So much of what gets pathologised in neurodivergent people is just the dents and scrapes and rusty bits that come from being neurodivergent in a world built for NT’s, or even just from being human in a world that is at least as rough on humans as it is on well-used wagons.
If you blame the wagon for the dents, if you have professionals giving lectures on the distressing tendency of wagons to develop dents, if you start staging interventions on every shiny Radio Flyer you can identify to stop them developing dents while you are still dropping them off the roof and running programs to get dented wagons to polish themselves up, you know what happens? You completely miss what you are seeing. (But you build a certain number of exciting careers.)
— Read on montgomerycal.wordpress.com/2019/12/29/little-red-wagons/amp/
What happens to a community of people who have been raised with sensation of constant, looming danger, of being fundamentally wrong in the way we love and express ourselves? What impact might that collective trauma have upon our bodies and spirits?
Scholars of the brain are fond of saying “what fires together, wires together,” which refers to the brain’s tendency to form neural networks (pathways in the brain that form certain thought, feeling and behavioural responses) that become stronger and stronger every time they are used. Trauma theory holds that traumatized inviduals — and, I would hypothesis, queer and trans community as a whole — have well-worn neural networks shaped around the deeply held physical sensation that we are constantly in danger, that we are bad and unloveable, that others are untrustworthy and violent. Every time we are abused, discriminated against or neglected, those neural networks become stronger, while our neural networks associated with safety and loving relationships atrophy. We become physically less capable of imagining a world where being with others is not synonymous with being unsafe.
In speaking with participants about causes of trauma, she has heard “everything from sexual abuse, emotional abuse and horrendous bullying, to much broader concepts, like what it’s like to go around your whole life in a world where you have 50 percent less input than everyone else because you have social deficits. Or feeling constantly overwhelmed by sensory experience — feeling marginalized in our society because you’re somebody with differences.” In other words, she says, “the experience of having autism and the trauma associated with that.”
Autism is regarded by many autistic people as a neurodivergence, or indeed a minority people, not a fault. Although adding that of course some have multiple conditions and require a lot of support, and that proper support that values and respects all autistic people and their families fully is much needed.
This is a quick list of some of the research that I value:
Because last month was #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth and this month is #PTSDAwarenessMonth, let’s talk about classic PTSD, and another related mental illness, which is c-PTSD, or complex PTSD. A thread.
“If you do the math, according to the PTSD criteria in the DSM-5, you can have 636,000 different combinations of symptoms that that describe PTSD,” says Danny Horesh, head of the Trauma and Stress Research Lab at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. Given all the traits in people with autism that may overlay these permutations, “you have a lot of reason to think that their version of PTSD might be very different,” he says.
Abuse, sexual assault, violence, natural disasters and wartime combat are all common causes of PTSD in the general population. Among autistic people, though, less extreme experiences — fire alarms, paperwork, the loss of a family pet, even a stranger’s offhand comment — can also be destabilizing. They can also be traumatized by others’ behavior toward them.
“We know from the literature that individuals with autism are much more exposed to bullying, ostracizing, teasing, etc.,” Golan says. “And when you look in the clinic, you can see that they’re very sensitive to these kinds of events.” Among autistic students, Golan and Horesh have found, social incidents, such as ostracizing, predict PTSD more strongly than violent ones, such as war, terror or abuse, which are not uncommon in Israel. Among typical students, though, the researchers see the opposite tendency.
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD, sometimes abbreviated to c-PTSD or CPTSD) is a condition where you experience some symptoms of PTSD along with some additional symptoms, such as:
• difficulty controlling your emotions
• feeling very hostile or distrustful towards the world
• constant feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
• feeling as if you are permanently damaged or worthless
• feeling as if you are completely different to other people
• feeling like nobody can understand what happened to you
• avoiding friendships and relationships, or finding them very difficult
• often experiencing dissociative symptoms such as depersonalisation or derealisation
• regular suicidal feelings.
I began to question myself the potential link between anxiety, school refusals and the avoidance of any perceived demand linked to trauma experienced within the formative years such as in communities, educational provisions, developmental trauma even trauma linked to having sensory processing disorder which potentially keeps a children in a constant state of fight and flight.
