Exclusion and Trauma

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

About the Author

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH, is the executive director at AANE and the author of Parenting Without Panic. Brenda is a mom of three, and her eldest is an Autistic transgender woman. Brenda has facilitated parent support groups for over 20 years and thoroughly enjoys creating an environment where parents can find the support, information, and the community they need.

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Warning: This article discusses trauma, including school-related incidents.

When we think of someone experiencing trauma, we often imagine that they have lived through events like wars, assaults, or natural disasters. When we think about autism and trauma, we need to expand our understanding and recognize that many Autistic individuals have had a series of experiences that have caused trauma. Walking through a world that is not set up for your neurology means that you are more likely to encounter significant daily challenges just from being Autistic. Repeated exclusion from others, feeling like you need to mask to fit in, or having to participate in activities or be in environments that cause sensory overload is stressful and exhausting. And as these experiences pile up, they can turn into trauma. 

Authenticity and Belonging

One of the most common ways Autistic children and adults can feel traumatized is by how they are treated by others who do not understand or respect their differences. Recently I learned that bullying and exclusion predict Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) more strongly than being exposed to violence in Autistic people. I see the painful effects of bullying and exclusion every day with those I work with and within my own family.

When my Autistic daughter was in middle school over a decade ago, she sat down at a lunch table with kids who had been her friends in elementary school. A minute after she sat down, these kids all stood up at the same time and moved to another table, leaving my daughter alone and confused. She looked around, found where they had moved, and walked over to sit with them again. A minute later, these kids all stood up and moved again. My daughter sat for a moment and then followed them. The next time these kids stood up to move, they told her to stay put. And so she sat at the table, alone, until the bell rang.

My daughter, Rachel, gave me permission to share this story to illustrate the profound and long-term impact experiences like this can have. At the time, she didn’t understand why kids she thought were her friends treated her as if she didn’t matter. For many years, experiences like this contributed to her extreme social anxiety that kept her from making new friends. Today, with the help of an excellent therapist, social activities that fit her interests and comfort level, and people who accept her as she is, Rachel is making new friends and feeling less isolated. 

Unfortunately, I know my daughter is not unique in her experience. Many Autistic adults and teens have shared their stories of being bullied or excluded at work, school, or family events. And these traumatic experiences often lead to heightened fight or flight responses or avoidance of social situations – which often makes people feel more misunderstood, anxious, and isolated. 

So what can we do to decrease the exclusion and bullying that leads to trauma? We need to create activities and spaces where Autistic people can be their authentic selves and be accepted without having to mask to fit in. We need to eradicate the isolation that is so commonplace by creating supportive communities that are truly safe and inclusive. And if you are feeling excluded or are looking for a community, please reach out to us at AANE. You are not alone.

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