Autism and post-trauma


Inspecting symptoms

Why this list?

I suspect that some of the symptoms we currently associate with autism could actually be due (at least in part) to trauma. Not just immediate trauma, but the ingrained and accumulative effects of ongoing and past traumas too.

While there are other autistic characteristics which seem to me to be a) more intrinsic to autistic people, and b) less connected with our trauma levels. For a list of these, see this article.

Why the trauma?

There's a higher number of autistics than non-autistics proportionally represented within certain marginalised or disadvantaged groups. People in these groups are likely, overall, to experience a lot more hardship, difficulties, and obstacles, than others living within our society. More trauma, in fact. The groups include (but are not limited to) non-binary and trans people, those with motor disorders affecting the speech, blind and deaf people, people with intellectual disabilities, those with degenerative genetic disorders, and socioeconomically disadvantaged/disenfranchised groups such as the homeless.

Autistic people are also more likely to be exposed to situational (and often ongoing) trauma, such as bullying at school, discrimination in the workplace, domestic abuse and violence, and being alone and loneliness – as compared to the general population.

And a higher number of autistic people have had adverse experiences very young – such as birth traumas, exposure to toxins in utero, or to maternal stress. All of which, naturally, bring some degree of trauma.

Finally, it’s been found that autistic people are more prone to suffering trauma (even from things/events not generally supposed to cause trauma) due to possessing unusual and/or heightened sensitivities. This can render experiences (whether sensory, social, or emotional) much more intense – and often, therefore, if those experiences are negative, more likely to be traumatic.

I think these factors could go some way to explaining why placing a list of post-trauma symptoms next to a list of commonly recognised indicators of autism, makes such an interesting read. See below.

Socialising and relationships

  • Post-trauma
  • Lack of, or difficulty with, eye contact.
  • Not recognizing loved ones’ faces (impaired ability to recognize people/surroundings etc. due to ‘dissociation’).
  • Inability to trust others.
  • Lack of expression in communication (gestures, voice intonation).
  • Losing the ability to speak (Broca's area of the brain is affected).
  • Withdrawal into yourself.

  • Autism
  • Avoiding eye contact.
  • Faceblindness (impaired social development?).
  • Less turn-taking and sharing (children). Lack of social play.
  • Impaired ability to make friends with peers.
  • Unusual intonation (lack of emphasis or expression when talking, or emphasis and expression unusual and stereotyped). Lack of gesticulation when communicating. Inability to interpret e.g. body language, facial expressions.
  • Losing, or never having (or only having intermittently), the ability to speak.
  • Not looking at people, not smiling. Appearing deaf at times. Not responding to own name.

  • Post-trauma
  • Being uncomfortable in groups and social situations.
  • Preferring to work in situations that require theoretical or mechanical skills rather than people skills.
  • Dissociation (distancing and detaching yourself from your own physical and emotional experience), leading to numbness and lack of response to distressing situations.

  • Autism
  • Feeling uncomfortable in group situations. Difficulties in sustaining conversation.
  • Having an analytical 'rational' approach, and often appearing ‘cold’ or unemotional.
  • Lack of stranger anxiety. Lack of separation anxiety (usually occuring in the first year, e.g. when mother departs).
  • Post-trauma
  • Feeling unwelcomed, rejected, unlovable, bad, wrong... and even sometimes alien and not quite human. Individuals with the 'Connection Survival Style' experience themselves as outsiders, disconnected from themselves and other human beings.
  • Diminished capacity for joy, expansion, and intimacy with others.
  • Problems in maintaining relationships.

  • Autism
  • Feeling of disconnect from others, strong feeling of not belonging (WrongPlanet).
  • Feeling lonely. Autistic children suffer from more intense and frequent loneliness compared to non-autistic peers, despite the common belief that children with autism prefer to be alone.
  • In adulthood, few friendships/romantic difficulties - often there have been repeated unsuccessful attempts to establish fulfilling friendships and relationships.


Emotional regulation

  • Post-trauma
  • Depression.
  • Low self-esteem. Shame and self-hatred.
  • Finding life overwhelming and not feeling you have the energy to deal with it.
  • Being more intellectual than emotional.
  • Sudden, inexplicable and persistent fear responses.
  • Impulsivity and impaired ability to recognize and respond to threats or danger.

  • Autism
  • Inertia, depression (autistic adults).
  • Self-hate and chronic shame.
  • Overwhelm and exhaustion. Pervading anxiety. Lack of coping mechanisms/filters.
  • Panic attacks. Pronounced and prolonged fear responses.
  • Impaired danger awareness. Inabiity to judge risks proprtionately.

