Medical studies of both autism and traumatic brain injury (TBI) have focused primarily on brain injury as a causal factor in the presence of autism in earliest childhood. Few studies have focused on the impact of trauma on autistic adults. This is a plea to the neurosciences community to study the effect of traumatic occurrences in the lives of adults on the spectrum.
We hold that such adults, including teens, face far greater risk of exposure to traumatic events today. Such trauma can come from a wide variety of sources, and we believe, have a diverse effect on the individual. From childhood to adulthood, many on the spectrum experience some effect of trauma from events many not on the spectrum could otherwise dismiss.
Take for instance, a boy of nine years old who, while attending school, is beaten up by school bullies. A neurotypical child would, in short order, with the help of loving parents and supportive teachers, move on with their life, and continue with his/her school life, maintaining almost uninterrupted grades as a result of the incident. However, if that boy is autistic, not only will his grades suffer, but he will begin to, and will permanently experience ‘side effects’ such as morbid fears of other children, loss of communication skills, intense anxiety attacks, panic when seeing any kind of fighting, even if his parents or siblings argue.
The effect of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) begins quickly to become noticeable to parents, and other family members. The manifestation of PTSD, particularly sharp reactions to noise, sudden sounds or sights, flashing lights, even loud music can trigger reactions totally unexpected. The loud sound of a car radio nearby won’t make this child put his hands over his ears – it will cause a meltdown, with screaming, crying, flailing of limbs, and often self-harm.
Very likely the child will hit himself, equating the noise to the beating he took in the originating traumatic event. Flashbacks will replay in the child’s mind as if the traumatic event just happened, or is still happening. We already know from neurotypical military personnel who’ve experienced flashbacks related directly to PTSD, that even the slightest trigger can be so traumatic as to create more trauma, or violent behavior towards others or themselves.
Fortunately, medical science has already determined that PTSD is an actual medical condition, detectable with testing, but its pairing with autism is grossly under-studied, and the time has come to make the connection between autism, trauma and PTSD.
While the study of post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury continues, we urge the medical community to focus particular attention on the autistic community, which, in our view, appears to have a natural hypersensitivity to traumatic events. We hope research can identify ways to control, prevent and cure the effects of brain injury for those on the spectrum, who seem to suffer as much, if not more than others experiencing PTSD or TBI.