Cumulative adversities faced by many persons, communities, ethno-cultural, religious, political, and sexual minority groups, and societies around the globe can also constitute forms of complex trauma. Some occur over the life course beginning in childhood and have some of the same developmental impacts described above. Others, occurring later in life, are often traumatic or potentially traumatic and can worsen the impact of early life complex trauma and cause the development of complex traumatic stress reactions. These adversities can include but are not limited to:Understanding Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions, and Treatment Approaches
◦ Poverty and ongoing economic challenge and lack of essentials or other resources
◦ Community violence and the inability to escape/re-locate
◦ Disenfranchised ethno-racial, religious, and/or sexual minority status and repercussions
◦ Incarceration and residential placement and ongoing threat and assault
◦ Ongoing sexual and physical re-victimization and re-traumatization in the family or other contexts, including prostitution and sexual slavery
◦ Human rights violations including political repression, genocide/”ethnic cleansing,” and torture
◦ Displacement, refugee status, and relocation
◦ War and combat involvement or exposure
◦ Developmental, intellectual, physical health, mental health/psychiatric, and age-related limitations, impairments, and challenges
◦ Exposure to death, dying, and the grotesque in emergency response
Then I step back and realize this belief is based on the fundamental attribution error: Blaming myself for something that is situational! We cannot live in full integrity in a culture that makes that impossible! The ultimate cultural trauma might just be that we are taught that we can, perpetually causing cognitive dissonance in us (belief 1: Reality is a certain way; belief 2: I have the power to change that reality)! The cultural norm of individualism is wounding us because we cannot find individual solutions to systemic problems and thus are always out of integrity, which can be painful for many of us.Musings on Cognitive Dissonance and Integrity
Understanding that our bodies remain on high alert after a trauma, the post-traumatic experience looks exactly the way we’d expect: agitation and irritability, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, nightmares, uncontrollable flashbacks to the event.
To speak more scientifically about these experiences:
• The prefrontal lobe changes, impacting our capacity for language. If you find yourself having extra difficulty finding the words to describe your trauma, this may be why.
• Have you felt overly emotional? Have your emotional responses surprised you, or seemed out of character? The amygdala steps into overdrive, making it virtually impossible for us to regulate our emotions.
• Have you been misplacing your keys or forgetting appointments? Sometimes we experience shifts in memory, likely due to the actual shrinking of the hippocampus.
• Have you felt more jumpy than usual? Are you more easily startled? The medial prefrontal cortex, which controls our responses to fear, changes also.The Power of Love When Healing from Trauma
As the quest for perfection fails over and over, and as sustaining attachment remains elusive, imperfection becomes synonymous with shame and fear. Perceived imperfection triggers fear of abandonment, which triggers self-hate for imperfection, which expands abandonment into self-abandonment, which amps fear up even further, which in turn intensifies self-disgust…on and on it goes in a downward spiral of fear and shame encrusted abandonment. It can go on for hours and days…weeks in environmentally exacerbating conditions…and for those with severe PTSD, can become their standard mode of being.
Looping/ Over-Futurizing I will not repetitively examine details over and over. I will not jump to negative conclusions. I will not endlessly second-guess myself. I cannot change the past. I forgive all my past mistakes. I cannot make the future perfectly safe. I will stop hunting for what could go wrong. I will not try to control the uncontrollable. I will not micromanage myself or others. I work in a way that is “good enough”, and I accept the existential fact that my efforts sometimes bring desired results and sometimes they do not. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” – The Serenity PrayerShrinking the Inner Critic in Complex PTSD
A wealth of links to further info on trauma and C-PTSD.5 Ways to Lovingly Support Someone With C-PTSD
Put another way: prolonged helplessness and harm, with a dysfunctional reaction to that state, is the recipe for complex trauma.AM I ‘TRAUMATIZED ENOUGH’ FOR A COMPLEX PTSD DIAGNOSIS?
Our autistic children are doing their best to survive in schools. We need to move beyond the old mantras and myths around reasons-for-behaviour, and into a present and future where we understand deeply and work collaboratively. Then, we have better experiences and outcomes for everyone.Behaviour Analysis, The Autistic Way