  • Post-trauma
  • Perceiving the world as a dangerous place combined with an impaired ability to judge risks.
  • Developing phobias. Chronic anxiety and catatrophizing.
  • Strong emotional (right brain) reactions to seemingly insignificant things, and looking for someone or something to blame for them in the present.
  • Sudden attacks of rage or panic (apparently out of the blue, but which are often triggered by conscious or subconscious memories, or 'flashbacks'.)

  • Autism
  • Having extreme anxiety and phobias, as well as unusual phobias.
  • Lack of fear or more fear than expected (hyper or hypo-sensitivity – the latter as a result of dissociation due to chronic overload).
  • Getting upset by minor changes.
  • Apparently unprovoked attacks on others.
  • Having 'meltdowns' or 'tantrums'.

  • Post-trauma
  • Fixating obsessively on specific issues or routines.
  • Appearing uncaring or distanced emotionally.
  • Disproportionate reaction to mildly stressful (for others) situations.
  • Lack of nuanced response to frustration (either all or nothing).

  • Autism
  • Inflexibility. Black-and-white thinking.
  • Intellectualizing and distancing yourself emotionally.
  • Tendency to have an 'all or nothing’ response (to both positive and negative stimuli).

  • Post-trauma
  • Brain disconnect from body (lack of interospection).
  • Depersonalisation (feeling like a detached observer of oneself).
  • Dissociation (detachment from physical and emotional experiences).

  • Autism
  • Showing very low levels of fear/reactiveness in situations that others would find stressful or scary.
  • Pronoun reversal (e.g. saying 'you' or 'she/he' in the place of 'I' or 'me').
  • Dissociation, even to the point of having a co-morbid diagnosis with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder).

  • Post-trauma
  • Alexithymia (inability to identify and describe emotions in the self, or 'feeling nothing'. Note: there are links between Alexithymia and self harm).
  • Self-harming (e.g. biting or hitting oneself, pulling hair out, picking at skin till it bleeds).
  • Sleep problems and nightmares.
  • Suicidal thoughts.

  • Autism
  • Difficulties understanding or connecting to own feelings. Alexithymia.
  • Sleep disorders. Unusual sleeping habits.
  • High risk of self-harming and suicidal thoughts.


Movement and body responses

  • Post-trauma
  • Lack of body coordination/fluidity (or being 'gravitationally challenged').
  • Tendon Protect Reflex (not putting weight on heels when walking, or not even putting them to the ground).
  • Problems with fine motor coordination.

  • Autism
  • Problems with stability, balance and posture (Vestibular System).
  • Toe walking.
  • Problems with motor control (Dyspraxia: difficulties affecting the initiation, organization and performance of movements).

  • Post-trauma
  • Increased risk of risk of autoimmune disease.
  • Bowel/elimination problems.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Fibromyalgia.
  • Migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome.

  • Autism
  • Immune dysregulation. In autistic individuals, the immune system fails to balance itself. Inflammatory signals dominate. Anti-inflammatory ones are inadequate and a state of chronic activation prevails.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders. Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Fibromyalgia.


Psychological and behavior patterns

  • Post-trauma
  • Limited imagination, and fixations.
  • OCD (between 4% and 22% of people with PTSD also have a diagnosis of OCD): compulsive behaviors (like checking, ordering, or hoarding).
  • Memory and attention impairments. Inability to focus.

  • Autism
  • Lack of imaginative play. Unusual or severely limited activities and interests.
  • Black and white thinking.
  • Repetition and perseveration. Inflexibility with highly specific routines and rituals (possible 'co-morbid' diagnosis with OCD).
  • Hyperactivity (very active). Hyperfocus on some tasks, inability to concentrate on others.

  • Post-trauma
  • Obsessive and repetitive behaviour.
  • Developing nervous tics (verbal or muscle reflex).
  • Making repetitive movements when under duress, such as hand flapping or rocking. To quote a PTSD patient: "As I work through my issues and trauma, I find myself flapping my hands, same way a person with autism would. What the heck? Is it now a tic? When they go flapping, I usually have this huge swelling of emotion engulfing me, pulling me under, suffocating. The flapping is unconscious, and i notice it makes me gasp for breath, and I end up shaking and vibrating internally. My instinct is to suppress them, to sit on my hands. Because I must look strange."

  • Autism
  • Compulsive behaviors: Time-consuming behaviors intended to reduce anxiety that an individual feels compelled to perform repeatedly or according to rigid rules, such as placing objects in a specific order, checking things, or hand washing.
  • Repetitive movements - foot-tapping, hair twirling.
  • Other apparently purposeless movements such as hand flapping, head rolling, or body rocking. These movements are usually refered to as 'stimming', short for 'self-stimulating behaviour'.