways to regulate powerful emotions, nurture healthy relationships, and address self-esteem issues is much more productive. As those things occur, complex trauma recedes.
Are you ready for relief? I am a therapist with the skills and qualifications to support you. Please read more about Autism Therapy and consider seeking support in an encouraging environment, I’m here to help. Contact me soon for a consultation.