Autism and trauma

The overlap of autism and trauma is essential to understand for a great neurodiversity-affirming therapist. Why? Autistic folks are more likely than neurotypicals to experience traumatic events. Even more alarming, their trauma is often unseen, undiagnosed, and untreated.

The 3 Es

Trauma is defined by 3 Es: the event, the experience of the event, and the long-lasting adverse effects of the event. Trauma can also be experiences that did not happen, such as basic needs and nurturing not being met by a parents. The effects of an event (or non-event) can be different from person to person, even with the exact same event. This is because each person has a unique experience of the event, as well as unique background, genetics, and personality.

In therapy, autism and trauma are linked. Individuals with autism are often subject to traumatic events in a variety of ways – mental, physical, emotional, and sexual. For most, they are more likely to experience adverse effects of public school. The constant discomfort and sensory overwhelm of daily life in a neurotypical world can also be traumatic. For these and other reasons, we see rising rates of PTSD and cPTSD.

AuDHD (has ADHD + autism) psychologist Dr. Megan Neff says, “⁠⁠When a person’s Autistic identity is combined with other marginalized identities, the risks, stress, and strain of the above factors increase.”

Autism and trauma therapy

Research often focuses on autism and CBT, but autistic adults write about the neutral or negative effects of CBT with autism and trauma. DBT is often used for skill building and emotion recognition, but some folks argue it doesn’t address the longlasting effects of trauma. So what should you look for in a therapist?

Whatever format the therapist uses (and there are many), your therapist must be trauma informed. EMDR can be a good option, but other types of therapy can also be appropriate if the therapist understands the unique causes and effects of trauma on an autistic person.

How to find a therapist

If you are autistic and looking for a therapist, chances are good that you need one who understands the overlap between autism and trauma. Outside of the Triangle, use Psychology Today and search for “autism” and “trauma and PTSD” under Issues. If you’re local to the Triangle, please reach out for a free consultation. I would be honored to work with you or to help you find a therapist who is a good fit for you!

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