(Notes on) Autism and Complex PTSD

Still reading Pete Walker’s guidebook on recovering from Complex PTSD, I can’t escape the same eery sensation I had when reading Heller & LaPierre’s Healing Developmental Trauma – too many items on the C-PTSD (basically equivalent to developmental trauma) checklist are far too similar to too many of the typical autism spectrum “symptoms” (if we take them from a pathologising list) / traits / behaviours / coping strategies / perhaps experiences.

While I won’t document this in detail in this post, I’ve thought about this before and thought of two obvious explanations:

  1. A lot of autistic people have C-PTSD, so that the two are distinct but frequently seen together. I think especially if an autistic person receives or seeks a diagnosis – I imagine the people who have the additional C-PTSD issues (even unknowingly) are more likely to fall into both categories, while the relatively untraumatised ones perhaps just deal with life and never even label or diagnose themselves.
  2. Perhaps, also in part as a side-effect of (1.), the psychiatric categorisation isn’t really neat – what I mean is, perhaps the mental health professionals who get to define / describe the spectrum medically mostly get to see traumatised autistic people (I mean, who is more likely to see a mental health professional?) and what’s described commonly as autism (perhaps even in the neurodiversity community) is actually a mix of the two – it’s actually some autism + some C-PTSD entwined, because it’s rare to just see the former without the latter (and describe it).

Why do I care about these fine points? I guess because my natural traits pretty clearly fall on the autism spectrum, but one the other hand I’m also healing from C-PTSD. And it’s been confusing, based on external descriptions, to distinguish between the things – experiences, behaviour patterns, ways of thinking, perceptions, feelings, etc. – that are a legitimate subject for healing, and those that are just nature and I should leave them alone (and work around them rather than seek to change them).

To spell it out, I would like to over time minimise patterns that are part of my version of Complex PTSD, but I don’t want to be trying to “heal” my natural neurodivergent traits, which in my understanding would be both wrong and futile.

I’ve learnt that “healing” strikes an inflamed nerve with much of the US and UK autistic community and others subjected to or threatened/pressured with cruel autism “cures”, those who are otherwise victims of the psychiatric system, and generally all the self-advocating autistics with an underlying sense of “Leave me alone with enforced character improvement and let me be me!”.

As an autistic person who definitely had massive mental health problems on which I have done a lot of healing work, and also as someone who has benefited over the decades from many relatively diverse personal growth practices, I see the value of “healing” and know the change it can bring, I don’t have these painful associations with it. I think in this respect only learning properly about the concept of autism in my 30’s wasn’t that bad; I wonder if for example identifying it at school would have protected me, or just led to more trauma than coping on my own did – given what was available at that time and place.

Still, since I’ve learnt about autism from the autistic community itself (and acknowledged the obvious, that I obviously have something in common with it :D) and learnt that all the mental health issues were definitely influenced by and intertwined with being autistic (demonstrably different in my mindbodyemotions structure) while getting absolutely no adaptations for it and trying to function like everyone else, I have been asking myself what is what and also whether C-PTSD takes specific forms for autistic people, and whether the recovery process from this and other associated trauma issues also looks different, or has to have different priorities, or whether there are sources and approaches that have a better fit to autistic-specific C-PTSD, if there is such a thing.

Here are some of my first thoughts on this:

In general I tend to dislike black-and-white categorisations (yes, despite being autistic :D) and I like to see things along human continua … even autism itself, I like to see it just as an exceptional accumulation of specific traits and ways of perceiving that are always around but at rare times accumulate in one person to such a high degree that the person really feels different and functions differently from the average to such a degree that it is … hard. So well, on the other hand, I think a quantitative difference that at some point does become qualitative. But still, we’re not space aliens, ethereal beings or a separate species. => So I’d expect something similar for the features of “autistic” C-PTSD … that it’s the same animal, four legs, head and tail, but maybe the proportions or emphasis are shifted in significant ways.

