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Autism and Northern Ireland

There are high rates of autism in Northern Ireland. Could trauma explain why?

Photo by Louise Taylor
Source: Photo by Louise Taylor

Northern Ireland has often been recognized globally for being a war-torn and deeply troubled country. In 2011, it was reported that Northern Ireland had the highest rates of PTSD in the world. In more recent years there has been a huge rise in the number of young people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In this article, I will put forward the idea that the link between transgenerational trauma transmission and rates of neurodivergence or autism may be worthy of exploration.

Trauma is a normal and healthy response to a stressful and perceived threat to life and wellbeing. For the population of Northern Ireland, the threat to life and health was persistent, pervasive, and constant for three decades. The term "The Troubles" hardly seems adequate when we consider what it is referring to. When I think of being troubled, I think of being worried, discomforted, or inconvenienced. This does not adequately define a period that involved thousands of deaths, and which was characterized by bombs, murders, torture, and terrorism in a tiny, six-county country. To refer to this period as troubling would seem to minimize the horrific toll it had on the population, mentally, physically, and emotionally. Terror is not troubling, it is traumatic, horrific, debilitating and the effects are long-lasting. We are still feeling the effects today.

We are now twenty-plus years on from The Good Friday Agreement, which has been widely credited with bringing an end to terrorism and the conflict, but the country is still deeply divided along religious and political lines and the mental and emotional health of the general population is poor. Northern Ireland has tragically high rates of suicide and also reportedly has one of the highest rates of anti-depressant medication usage in the world. As mentioned earlier, the rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have been documented as being the highest in the world, too.

What is interesting to me as a researcher, a counselor, and a late-diagnosed autistic adult who was brought up in Northern Ireland, is the prevalence of autism diagnoses within the younger generations. This suggests to me that the legacy and the trauma of the troubles may be impacting the neurological and mental development of the younger generations. Large numbers of these parents would have been born and grown up in a time of extreme violence and uncertainty. The impact of this trauma and stress may be influencing the high rates of neurodiversity we are now seeing amongst many of their children and their peers.

There is a wonderful quote by Krishnamurti, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” This was written to me by a very kind and supportive person after I told them about my diagnosis in November 2020. I think that Northern Ireland is a sick society, particularly when we consider what we have endured as a population, the ongoing dysfunction within our political landscape, and the continuation of educational segregation along religious lines. It would be odd not to be impacted by such extreme violence and conflict and societal and cultural unrest and dysfunction.

Recent figures produced by Autism NI state that 1 in 22 school-aged children in Northern Ireland have an autism diagnosis. In America, those rates are 1 in 59, in England, they are 1 in 57. I would argue that the numbers are even higher than what is being recorded as it is regularly stated that autism is an underdiagnosed condition, particularly in females. My story to a diagnosis is an example of how many professionals missed this condition, particularly as I was deemed to have low support needs or to be high functioning. There are also regular reports in Northern Ireland of huge waiting lists and backlogs on assessments for children and young people.

It would seem that an alarming proportion of us in Northern Ireland have developmental conditions/ disorders and the numbers seem to be growing all the time. When I researched and read about trauma and how it affects development and cognition, it seems to me that there may be links between the rates of neurodivergence within the population and transgenerational trauma transmission and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is well-researched and documented that trauma impedes development and it stands to reason that sustained long-term societal trauma will impact the development of many in the population. It makes sense when we consider the links between trauma and developmental issues within a deeply fragmented society with a precarious peace. At the very least it could be considered to be a contributing factor to our high rates of prevalence of ASD.

I was born in 1978, amid The Troubles, and it would seem logical to me that during my mother’s pregnancy and throughout my early childhood that traumatic external events locally and nationally would impact my development. I believe this could be true for any child or person in any conflict-ridden country, but the research on Northern Ireland and the potential connection between neurological development and trauma is not being considered seriously enough. The link between transgenerational trauma and autism has not been argued to be conclusive, however, it has not been refuted either. I believe that Northern Ireland’s rates of diagnosis, particularly within the school-aged population, are worthy of contemplation and analysis within the context of our history and the long-term societal trauma experienced by the population.

There is no shame in having a developmental impairment or difficulty and there is equally no shame in a country having high levels of neurological conditions and disorders. I believe there is an opportunity for Northern Ireland to lead the way in understanding, advocating, and supporting those who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Now, the responsibility for many of us is to learn more about how it occurs, so that those impacted can live the best lives they can.

I have no issues with being autistic. I enjoy my life, and while this condition makes many things hard, I wouldn't wish to be any other way. But I would wish to know more about this condition and where it came from and for others to understand it better. Education has helped me heal and transform my life to make the most of what I have been given. I think autism in Northern Ireland has a lot to teach us. Our young people need us to learn more about this condition and where it comes from for their future, but maybe our collective past holds some of the answers many of us are searching for.