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Emotional Trauma and Autism: The Stockholm Syndrome Dilemma

In hindsight, I suppose that the other kids in middle school were looking forward to the last bell of the day, but I absolutely dreaded it. It wasn't just the shrill and inescapable sound that made me nauseous. I watched the clock tick the seconds away and worried about walking through crowded halls.

I could handle other students one-on-one but as a collective swarm of bodies, other children morphed into a noisy inhuman amalgam of pushing, moving parts that seemed oblivious to their individual effects on the whole and me in particular.

And once I had made it through the halls would I find my bus in time or would it leave without me? As much as I wanted to catch that bus, I disliked it intensely with all of its fumes and noises that added to my mounting disorientation. Like so many other seemingly harmless objects, I had developed a strange reliance and emotional attachment to the very thing that caused me pain.

Trauma is largely misunderstood and ignored in folks on the spectrum. For those who are non-verbal, medications and behavior management plans are usually used to control visibly unwanted symptoms of trauma adding another layer of complexity to unaddressed pain. When trauma IS given the attention it deserves, therapists often rely on some form of talk therapy and cognitive insight to address it. Since trauma largely registers in the "lower" reflexive part of the brain, therapies need to also address the instinctual or automatic responses created by these experiences.

If we are to create an environment where autistic people can flourish, it is vital to understand how insidiously trauma affects us.

So What is Emotional Trauma Anyway

& Why is it so Important?

“Emotional Trauma is an individual's interpretation of an event or condition that is perceived as threatening and interferes with a person's ability to cope effectively.”

In other words, trauma is a subjective experience. While life threatening and violent incidents like rape or war can and do traumatize people, events that are typically perceived as benign or even enjoyable can also have a traumatic effect on some people.

This is the key. Autistic people often interpret everyday circumstances as traumatic. For example, common sensory stimuli that are painful or overwhelming, changes in routine and new experiences can all result in an autistic person feeling helpless and as if their safety is compromised. It is not safe to assume that someone on the spectrum has not experienced trauma based on what is aversive or pleasurable to other people. Trauma is highly individual.

Repeated over time, this state of traumatization becomes a person's baseline and this is where it gets very messy for autistic folks. Relationships and experiences that should be nurturing and positive take on a painful edge.

The child:

  • who longs for affection but is hypersensitive to physical touch, rendering hugs emotionally desirable yet physically unbearable

  • whose hunger pangs are tempered by the disgusting smell and texture of the meal they are offered

  • who feels the seams and tags in clothes meant to provide warmth as abrasive

This realization brings new significance to my own childhood struggles with tags and seams, loud noises and fluorescent lights. Individuals who feel constantly unsafe or anxious as a result of the very interactions and objects that are meant to comfort, protect or sooth are especially at risk for abuse and exploitation. After all, if the internal compass which is meant to guide decision making away from the aversive is skewed to include an element of pain along with comfort or relief then so is our judgement about how other people should and shouldn't treat us. Entering abusive and dysfunctional relationships as an adult was just a continuation of the pervasive discomfort I felt as a child. It was all I knew.

When this cycle is not broken, it shows up in autistic adults in the following ways:

The person:

  • with a back injury who touches their toes in spite of the pain because the doctor told them to

  • who engages in painful sexual activities because they don't realize that sex should not be painful

  • who works 60 hours/week and gets paid for 35 until they burnout because they want to please the boss

  • who repeatedly lends money to someone online who does not reciprocate the friendship

  • who stays in an abusive marriage

The implications of trauma for individuals on the spectrum are huge. We need to be thinking big picture and long-term about how and what we teach our autistic children. We certainly can get them to behave in a socially acceptable manner if we focus on teaching societal rules. We can train them to fit in and look "normal". But at what cost? If we do not address the trauma's associated with their everyday experiences and reset the baseline so that it does not include pain before we focus on socializing, then the very process of teaching our children is destined to contribute to their trauma.

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