How Trauma and Autism Can Be a Confusing Mix to Decipher
I often hear autistics remark about themselves, “I don’t know if that’s my trauma response or my autism.”
I get it. Trauma responses and autistic characteristics are often very similar.
I used to think that my traumatic experience was why I was so different from everyone else. When I was 15, I was sexually assaulted. What happened was a confusing, complex, and layered experience of trauma and depravity.
As a 37 year old therapist now, I can fully see why it was too much for my naive 15 year old self to comprehend.
What happened to me left me a different person. What ensued was self-destruction. Other people my age couldn’t help me tease out the complex feelings I was experiencing. At that age, everything felt jumbled into one mess.
Messy as it was, I thought what happened was the key to everything. I shared what happened with anyone I got close too. I wanted someone to validate my pain. I wanted to be seen as the victim. I wanted someone to pity me and take care of me. I wanted someone to help me make sense of it all.
But it didn’t work like that. I could not get from others what I really needed to give myself. But at that young age, coming from the highly religious upbringing I had, I did not have the skills or understanding to provide myself what I needed.
To add to it, I didn’t know I was autistic then. I couldn’t see how that factored in to how I was in the world, what led up to the trauma, and my response to it. Sexual trauma alone is difficult enough, let alone the added layer of autism.
I thought all of my difficulties after the event were solely due to trauma. They weren’t. It was trauma compounded with autism. I thought by pointing to my trauma more and more it would make all of my other “oddities” make sense. Like why I struggled to socialize. Or why I liked being alone. Or why I had different interests than others and walked, talked, and acted differently.
It was confusing and overwhelming as a teenager. Add to that my highly religious parents with constricting religious beliefs. I carried a lot of shame for what happened. How I acted. How I didn’t act. What I said. What I didn’t say. What I felt. What I didn’t’ feel. I was filled with a lot of “shoulds.” I should have done this or that. I should have said this or that. I should have thought this or that.
It’s no wonder I became self destructive. I couldn’t makse sense of a life impacted by sexual violence, an unhealthy religious upbringing, and being autistic.
My 20’s was largely a haze of trying to navigate it all. I often coped or acted in unhealthy ways, which frequently led to more trauma. Not to mention struggling through young adulthood as an unknown autistic. This was further compounded by my mother fighting terminal cancer for 6 years. I was doing the best I could. My mom dying was the final straw and I entered a deep depression.
That darkness was the impetus I needed. It was bad enough that I stopped forcing myself through life. I let myself sit in a dark hole. I let myself see how miserable I was. And for once, I turned to something besides religion or relationships to heal me. I went to a psychiatrist. I took antidepressants with weekly therapy. I began journaling daily. Many other aspects in my life synchronistically worked together for my healing. My depression and anxiety decreased. I was able to come out of a fog.
After five years of therapy for trauma though, I didn’t get why there were still such oddities about me. Or things I struggled with that were clearly not tied to the trauma. Like my different preferences, sensitivities, or ways of being. If they weren’t caused by trauma or my odd upbringing, why was I so different from others?
It was at this point in my life that I started therapy with an art therapist. I was a newly trained art therapist and I wanted to experience therapy with someone in my modality. My art therapist suggested I might be autistic. This is when it finally all made sense. When I finally made sense. When my thoughts, my feelings, my responses, my behaviors, and more finally made sense.
It began a period of re-seeing. Re-narrating. It was refreshing and energizing.
Some people say they wish they found out sooner they were autistic. But for me, I don’t see how that could have happened. I needed to unravel the different layers to be able to see clearly.
I no longer talk about my experiences with sexual violence and trauma with the same candor. I no longer feel like they hold the key to understanding why I’m so different.
I see how they impacted me. I see how they are key to my story, but they do not explain me. They do not help my life make sense the way that my understanding of autism does. My trauma did not form my neurotype - my autism did. Autism is the thread that I can see throughout my childhood and into my present.
When I want someone to know me now, I talk about who I am, what I do, what I am passionate about, and being autistic. This is what helps me connect and have people know me. I’m grateful I no longer think trauma is the key.
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