Need to know: Understanding trauma in neurodivergent children
This is a guest blog post by Anita McCraffrey from Neurodivergent Wellness Groups
From a sensory, social and emotional perspective, the world around a neurodivergent child is fraught with potential dangers. From the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep, neurodivergent children are seeking safety from the environmental, physical and social elements around them.
Traditional ideas of trauma and its links to adverse childhood events, have now been refined creating a new awareness of what causes trauma for a neurodivergent person. Trauma has been found to come from:
- feelings of physical pain in everyday living activities
- uncertainty in navigating traditional social interactions
- sensory overload causing shutdown
- shame and humiliation from resulting behavioural outbursts
These can be triggered by regular day-to-day experiences and activities, resulting in an ongoing state of hypervigilance. To a neurotypical person these experiences may be small or not noticeable, but for a neurodivergent individual, their cumulative effect can be responsible for trauma.
Generally, everyone experiences small to medium challenges that they have the capacity to resolve, manage or accept. For our neurodivergent children, these challenges are more frequent, intense, disruptive and accumulate throughout the day. It is at the point of overwhelm where we see the behavioural “fight or flight” response, which is in fact, a survival response to feeling unsafe and being unable to cope with the demands around them.
Understanding the “context”
Looking in from the outside, your child’s behavioural outbursts/meltdowns may appear disproportionate to the precipitating event. However, if we look deeper, the build-up of stress starts from the moment a neurodivergent child wakes up.
To fully understand the context for your child, you need to rewind the day to find possible stressors. In a day, your child might experience the following:
- physical pain from brushing hair/teeth and showers
- the uncertainty of textures from foods
- irritation from clothes that don’t “feel right” or have elements that are painful, like tags, tight waists and buttons
- inconsistent and new social interactions that feel emotionally unsafe
- expectations to adapt and fit in without a script
Also consider that for many children, school and other educational care settings can be sources of increased stress, where the unknown is more extreme, unpredictable and uncertain.
What can I do?
Understanding the unique elements contributing to the accumulation of stressors that can create “trauma”- where our children’s capacity to regulate is frequently exceeded – helps us to adjust our expectations, and reduce or remove the stressors. This may include offering your child the same food at meal times, finding alternatives for textures or fabrics, finding gentler ways to attend to their personal care and providing consistency in routines. The goal is to create safety where you can, leaving capacity within your child to manage other situations in their day.
It can also be helpful to identify activities or actions that assist with your child’s ability to regulate and self-soothe. These may be physical exercise, sensory or sensory-limiting toys or activities, time alone or with loved ones and consistent routines and foods. By building an understanding of both, you can then work towards managing each element and to build in opportunities for your child to regulate. Our neurodivergent children need to find moments and experiences where they feel safe, they need time to self-regulate and self-soothe to be able to deal with day-to-day stressors.
Lastly, rethink how you approach talking to your child about incidents where they have been dysregulated. Besser Van der Kolk, a renowned psychiatrist and researcher, performed a series of brain scan studies in the 1990’s, which found that the effects of trauma on the brain remain as a memory and trigger the same survival responses when recollected or “triggered”. This incredible finding explains the shutdown that often occurs when parents try to talk to their children about past emotional outbursts. Instead of a logical or coherent conversation, we see a shutdown or a similar behavioural outburst – our children are triggered, becoming overwhelmed once again, this time by both the memory of feeling unsafe and by feelings of shame associated with the behavioural outburst.
You can ensure your child’s best experience at school by collaborating with their educators. Your knowledge and understanding of the elements that increase the risk of cumulative trauma for your child, should be shared with their teacher. Invite educators to partner with you by requesting their input into a “map” of awareness, encouraging their observation of the additional factors that lead to overwhelm in educational settings.
Educators rely on parents for important information about each student. If your child experiences anxiety it’s really important to explain how it affects them in the classroom and how it can negatively impact their learning goals. A child who is anxious about an activity such as recess, and the associated challenges of navigating social situations, isn’t focused or engaged in learning. For some children, the sensory elements of a classroom; other students, loud noises, bright colours and information everywhere, is so overwhelming and painful, that they can only focus on surviving their environment and unsurprisingly are unable to engage in learning.
Be kind to yourself
The juggle of managing all these elements is exhausting for many parents of neurodivergent children. The process of understanding the unique needs of each child is ongoing. Everyday parents balance the pressures of advocating for their child, adjusting normal routines while managing interpersonal relationships within the family. Don’t be afraid to just ‘do what works’ and don’t feel like you have to get it right all the time, be kind to yourself, you are doing the best you can.
How can I better support my child?
Sensory profiling assessments can be incredibly helpful in identifying the anxiety caused by environmental, social and physical elements. Being able to define these elements not only helps you at home, it can empower you to advocate for educators to provide safer options for your child. If we have a map to understand the pathway to overwhelm, then we can use the same knowledge to create safety.
At the Neurodivergent Wellness Group most of these assessments are able to be completed via Telehealth. We currently have limited wait times due to only focussing on supporting families with assessments. Please reach out via https://neurodivergentwellnessgroup.com/ and we can discuss how we can best support your family