Difficult Behaviors, Autism, and Trauma

If your child is struggling at home or at school in significant ways that are impeding their personal growth, I hope you read this post. 

Many autistic people’s behaviors are misunderstood. I hope this post helps us understand what we are looking at! We do not need to fear autism, we need to learn how to support autistic people.

Typical trauma responses to situations perceived as dangerous are: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. 

When the fear center of the brain is activated, higher level thoughts are unable to be accessed. 

The purpose of this post is to help anyone who works with an autsitic person understand how to support a person whose fear center is activated and a trauma response is happening.

Every human has a genetic predisposition to one of these four responses. Here’s what this means for autistic people:

Autistic people process situations differently, compared to neurotypical people (that’s why they’re diagnosed as autistic!). They process things so differently that it is disabling. 

Autistic people are frequently placed in situations perceived as dangerous because of their unique processing system.

Prolonged time in stressful environments becomes dangerous; the autistic person knows it means pain. 

For example, autistic people usually have a unique sensory profile that makes a typical situation extremely stressful. Often things like lights/temperature/sound can be so overstimulating that it registers as pain or discomfort. 

Trauma responses will be triggered in these situations, and we are all hardwired to react in one of four ways. 

Fawn=trying to please someone who causes discomfort as a means of trying to avoid conflict.

Flight= trying to escape/elope to avoid the perceived danger.

Freeze= the inability to move when danger is present.

Fight= facing the perceived threat aggressively.

Autistic children in school who have a fawn or freeze response generally are perceived as “good kids” and will be described by their teachers as “wonderful students. I can’t imagine why they fall apart at home!”

Autistic children who have a flight response are often considered liabilities, and efforts are made to keep them close to the location they’re trying to flee. Yes, even though that location is determined to be dangerous by the autistic person.

Autistic children who fight are considered dangerous and threatening. These are the ones who are often scolded and chided. They are either placed in a separate area so as not to harm others, rather than taught how to regulate and work through situations that are perceived as dangerous. These children are frequently misunderstood and consequently perpetually frustrated. 

This creates a dangerous cycle for both the child and all those who work with him/her. The child learns that the way they respond to danger is “incorrect”, which means that their entire life they will either try to figure out what is wrong with them, or will find everyone else to misunderstand their needs, causing shame, anger, and guilt. 

To avoid these unfortunate, traumatizing situations, we need to understand what fear responses are, and how to help unpack the situation, rather than to just get the child to behave the way we want in the moment.

Frequent exposure to painful situations means danger will be detected.This is true for any human. 

If your child is struggling with one of these trauma responses, you’ll need to determine what their perceived danger is. It is likely something with their senses, and because autistic people, especially young ones, tend to struggle with communication, you will need to look and listen closely to determine the trigger. 

Just because it isn’t triggering to you or the teacher means the situation isn’t for the autistic person. 

Once you do that, you can help your child work through the pain. Provide sensory tools that can help them cope. For example, if it’s very bright, offer them sunglasses. If it’s loud, offer noise canceling headphones. If needed, leave the situation with the child. 

I know some of you are saying, “this is not realistic! I cannot leave every time my child is overwhelmed!” But maybe not every time. Just for right now. Demonstrate to your child you see that they’re in need. Then give them what they need. They will begin to trust you, rather than distrust people who frequently put them in situations perceived as dangerous.

If you find the approach of meeting a child’s needs especially triggering, it would be wise to consider why that is. If your parents taught you that meeting a child’s needs was not “good parenting”, working with a therapist can help you unpack that.

The truth is helping a child, especially a child with sensory processing and communication issues feel validated and understood, creates a happy, healthy adult. 

We do not need to fear autism, we need to learn how to support autistic people!

Thank you for being here. If you found this helpful, please follow this page. If there’s any other things you could use support with, please message me and I can provide resources! 

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