Autism vs. Trauma
This has been on my mind lately, and maybe others can relate?
I often hear that even experts don't know what a non-traumatized autistic person looks like, and I don't doubt that. Growing up different in the neurotypical world is hard and filled with chances to get hurt in some way. But what I have hardly heard anyone talk about is the flipside – how many of our struggles do we (or our therapists) attribute to negative or traumatic experiences, when really they are just... autism?
Especially in therapy sessions before my ASD diagnosis, I felt my therapist was almost digging for childhood events or “deeper” reasons that may have triggered my issues somehow. And while I am sure some difficult circumstances have exacerbated certain traits, made them more visible or bothersome (to myself or others), in many cases this approach just led me down the wrong path.
I really struggle with chores and keeping my apartment clean. For a long time I thought this was depression, negative self-image, like I was not worth the effort. Not that I am never depressed, but now I see my messy housekeeping as just another instance of executive dysfunction, and I can work on managing that.
I used to think my strong reactions to change and unforeseen circumstances were results of my parents' divorce, of damage caused by moving around and having inconsistent environments. I don't think all these things helped, but at my core, I need consistency and predictability, not primarily as a traumatized child of divorce but as an autistic person.
I exhibit plenty of social anxiety, even signs of agoraphobia at times. I get overwhelmed with navigating through large crowds of people. Restricted range of movement, bright sunlight or strong wind would make me feel like I could not breathe. Was I having panic attacks? I thought so, until I figured out what sensory overload is.
(tw, self harm) I always had a tendency to pick, pluck, bite and scratch at my own body. I never used to think of it as hurting myself, but still wondered if maybe these impulses were some kind of aggression against myself, signs of self hatred or even darker ideations. I recently found out that these body focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) can be a kind of stimming... not one I would recommend, but knowing I just have to knead some putty is better than wondering if I secretly want to harm myself.
On a related note, even mental rumination or looping thoughts can be regarded in a similar way (source) – the autistic body and mind crave repetition and predictability, sometimes even the kind that hurts. I spent so many long nights obsessing and picking apart my relationship dynamics. I was often close to making life-altering decisions about my partner and me, that I now see were grounded less in real problems and more in the mental equivalent of biting my nails.
All this is just my personal experience (I am not an expert!) and does not intend to oversimplify or downplay these issues. Over time, it also gets more complex – anxiety, depression, trauma, executive functions, stimming, overload, they all get layered and mixed together, so in the end there may be all kinds of combinations and feedback loops. This also does not mean “I am just wired that way” so there is no changing it. On the contrary - only after I started looking at all of this through the lens of “autistic traits”, I was able to find the appropriate coping strategies and start feeling better.
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