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The Unique Trauma I Experienced Growing Up Neurodivergent

When one hears the word “trauma,” one will often think of life-threatening events: natural disasters, war, terrorist attacks, living in an abusive home, things of that nature. However, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, trauma is defined as “severe emotional or mental distress caused by an experience.” By that logic, trauma is a subjective concept that’s severity depends on the sensitivity and mental strength of the individual enduring it. Thus, what may hurt one person may not affect another, and vice versa.

For an individual on the autism spectrum, the instability and turbulence of day-to-day life can be considered traumatic. According to the mother of a 13-year-old boy who is on the spectrum and was diagnosed with PTSD when he was 12, “The world is chaotic for typically developed people. For him, it is overwhelming and confusing.” As a person who is on the spectrum as well, I can confirm that this statement is true. What some may deem as simply “difficult” is, for me, borderline impossible to overcome on occasion.

Being on the spectrum often makes someone much more susceptible to bullying and social isolation, as it makes your brain fundamentally different from most of the children around you, and that is a specific breed of traumatic experience in itself. It is rather difficult to explain to someone who has not endured it. I experienced unshakeable loneliness growing up on the spectrum. I grew up desperate for answers to questions I had about myself that nobody could answer. Until quite recently, the behaviors I’d exhibited — intense special interests, rejection sensitivity, emotional and sensory hypersensitivity, an inability to understand certain social constructs — were just dismissed as normal teenage things or simply as quirks I had.

I’ve endured two specific types of quote-unquote trauma growing up: emotional and sensory. Certain emotional events in my life have, in colloquial terms, messed me up quite a bit to this day, as have specific sensory experiences that many people would just deem typical life experiences. I’ll begin with my emotional experiences.

I was bullied throughout my elementary school life, and it peaked when I was in grade five. During that period of my life, I felt abandoned and alone, and out of control and had no idea how to cope with the intense emotions that I was feeling. It eventually faded, with the person who had caused that emotional turmoil for me leaving my life, but those feelings were not going to leave my life so quickly. I learned how to push them away through other unhealthy coping mechanisms: not sleeping, not eating, overworking myself, keeping intense emotions in as to not burden others: punishing my body and mind through depriving it of necessary factors to life. It made me feel in control of a tiny part of my life, a life that I felt was too turbulent and overwhelming for me ever to feel happy and in control of it.

Socially, I felt as though I was an alien, a freak of nature that did not seem to understand the rules that everyone else seemed to have memorized and could follow with a fluid grace that I envied and still do envy. I was, and still am, a somewhat awkward person. That was part of the reason behind my being bullied.

Once middle school came around, especially in grade eight, I felt that there was a massive difference between my peers and I. I am not quite sure if it was because I was more aware of it or because there was actually more of a difference between us than during our younger years. The loneliness just seemed to get worse: it became hardly bearable, and high school became a dream for me.

“I just need to get to high school.”

“I just need to get to high school. Then it’ll be OK.”

But I was so wrong.

High school eradicated the social worries and anxiety I experienced as a middle schooler in a small school. I found a group of friends who care about me for me and make me feel so loved and included, and I could not be more grateful for them. However, I found new trouble in the environment: sensory processing problems.

With high school came a new kind of traumatic experience that I had not yet experienced in the quantity that attending a large school would lead to: sensory overload. Sensory overload is experienced differently by all individuals on the spectrum, so I will be speaking exclusively about my experience with it and how it has affected my life.

For me, sensory overload feels like scenes in a movie where it is implied that a character is intoxicated or otherwise inebriated: everything is too bright. There’s a sickening ringing in the air, and my skin hurts in the same manner that it does when I have the flu. I get pain in my stomach, head, and eyes, and sometimes even lose the ability to force out coherent sentences, instead resorting to “I can’t do this,” or, “Please get me out of here,” in an endless loop. In varying degrees, I spent every day at school in sensory overload. I found ways to reduce it and reduce my visible reactions, but I spent every day in varying degrees of pain. It made me exhausted, irritable, and terrified of any kind of experience that would be worse sensory-wise than walking through the halls at school.

Even now, when I’m in sensory overload, I experience a sort of “emotional flashback” that digs up memories of breaking down in single-stall school bathrooms and feeling overwhelmed while trying to learn in class. It’s gotten better, as I have not been in the overwhelming school environment in a while, but I’m still overcoming the problems my hypersensitivity has led to emotionally. However, over the years, I have developed coping strategies that have greatly helped me be more productive in these circumstances — sometimes even more productive than I could have been, even if not in overwhelming circumstances.

I suppose I am concluding that there’s a certain species of trauma unique to growing up neurodivergent. Of course, I cannot speak for all neurodivergent people. However, those who I know and have asked, who are on the spectrum or have other neurodevelopmental conditions, all agree there’s a sense of loneliness, of not understanding why you can’t comprehend things that other kids seem to understand perfectly, whether that be social cues, being able to focus in class, reading, numbers, etc. However, I will be focusing mainly on my experiences as a person on the autism spectrum.

In my research as to why my brain operates in the way it does surrounding troubling times, I found that the HPA-axis (the main stress response system of the human body), is especially sensitive and reactive in the bodies and brains of those on the autism spectrum. I found a research paper in which scientists measured the cortisol levels to determine the disparity in HPA-axis activation in autistic individuals versus ballistic (non-autistic) individuals.

First, I’d like to describe the functions of the HPA-axis and why it is so essential to human beings, regardless of whether they are autistic or allistic. The full name of the HPA-axis is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and it is a complex set of direct influences and feedback interactions among three components: the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. The HPA-axis controls many processes in the body, including but not limited to digestion, the immune system, mood and emotions, sexuality, and energy storage and expenditure. It is a common ground for interactions between glands, hormones, and the parts of the midbrain that mediate and regulate stress. These functions are essential for human survival. The HPA-axis also produces cortisol, the aptly named “stress hormone.” In large quantities and for prolonged periods of time, cortisol can have adverse effects on many of the body’s tissues, causing harmful and long-term health effects.

In previous studies, it was found that people on the autism spectrum often have higher levels of cortisol in their systems, as well as serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, dehydroepiandrosterone, and other various hormones and neuroactive substrates.

What does this mean in a practical sense?

Higher cortisol levels are often associated with anxiety disorders, memory and concentration disruptions, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, heart conditions, and digestive conditions. Another influence that can change cortisol levels is trauma. Trauma frequently causes a chronic state of hyperactivation of the sympathetic nervous system and HPA-axis, even in allistic people. That, added to the fact that autistic people are already predisposed to PTSD and HPA-axis hyperactivation, leads me to the conclusion that the chronic stress that I experienced isn’t just a result of being a normal teenager, but is actually because of both my brain chemistry and the way my life has treated me.

This is not a shocking piece of information for me, but I do find it sobering to know that stress is the reason why my body is the way it is. However, this knowledge and my own experiences only make me want to share this information so others who may be in a similar situation can use it to help themselves.

Getty image by Izumiko Bayashi.