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Are Autistic People More Sensitive To Trauma, Or Less?

Are autistic people predisposed to trauma?

It’s been almost two months now, since Ariane Zurcher’s post, Trauma & Autism, and I still find myself thinking about it. In my last post, I talked about some of the examples of trauma she provided, and how similar dynamics in my own life undermined self-advocacy later in life. In this post, I’d like to talk a bit about the broader of the topic of her post – the differences in the way that autistic people process traumatic events.

Ariane Zurcher

Ariane’s post focused on the ways in which people with autism can be more easily triggered into trauma than someone who is not autistic. She asks: “What happens to a person who experiences the world more intensely than the majority of people, particularly when confronted with frightening situations, anger, loud noises, etc.?” I think this is a very good question, and a perspective that is rarely explored. But, I don’t think it’s the whole story.

Can our sensitivity to certain stimuli make us more prone to trauma? In my case, I can say it’s unequivocally true. However, I’ve also found the opposite to be true. So, what does that mean? Are autistic people more sensitive to trauma or less so?

Looking back at my life, I can’t say that I could answer either question in the affirmative. Things that would traumatize many, I’ve been able to take in stride. Things that many would find no big deal have left lasting scars. And, when I have experienced trauma, it’s manifested itself in unexpected ways.

When I try to dissect how these dynamics have played out in my life, what I come up with is very, very complex. It's very true that my sensory sensitivities and other autistic traits have led to trauma, but other traits have sometimes insulated me from it. In my last post I talked about Dr. Uta Frith’s three different subtypes in social interaction in autism: “aloof,” “passive,” and “active but odd.”

I have fit into each one of these archetypes at different times, but the “passive” archetype sticks out the most for me in my mind. As I mentioned in my last post, my tendency to fit into this particular archetype has sometimes caused me issues. But it also bred in me an odd kind of pragmatism.

Since it didn't really occur to me that I could have an opinion about events in my life, or influence those events, I became less focused on resisting them then on adapting to those events. When something changed in my life, I’d think: “Okay, so this is what my life is now. Now what?" Then I’d move forward.

This was a useful trait in my early life because change was a near constant thing. My parents split up when I was three years old — I really have no memory of the time that they were together. After their breakup, my life became pretty complicated. My parents were two very different people, with very different priorities in life.

My father valued solitude and love to commune with nature. He'd watch, with envy, TV shows like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, and speak with longing about the perfect world where he might be a mountain man living alone in the forest with only a handful of trusted friends nearby. When he reminisced about his life, he would often cite as his most cherished memory the period his life when he what was a “beach bum” in Santa Cruz, wandering the boardwalks and sleeping in solitude under the stars.

My mother, on the other hand, valued security. Difficult experience had taught her how vulnerable a woman can be without a safe place to stay – and a safe place to stay required monetary resources. As a man, my father could sleep out under the stars and hope to remain unmolested, while a woman could find herself facing disaster for far less. These differences lead to conflict and, well, after their breakup led to an oddly fragmented upbringing for me.

She took advantage of her own abilities and logic and math to obtain a well-paying job in the burgeoning tech industry, and set down roots in a small town home in a relatively affluent area with good schools. Her income and income of my stepfather was enough to ensure comfort, but we were certainly not the most affluent in our community.

My father stayed on in the rented house that we had shared as a family, until we were evicted when I was in kindergarten. Unable to find a place to stay in the short term, my father moved onto a friend's boat kept in a nearby marina. After that, we shared an apartment with a woman and her two children – my father slept in a small room off the kitchen, and I shared a bedroom with both children. Until I was 10 pretty much every place my father lived was with a roommate of some kind, many for only a short time.

My parents shared custody, so every two weeks or so my lifestyle was completely altered. Both lifestyles had their pros and cons. Life with my father was an adventure. He kept regular hours at work, and extracurricular activities to a minimum. When my father was off work we were spending time together –he could make a fun evening with a bag of balloons and a stack of old McDonald's food containers. But it could also be chaotic, and easily overwhelming (therefore meltdown-inducing).

Life with my mother was mixed…she had a high stress job that took a lot of her time and energy, leaving little time for us to connect. The stress of her and my stepfather's jobs drove them both to self-medicate in ways that weren't helpful. But there was order, and routine. I knew where I would be on any given hour on any given day, and I was given plenty of quiet time, so my sensitivities were less of an issue (but loneliness and isolation could be).