One difference that I’m pretty sure of by now is that there might be a autism-specific flavour of C-PTSD which can arise even in relatively benign environments based on the empathy-mismatch between an autistic child and a non-autistic caretaker (or even an autistic one, but who has a really different sensitivity profile or not a lot of self-insight). See the double-empathy problem (random clarifying article that seems OK.)

A favorite aspect of Pete Walker’s work for me is how he makes clear that emotional abandonment – a lack of empathy or sharing feelings – is actually at the core of C-PTSD, and it’s not only the core reason why various other more visible forms of abuse leave lasting traces (because of the underlying sense of emotional betrayal) but it’s sufficient in and of itself to cause C-PTSD. To clarify: according to the trauma research I’m familiar with, a child (or adult) can go through major disasters without developing C-PTSD when there is empathy, emotional support, community – when it’s a challenge that we go through and in the end overcome together. On the other hand, everyday situations that present no physical danger nor even psychological threat can lead to C-PTSD if the child receives no emotional help in digesting its inner experiences.

For me this was essentially the missing piece on why on earth I have had glaring and intense C-PTSD symptoms over years and decades in the first place. Before I figured out that I’m on the spectrum, and before I learnt about what Pete writes (and a couple of other trauma researchers as well), I couldn’t figure out why on earth I even have it – no beatings, no insults, no natural disasters, but a life of non-stop emotional flashbacks, nightmares, obsessions, a persistent, every-present looming sense of doom and subcutaneous expectations of imminent apocalypse that activate at the simplest occasion (such as being hungry or tired – again, something Pete describes as a common trigger). For me learning about the double empathy issue and the fact that “mere” lack of adults adequately, intelligently empathising with a kid causes C-PTSD feels like it solves the mystery.

This has stopped being coherent now and is more like a list of disconnected ideas, but another aspect I wanted to touch on is the relation between the concept of a “meltdown” in the autism language and the concept of an “emotional flashback” in the complex trauma literature. I’ve thought for a while about whether it’s really different, or kind of the same thing, or whether most instances of “it” are a mix of the two.

Again, why am I interested in the fine print? Because flashback management is different from meltdown management, at least according to the Credo. It seems smart to be able to figure out which one it is => how to react on the level of behaviour and inner attitude.

I think I’ll leave my observations on this for a future post. Meanwhile I’m curious if any of the autistic readers specifically have any opinion or observations on this.

4 thoughts on “(Notes on) Autism and Complex PTSD

  1. Thank you. This feels like the key that might make everything about me make sense.:
    “[E]motional abandonment – a lack of empathy or sharing feelings – is actually at the core of C-PTSD, and it’s not only the core reason why various other more visible forms of abuse leave lasting traces (because of the underlying sense of emotional betrayal) but it’s sufficient in and of itself to cause C-PTSD. To clarify: according to the trauma research I’m familiar with, a child (or adult) can go through major disasters without developing C-PTSD when there is empathy, emotional support, community – when it’s a challenge that we go through and in the end overcome together. On the other hand, everyday situations that present no physical danger nor even psychological threat can lead to C-PTSD if the child receives no emotional help in digesting its inner experiences.”
    (I will have to digest a little more before I write more — I hope some of your other readers will share their thoughts too.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is really interesting and super important to bring awareness to this subject❤️ Please feel encouraged to check out my recent blog post regarding PTSD awareness day (today, June 27th) or just the overall PTSD awareness month of June! Thank you❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this post! I also often question why I seem to have C-PTSD symptoms while not having experienced “traditionally” traumatising events. I’ve had nightmares pretty much every night since I can remember, and yet anyone would say I’ve had a relatively happy childhood.
    I have one peculiar trigger for deep emotional discomfort and anxiety that has been the same since I was a kid, and there has definitely been a lack of empathy by adults at least on that point (I apologise for being so vague, but I can’t do otherwise).
    My hypothesis is that despite having caring parents, the fact that I had emotional reactions to “weird”/unexpected things made me more likely not to receive proper empathy and support when I needed it, which messed me up.

    Liked by 1 person

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