By Alex Earl
On June 8th, 2014, young adults with autism from all over the nation came together in Boulder, Colorado for the AGI Young Leaders Think Tank on trauma. This Think Tank will be a model for others in the future, so that young leaders who wish to address issues surrounding individuals with autism in their communities can gather together to create real, workable solutions. For this first think tank, the young leaders discussed the topic of trauma for youth on the spectrum. Dave Hasbury of Neighbors International provided graphic facilitation for the event, directing the discussion and representing participant contributions visually, in the form of two large drawings.
I was given the opportunity to observe the think tank, and it felt that every minute I was learning something new or gaining a new insight into something I thought I already understood. As such, I was overjoyed when I was asked to write a short summary of the event so that everyone who was unable to attend the think tank can still learn from it. Given how many valuable things were said, it would be near impossible to share all of them in a reasonable amount of time so I would like to discuss just a few of the many takeaways.
First, what is trauma? Trauma is a personal experience where one feels that one’s personal safety is threatened or violated. Though trauma can happen to anyone, it is especially prevalent in the autistic community and for many, it is very difficult to cope with and move beyond the trauma. In order to prevent trauma and help those with trauma, it first is necessary to see what is causing the high rate of trauma in individuals on the spectrum and what is keeping those individuals from moving beyond it.
Since it is a personal experience, the things that cause trauma can vary greatly between individuals so it can be very difficult to understand what constitutes a traumatic experience for someone else. Trauma can come from many sources such as physical injury, or incidents where a person who is trusted to love and care does something that betrays that trust. Other examples that are prevalent within the disability community include bullying, harassment, or social support systems when they fail to give needed or promised support. Individuals with autism may have more potential traumatic experiences than those without autism due to social systems (like school, jobs, or the government) not giving them needed accommodations, other people not understanding their behavior or in some situations, sensory overload.
Of course, the ideal would be to prevent the trauma entirely but if trauma does happen, it is important that the people around the individual respond in a healing manner. It can take a great deal of courage to talk about the trauma so when the people they talk to do not believe them or respond negatively, that in itself can be a traumatic experience. For those whose story was denied, for those who feel as if they cannot or should not talk about the trauma, for those who cannot find the words to talk or, especially, for those who cannot speak at all, having to deal with the trauma on their own can leave them feeling trapped and helpless which in turn, can lead to behaviors that can be dangerous to self or others.
In order to feel as if they can talk without being denied or judged, it is important that individuals who have experienced trauma can find someone to trust. However, trust takes time to build and there can be things that inhibit the trust building. For example, building up trust with someone while knowing that they may leave can be hard. Moving to the next grade in school usually means a switch in teachers, and friends often end up in different classes. For individuals who experience trauma flashbacks, spending time with someone who does not know the triggers can be painful.
The media portrayal of autism is very threatening as well. Even though there is no known link between autism and violent crime, there is a tendency in the media to associate the two. Not only does this myth hide the fact that individuals with autism are more often the victims of violent crime, but there is a fear that individuals or institutions may act in response to those negative stereotypes.
Following their exploration of trauma and how it affects lives, the young leaders moved on to discussing, “What can we do to help?” They ended up identifying six major goals that they wish to act on as AGI Young Leaders in order to help those with autism prevent or cope with trauma.
1) Identify and use the strengths of youth in the autistic community
People in the autistic community are very talented and have a great deal to give back to the world using their talents. By identifying and expanding upon those talents, individuals with autism can increase their own self confidence, gain respect from their peers, and even combat the negative stereotypes about autism.
2) Creating a resource for self-care
There are many techniques for calming down, coping and self-regulating for those with trauma. Since there really is no “best” practice, it would be great to collect the scattered knowledge and resources so that people can find the technique that works for them.
3) Partnering and collaborating with other organizations
Many other organizations are already very active in areas such as violence prevention or bullying prevention, so working together with them can help those with autism and gather more attention to the problem.
4) Creating an online community for those with autism and trauma
For people who do not feel that they can talk to the people around them, or for people who want to find someone who understands, an online community can give friends, mentors, and support networks.
5) Change perceptions about autism
Though doing this will be an extremely long and hard process, gaining recognition for the autistic community can reverse many of those negative stereotypes and create a safer place for those with autism.
6) Educating about autism and trauma to teach how to prevent and work through trauma
The biggest problem currently is that people do not understand. Those with autism do not know how to avoid traumatic situations or cope with trauma, and the people around those individuals do not know what causes trauma or how to react positively. Thus, educating individuals with autism and their parents and support providers can be very beneficial.
Using these six goals as a guide, the AGI Young Leaders will work together in 2014 and 2015, developing initiatives and projects together and with the broader community. So keep an eye out for the young leaders activities in the months ahead by following their Facebook Page.
About the Author
Alexander Earl is a student of The George Washington University in Washington, DC studying psychology and sociology. He is interested in combing knowledge of social processes with cognitive models to learn more about human minds and behaviors. Alex was born and raised in Boulder, CO.