Trauma Informed Practice and Neurodiversity

What is Trauma Informed Practice?

This is an evidence based approach to interacting and supporting people or persons with a history of trauma. In practice there are five main principals to uphold:

1. Safety
2. Trust
3. Choice
4. Collaboration
5. Empowerment

These five things should be interlaced into all services and form the foundations of supports, even when there is no trauma present or diagnosed theres no scenario in which these aspects should not be used.

Why should we use this approach when supporting neurodivergent people

In life we know that people don’t introduce themselves to others with a list of their trauma, we often may not learn about these aspects of their lives as service providers or this can happen over time. In Australia its estimated that 75% of people will experience a potentially traumatic event at some point in their lives. This accounts for those who have experienced a singular event, but what happens when the traumatising event isn’t an event, but rather results from the affects of neurodiversity on the developmental stages of a child?

A person who may have survived a natural disaster would be able to identify the event, would have memories of how they thought and felt before the event and could see the impact of the trauma either as part of their own self awareness or through gaining insights via therapies and treatments and mental health education. As part of their treatment and recovery they could potentially work through aspects of the event and their recovery could be based around processing those memories.

For a neurodivergent person they may not have a singular traumatic event to look back on, but rather have all the hallmarks of someone who has experienced trauma with no context or reasoning as to why. One theory is that Autism directly affects the early attachment stages of a persons life, between birth and two years old there are certain attachment milestones that may be missed through no fault of any person involved and it is thought that the absence of this attachment formation could be the first part of potential developmental trauma.

If you read about the experiences of autistic people there is a story that is repeated time and time again, the profound feeling of not belonging, of feeling different, and of not understanding why or how.

It is human nature to try and justify or rationalise our experiences, we all do it. Say you are texting with a friend, you have sent a few messages back and forth and then you ask them a question, the little dots come up as they type their response but then… nothing. They stop typing and don’t reply at all. Your brain will start to rationalise this, such as “Oh maybe their phone went flat” or “maybe they were interrupted and will get back to me later” but these rationalisations can be affected by our trauma and experiences too. Someone who has experienced a lot of rejection in their lives may justify this with “They don’t want to be my friend any more, what did I say to make them think that” and may over analyse the previous conversation looking for a way to rationalise their insecurities.

So lets come back to the childhood experiences of an Autistic person. Where there is a profound and undeniable sense of not belonging or being different, our brains too try to rationalise this. We make up an internal dialogue to explain this feeling and why it persists.

I have read many blogs by neurodivergent individuals explaining their way of rationalising these feelings and thoughts and I resonated with them but for this article I will tell you about my life as it’s really the only experience I can comment on first hand. For myself, I have distinct memories of feeling out of place and through my childhood I rationalised these with my adolescent brain and determined that I was 100% adopted. For the record, I was not, my mum and dad are my biological parents (Thanks, but this never stopped me trying to prove my theory and I remember many holidays and christmases trying to ask various relatives about the time when I was born. I was looking for any anomaly in their retellings that justified my narrative and I felt like everyone in my whole community was in on this. It felt like it was the biggest secret that had been kept from me and that if it were true, there was somewhere out in the world where I did belong.

As you can imagine, growing up with these feelings I never formed strong relationships with my family or peers. They felt like the enemy, like traitors to my cause, like aliens to me. They were emotional and valued such insignificant things, they were often irrational and didn’t seem to make logical decisions or choices and I didn’t feel they were people I could trust or rely on.

Theres much more to my story but for the purpose of this post I feel this is potentially the best example I can offer of my own life to show how developmental trauma can be a prevalent part of the autistic experience. So I think that using trauma informed principals is fundamental to interacting with everyone we meet, but vital when considering the neurodivergent experience.

I think its important here to note that not all experiences are traumatic, not everyone who experiences something outside of the usual realms of human experience will be negatively impacted, but it can never hurt to hold space and treat others with the respect. Being genuinely kind and mindful has never hurt someone.

How will this approach benefit the individual

When professionals, therapists, and workers use these principals to define their service provision we start to see a shift in the experience we have with them.

Personally I’ve met a lot of therapists, doctors and support workers who simply are not mindful of the concept of trauma and then inadvertently create an environment that is triggering or feels “unsafe”. At the very core of trauma is a sense of needing to protect yourself, a need to feel safe and when we face situations where we don’t feel safe or where we feel there is a risk of this happening, it can be triggering. When we talk about the “Risk” of not being safe, we talk about situations or environments that may appear safe but where that safety isn’t valued and upheld by anyone else, and if no one holds that space, the need to protect ourselves niggles away and we heighten our senses to look out for danger.

If the environment has a set of trauma informed practice scaffolded around it we can significantly reduce the need for this heightened “alert” state for individuals we work with. It is not something you can just do once, or as needed, but rather something that needs to be prevalent at the core of all we do. Maybe it wont help immediately, after all a sense of safety comes with trust and time. But when we can create a safe space and a person trusts that we are holding that space for them, then together we can do anything.

If an autistic person can engage in a service where they are no longer heightened or on alert, where they feel heard, respected and safe, then they have a far higher capacity for genuine engagement. While this may be something that can be implemented in low risk environments such as within their home, the challenge is then on how we implement these same principals within our greater community.

Where do we start?

Implementing these concepts across all services, I feel, is imperative to all service users. Regardless of the ability of the person(s) they work with there should be a unified approach to create safe and respectful environments wherever possible within service delivery. Alyv aims to promote these practices to as many other services as possible. We collaborate with providers regularly and hope to demonstrate the value and benefits of this approach to as many people as possible.

As for the greater community, this isn’t as simple, with so many variable factors this is a process that will take time, public education and require a larger shift in the communities thinking. In saying that, its not impossible, look at the ways we think about mental health now to how we did in the 70s and 80s. Western Australia deinstitutionalised it’s disability services by the late 80s and for the first time we saw people with disabilities becoming part of the greater community. Since this time the shift in public thinking has been immense and while not perfect its certainly a huge amount of progress compared to the thoughts and beliefs about disability care in the years proceeding that shift.

We can’t use bubble wrap and we cant make every situation foolproof, but with a combination of public awareness, professional and service delivery scaffolding and skilled workers with the correct training and approach we can certainly expect that there are improvements to be had in the lives of neurodivergent individuals. When all their environments are perceived to be unsafe its hard to identify a safe one, but if we can make a majority of their situations and environments feel like safe ones this can further increase their capacity to manage the occasional situation where factors can not be controlled.

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