, but to talk about the intersection of trauma and neurodiversity we’re going to need a bigger post.
Look, here’s the horrifying truth: when you compare symptoms of trauma to some of the better-known traits of Neurodivergent conditions like Autism or ADHD you start to notice a pretty unsettling pattern: there’s a ton of overlap. You start to ask yourself: “Is it the case that many ND traits look like trauma, or might it be the case that many people with neurodivergent conditions are actually traumatized?”
You start to ask yourself: “Is it the case that many ND traits look like trauma, or might it be the case that many people with neurodivergent conditions are actually traumatized?”
The more you dig the more you’re going to find that a lot — like, a LOT a lot — of neurodivergent people are also struggling specifically with
Does this sound familiar? If you’re neurodivergent, do you experience these symptoms? Do you think that’s because of your neurodivergence specifically, or do you think maybe it’s because you’ve got some acquired CPTSD going on? Because the good news is that CPTSD can be addressed.
Understanding Complex Trauma
CPTSD happens when we feel unsafe over a sustained period. We feel unsafe when our needs are unmet, our concerns are ignored and our identities go unexpressed. Does THAT sound familiar? Because that’s exactly what happens to kids growing up with needs that differ from what’s covered in child rearing books written for Neurotypicals. That’s what happens when nobody believes that loud noises actually hurt, or that excessive correction can destroy a person’s sense of self.
Even well-meaning attentive parents can be inadvertently neglectful of Neurodivergent needs simply because they don’t know better! Kids are too young to understand and articulate their own needs, so if the parent isn’t actively noticing and accounting for nonstandard forms of distress the kid is going to internalize that (a) that distress is normal and (b) that they have to deal with it on their own.
As a result an attitude slowly forms of “Me against the World”, and this makes it incredibly difficult to build meaningful relationships or to engage with any serious enterprise fully.
Eventually, to borrow the language of Internal Family Systems therapy, you exile those parts of yourself that don’t fit the narrative of who you’re “supposed” to be, and you ended up with a fragmented self that’s incapable of recognizing or meeting its own needs.
Recovering from Complex Trauma
Recovery from CPTSD means reclaiming a strong and empowered self. I strongly recommend the work of
which really changed my life and put me on the path to recovery.
Pete Walker taught me that I had to heal my thinking, grieve my losses and somatically express the energy of that trauma. A few years of intensive trauma-focused therapy in NYC sealed the deal. Here’s what I learned:
When you have a weak sense of self, you are controlled by whatever “parts” happen to be active in a given moment. You may live your whole life like this, and your “relax” part and your “angry” part may simply split the time in the driver’s seat and you ignore all of your other parts, etc.
The goal of trauma recovery is to rebuild a strong self, because the parts are not meant to drive — the self is meant to drive. But the parts have learned that the self is not up to the task, and so they do their best to manage in the self’s absence.
When you’re traumatized you often internalize a lot of negative beliefs that show up in your thinking. “Nobody really loves me”, “I’m not worthy of this attention”, “I’m just going to screw it up”, etc.
That voice in your head is called the “Inner Critic”, and it lies to you. It may wear the flesh of someone you know — mine sounded like my dad for a long time, until I realized he would never say some of the hateful things that it was saying to me.
The goal in healing your thinking is to learn to identify, challenge and ultimately replace these negative thoughts. So often they’re coming from a place of pure habit - do you really in your heart of hearts believe yourself to be unworthy of love, or is that just a story you’ve been telling yourself for so long you don’t even think about it anymore?
We have to identify and heal these negative, toxic thoughts as part of trauma recovery.
A huge part of trauma recovery is coming to terms with the fact that you’ve had something real, valuable and irreplaceable taken from you. A sense of safety is a prerequisite for living our best lives, and when someone takes that from us — or fails to provide it for us, when we’re young — we pay a real cost for that.
It’s important to acknowledge those years spent struggling with despair, depression, anxiety and confusion. That didn’t have to happen - it’s the path you took because nobody in your life knew better. It’s okay to acknowledge that, and even to blame the people whose choices caused you harm. That doesn’t mean you hate them or that they’re bad people — it just means that they caused you harm, and you have to accept that to heal it.
Finally, this is the weird one that is pretty counterintuitive. Trauma lives physically in your body — it makes you tense up in weird ways, carry around complex knots, behave and move in certain ways, etc.
The energy we feel when we’re being traumatized needs to come out, and in the moment it couldn’t — so it went in instead. Somatic recovery is about going into your unhealed traumatic memories and paying close attention to how they feel in the body. They will often show up in a specific place, and may move around — follow them. Move in the ways they compel you to move. Finish the movements you froze through in your childhood, and let them out.
