Autism and Trauma

Tanya Kemp

Autism and it’s brainy relation to Trauma

The Autism brain in many ways compares structurally to a brain that has experienced early neurodevelopmental trauma.

This should give us a good idea of the amount of stress that the autistic brain experiences and perceives, living in the world as we know it.  Due to it’s incredibly sensitive neuroception, which is a fancy way of referring to the brain’s alarm system searching and scanning, constantly for threat, the autism brain not only starts out structurally different from birth, but it continues to develop differently. It experiences many threats to safety, is often overwhelmed by the environment, and has a tendency to form fear-based memories. The brain, because of neuroplasticity ‘makes what it needs’ and when the brain has certain experiences, over and over, the way in which it develops is shaped by those experiences.  

The thalamus collects sensory data and does a big data dump in both the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to search for danger. When it senses danger (whether real or perceived), a switch is flicked (it takes about a fifth of a second), at which point cortisol and adrenaline is released, heart rate speeds up, focus narrows – you guessed it: fight or flight. The key thing here is that even if the amygdala ASSUMES danger, or is CONFUSED by something…. the brain is wired: “if I don’t understand, it’s dangerous”. It always errs on the side of caution.

So, if our children have difficulties in processing sensory information or find sensory information confusing, the uncertainty alone is enough for an amygdala highjack.  Feeling confused in social interactions, or overwhelmed by multiple processing demands, the cumulative effect of multiple stressors across various domains – all make the amygdala more prone to get hijacked. 

We don’t need to relate to or understand our children’s experience of the world. What we need to do though, is BELIEVE them. We need to treat them in a trauma informed way – sensitively, empathically, slow. The last thing they need to thrive, is for us to add to their overwhelm. 

What can we as parents do to support our kids?

In addition to the essential sensory integration and enrichment work as part of the sensory diet (which often leads to major shifts in behaviour and anxiety in general), we can also look at our children’s behaviour as communication. In particular, assuming the behaviour is saying: ‘I don’t feel safe’.

Don’t lead with the question: “Why aren’t you behaving?” or ‘what are you doing?” or “why did you just DO that?” or “what is wrong with you?”

Instead, know your child’s biggest need in times of distress or dysregulation, is to feel safe. Let your tone, your body position, your touch, your eyes, your words( if you use any), communicate the message  : “you are safe”

Until the point where you establish a connection with your child as they may turn to you or begin to believe you are ‘safe’, you’re talking to the amygdala and the amygdala is not a good conversationalist.

When our kids become overwhelmed, anxious, aggressive, defiant, disorganized, agitated, more sensory seeking, or more disorganised in their speech/actions,  or are more withdrawn, or are perhaps more noisy than usual or uses more echolalia, they may be showing us their responses to an amygdala hijack. We need to become experts at how our children’s bodies communicates stress because they will not tell you in a kind and coherent way. You just need to trust that when they cause pain, they are in pain and they need your help more than ever.

The aim is to become an attuned space. Be a place of trust and become grounded to each other. Telling a child to ‘stop’ isn’t aligning yourself with the child. Being calm and allowing the space to feel is essential. It is the hardest, yet most important thing - to become a regulated space in the chaos


Belly breathing as a family: Practice belly breathing as a family together. Start off all lying on your backs with stuffies on your bellies – watch the stuffies move up and down as the belly expands and falls with the in and out breath. Move on to parents holding hands on the kids’ bellies and asking the kids to ‘breathe into my hands’. 

Lily and I will do this at bedtime and oftentimes she will lie on my belly and we will ‘breathe together’ expanding our bellies and breathing into each other. It doesn’t last ages, but it’s very calming and fosters connection.


Can you take a moment to recall the last time you laughed?

Can you watch a funny video now or otherwise make yourself smile?