Sunset over water

At various times in my life when I have counted this period of my life to neurotypical people, the responses typically confused me. “Awww…” They would say. “That's so sad!” Yet when I think about these times in my life, I have so many memories that I cherish. I remember, for example, the sheer peace of standing alone in the stern of the boat watching the sunset sparkle off the water, making friends with the marina ducks, watching their babies slowly grow up. The joy in that memory outstrips, for me, the discomforts of that time, like showering and brushing my teeth in a public bathroom.

Can I say that this period in my life was pain free? Absolutely not. I still bear the scars of the prejudice my family encountered in the school system – where teachers and officials took my obsessiveness, compulsions, and difficulties with social boundaries and rules, matched them up with my father's devotion to me and small social circle, and attempted to make something sinister out of it.

But really, I was more traumatized when I left this lifestyle. After a brief reconciliation, my parents called it quits for good and my father decided he could no longer afford to continue living where we were. They fought over where I would live – until my mother pulled me aside one day to ask me what I wanted. It was the first time, I realized that I could have an opinion.

I said I wanted to go with my dad. I saw it as an adventure. I loved my father and didn't want to be separated from him. So they worked out a new joint custody arrangement, by which I would live part of the year with each of them. That summer, my father and I loaded up as was much of our belongings as we could fit in his car, and drove cross country to the house where he grew up. It was a culture shock, and I didn't adjust well. The bullying didn’t help.

My first reaction was to beg my father to go back “home.” Given our lifestyle, that might confuse some. The word “home,” for many, conjures up a picture of a building where they have spent many years, which houses many memories. We didn't have that. For me, the concept of “home” wasn't quite that simple. It was a feeling — a community of people that I cared about and loved whom I longer saw. It was a familiar school and people who accepted me — and whom I missed it more than they could know.

Moving boxes

But eventually I realized that this was my new life, and it wasn't going to change. Then the focus of my trauma changed. “Where's our stuff?” I would ask my father, over and over. Because we moved by car, most of our material possessions had been left behind with someone my father thought was trustworthy, to be sent at a later date.

Had I had a diagnosis back then, this response to the move would likely have been seen as fulfillment of a stereotype. “See,” they'd say, “She says she wants to go home, but she doesn't ask about her friends, or her caretakers, or her mother, or her brother. She talks about things. Her ‘stuff.’ Clearly she likes things more than she likes people.”

They would be wrong.

I was a concrete kind of kid. I was a visual thinker who had learned to separate the pictures in my head into two separate categories: the real and the unreal. What differentiated the two was that real memories could be confirmed by things you could confirm via the senses. Things you could hold, touch, see, feel. Things that couldn't be confirmed in such a fashion were unreal: dreams and imaginations.

I needed the stuff because I loved the people. Recognizing finally that moving back wasn't an option, I deeply longed to reconnect with my memories of the people I missed so deeply. Without my familiar things around me, I struggled deeply with that. Without things that I could see and touch confirm to me that my memories are real, I began to be afraid that they weren't.

I worried that everyone I'd ever loved, every memory that I cherished, was somehow something I just made up. And that was in some ways, worse than a death. It was a loss I mourned for years, because it turned out that the person who’d been trusted with our stuff, wasn’t so trustworthy. They never sent it. Years later my father finally drove back and took what remained. By then much of the significant memories attached were gone.

Given my experience, I can't say that I'm more sensitive to trauma or less so. Many people I know expect that a rootless existence should in and of itself should be traumatic, yet I didn't find it that way. The same people would've found it confusing that I would find losing my stuff more traumatic than moving thousands of miles away from my mother. Yet it was.

The more accurate truth for me when it comes to trauma, is that it can't be summed up as being more sensitive or less sensitive. As with many things, it's just simply different.

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Pico Iyer at TED – Where is Home?

“For more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.”

Judy Endow at — Using Visuals to Maintain a Connection

As for myself, I need a visual in order to think about a person or to pull up a conversation I had with a person. When I was a child I would sneak something of mom’s to take with me to school such as a discarded Doublemint gum wrapper. If I didn’t have some sort of visual reminder of mom with me it caused me to feel as if she did not exist – like she had died. When this happened it was hard to concentrate and figure out what my teachers wanted me to do.

Mark Epstein at the New York Times
Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death (and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.

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