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An in-depth look into how people with autism experience trauma

by Bushraa Khatib

Posted on December 15, 2016
Trauma warriors film screening

A young girl is sexually abused, but lacks the language skills to explain what is happening to her until years of abuse have elapsed. A woman puzzles over the unexplained severance of a previously strong friendship, wondering if she is to blame for the end of the relationship.

These are a few of the stories told by adults with autism—a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges—who have also experienced trauma in their lives, featured in the Autistic Global Initiative’s documentary Trauma Warriors. The film and a newly produced sequel were screened most recently on Drexel University’s campus in October, in an effort to spark discussion and awareness of the issue of trauma and autism.

Adults with autism who work in the disability and advocacy fields were inspired to create the documentary. “Many people with autism experience different types of trauma in their lives, whether it’s based on social exclusion as a child, bullying, or being misunderstood or treated poorly,” said Valerie Paradiz, PhD, the film’s producer. “Many of us need help surviving from trauma experiences and we’re not getting that help.” Paradiz is an individual with autism and also the parent of an adult son on the autism spectrum.

To date, little research has looked in depth at the experience of trauma in people with autism. Research has shown that people with autism have a higher risk of adverse childhood experiences, such as financial hardship, mental illness or substance abuse in their families or parent separation or divorce. Such events have been consistently linked to immediate and lasting health disparities, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

There are also many reasons to believe that individuals with autism are more likely to experience and struggle to recover from traumas. According to a 2015 review article published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, studies have found that youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities are more likely to be maltreated than their peers. Social isolation, family stress, and poor communication skills – all of which are prevalent in children with autism – increase the risk of maltreatment

The lack of awareness and understanding of autism within the community and increased social isolation of individuals with autism can also put them at additional risk for victimization. Connor Kerns, assistant research professor in psychology at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, is concerned about the dearth of research on this tough but important topic.

When a person with autism experiences trauma, the symptoms can look quite different from others experiencing trauma. Current research on what PTSD looks like in people with autism is scant, for example. “Most studies don’t look at PTSD and autism – the ones that do report a very low rate of PTSD prevalence in the autistic population,” Kerns said. “We don’t have a very good way of understanding what symptoms of trauma are in people with autism.”

Phoebe Murer, an adult with autism who attended the movie screening, said that she has seen many people with autism change and have nervous breakdowns due to trauma from various issues including domestic and sexual abuse to family abuse, to being forced to go to military school or institutions, to not finding a job, to bullying.

“While many people deal with dangerous situations, people need to understand that when one is facing chronic issues with the system and does not know what to expect, it can be just as damaging and can snowball into more serious issues,” she said. Murer said she appreciated that the panel discussion after the film – featuring Kerns, Paradiz, Dr. Paul Shattuck, and adult with autism Robert Schmus – did not blame autism for the issues faced by this group. 

Paradiz says autism and trauma is a timely issue because there is a movement on trauma-informed care in different sectors. “It’s not just that we have a bunch of behaviors that require some kind of therapy. We may be trying to communicate that something bad happened to us,” she said.

Kerns is launching a new study to get at the heart of the issue. She aims to find out more about what kind of life events individuals with autism consider traumatic and how this group expresses symptoms of trauma. Kerns will speak directly to adults with autism, their families, and expert providers to get perspectives she hopes will help these individuals better understand and cope with trauma in their lives.

The woman who was assaulted as a child in Trauma Warriors ends the stark documentary with a ray of hope, explaining that her goals in sharing her story are ultimately to do what she can to help improve the lives of young women. Her story sparked a number of conversations during the movie screening. Whether the film will galvanize people into sharing their experiences through research studies like Kerns’ new study on autism and trauma remains to be seen.

Posted in Health and Mental Health