Inner Child Work
For a lot of us complex trauma built up during childhood. Somewhere, deep in your personal history, is a terrified 6 year old who can’t understand why his parents keep punishing him; a trembling 8 year old who’s been bullied so badly in school already that he shakes whenever he sees the building; an ashamed teen who wasn’t prepared for their first sexual encounters and has unhealed wounds as a result. Probably more than one — Neurodivergent people are more likely to interpret events as traumatic, and so it’s entirely possible you’ve got a number of unhealed wounds scattered throughout your history even to the present day.
The point is, each of those traumas was a time when you needed help and couldn’t get it. Maybe you couldn’t understand or articulate your need, maybe you were afraid to ask, maybe you were ashamed; regardless, your need went unmet and that inner child was failed by the people that were supposed to keep them safe and make sure their needs were met.
As an adult, your job is to replay those events but this time with yourself as a responsible adult who notices and helps your younger self. This can be very literal, you can literally have a conversation with your inner child by doing a voice for it and speaking out loud. Let it tell you what it is struggling with and let it benefit from the wisdom of your older, more powerful self.
Over time you can forge a relationship with your inner child where you recognize when it’s activated and scared and you are able to go to it and reassure it. Then it stops “driving” and lets your self return to the driver’s seat.
Building a Self
Your job is to rebuild that self. Your self, above all else, is a story you tell yourself. If the story you’re telling is “I am completely overwhelmed by life and cannot handle any more stress” then that’s the self that’s showing up and trying to manage your parts — it’ll fail.
But if you can show up telling yourself “I am going to do my best to take responsibility for my choices, even if I know I won’t always make ideal decisions.” then suddenly the game changes. Rather than fighting you for control of the driver’s seat your parts will slowly start to give you information and trust you to weigh that information to make decisions.
You know you’re in recovery from complex trauma because suddenly you’re making a lot more decisions actively rather than allowing them to be made for you; you’re expressing your own preferences and values; you’re showing up, both internally and eventually externally, in your own life.
Here are a few pieces of general advice for working in this space. This is some of the hardest work you can do, and if you’re working on your trauma you should feel deeply proud of yourself.
Responding vs Reacting
One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever received was to pay attention to when I was responding to someone versus when I was reacting to them. A response is measured, it comes from the self — it may be informed by all kinds of raging emotion, but that emotion doesn’t drive. The behavior is initiated and controlled by the self.
A reaction, on the other hand, is not measured. It’s a purely mechanical movement where one of your parts drives a behavior in response to some stimulus. What stimulus? Who knows, your self was totally checked out and not participating in the interaction.
The goal of trauma recovery is to spend as much of your life responding as possible, because when we react we’re living a diminished life and often causing harm as a side effect.
Pain vs Suffering
One great quote that someone taught me ages ago is from the Buddhist tradition: “In life, pain is inevitable; it’s suffering that we can choose to avoid, by not trying to avoid our pain.”
Pain is scary, and emotional pain can feel like this terrifying all-consuming boundless void that will just consume everything in your life. It won’t. It’s hard, it hurts, but the only way to deal with difficult emotions is to sit with them and really feel them. Otherwise you’re continuing to build exiles in your mind and you’re weakening the self that you need to build up.
I obviously have a lot to work on myself, and to be honest just thinking about the amount of work it will take discourages me sometime but i just know i will have to do it, even though I would ha e to complain a lot as i try to get better.i think for myself, the most challenging is how to recognize what is just a part of you and what or who is your actual self. telling apart which is response and which is reaction at some point i raised my eyebrows at some of these points having a slight feeling of “but isn't this going in favor to confirming to the neurotypical objective reality agenda? but i have to read more and appreciated this slice of enlightenment offered to me.
Well written. I did not know how lucky I was to grow up trauma free. Choosing a non authentic life path (house, husband, children), a career that transformed into things I was not suited for, and being a non-standard adult female trying to fit in are the sources of my cptsd. Covid policy at work drained my last reserves. I’ve made lots of headway in 18 months but I still have a long way to go.
I was born in 1961. I got my autism diagnosis 51 years later. I started having depersonalisation attacks when I was 5. I had no idea what they were and they terrified me. I can see now they were probably trauma. This was not an age in which neurodivergence was talked about. In those days there was absolutely no concept of it. You were just called nervy and fussy. We old autistics have to heal from years of confusion and misery in the same way that younger autistics have to heal from the trauma of ABA (and of course their own trauma and misery). At least we can recognise and name ourselves now. Thank you so much for this resource.n