What Is Trauma?
Trauma can be both an individual and collective response to life-threatening events, harmful conditions, or a prolonged dangerous or stressful environment. Not all stressful experiences are traumatic to individuals. For those who do develop a trauma response, the impact can be intense, pervasive, and disruptive, affecting both the mind and the body.
Trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder are not interchangeable terms. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is defined by a specific set of symptoms identified by psychologists, but not all people who experience trauma will be diagnosed with PTSD, and not all indicators of trauma align with PTSD symptoms. A more expansive definition of trauma goes beyond a pathological/medical definition and understands trauma as a collective and sociopolitical concept.Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education
When something happens which makes us feel unsafe, our brains respond by going into survival mode. Your brain sees something frightening, feels you are in life threatening danger and it must do whatever it can to get you to a sense of safety.
This is a natural process and it’s there to keep us alive. If you meet a wild animal, you need to get away fast, and so your brain will prioritise that. It won’t waste time looking around to check if that animal is really dangerous, it will just tell you to get out of there, now! There’s no time to stop and think.
The word ‘trauma’ is used to mean several different things. Sometimes it’s used to mean an actual event – like, we might describe a road traffic accident as ‘a trauma’. Other times it’s used to describe what happens in our brains during and after an event – more like a ‘traumatic stress response’.
When a traumatic event happens, our brains go into survival mode – and then, once we are safe again, our brains go back to normal. We feel safe and calm again, even if the event was really scary.
However, sometimes things which happen can affect us for years afterwards. Even when we are safe from whatever made us feel in danger at first, our brains continue to behave as if we are under threat. That means that you might have the urge to run away, or to fight, or to freeze – when actually there is nothing dangerous. Your survival mode is being triggered and it can feel really frightening. This is a traumatic stress response. Sometimes that might lead to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).Understanding Autism and Trauma
Those who are the most sensitive and traumatised and have not lost the ability to extend trust constitute an enormously rich and diverse repository of insights and hold many of the keys needed for co-creating ecologies of care.Autistic people – The cultural immune system of human societies – YouTube
When we don’t feel safe, we go into survival mode. Lots of people know about the Fight or Flight response – and that’s quite easy to spot. When a person wants to fight or run away, you can usually tell by their body language. They might start to pace around, or speak more loudly, or appear aggressive. There is a risk for autistic young people that this is seen as ‘challenging behaviour’ and then they are punished for this. That will make things worse, because the reason for the ‘behaviour’ is that they feel unsafe and threatened. Punishment will make them feel even less safe, and so the behaviour is likely to escalate – which will then result in more punishment. Things can get worse and worse, then young people are put in seclusion, restrained or excluded.
However, there are other responses in survival mode. If our brains think that we can’t fight or run away, we might instead go into Freeze or Fawn mode. Freeze is when you are holding very still – like a rabbit in the headlights – not knowing what to do. When someone goes into freeze they may seem like they’re day dreaming, or they may look a bit ‘glazed’. Fawn is another mode, and this is when a person becomes very compliant and stops protesting. This makes sense if you can’t escape the frightening situation. Unfortunately at school this ‘Fawn’ response is often interpreted as a person being ‘Fine’ when actually they aren’t fine at all.
There are 6 survival responses in total: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, flop and flood. You can read more about them here.
It is really important to note here that survival mode isn’t always easy to spot. A common survival strategy that is detrimental to the wellbeing of autistic young people is masking. Sometimes, masking is a conscious choice, but for a lot of young people masking is a survival response. This is when a person is highly stressed but does not appear so from the outside, because they have gone into the ‘Fawn’ mode of survival.Understanding Autism and Trauma
When your body is highly aroused and you are outside your window of tolerance, it’s more likely that you will feel threatened by things which usually might not make you feel under threat. You can cope with less because you’re already outside what you can manage. If this goes too far, a person will go into meltdown.Understanding Autism and Trauma
But I’m also a champion of trauma-informed education, something I came by through experience. As an elementary-aged child, I was sexually abused repeatedly by an older boy who lived in my neighborhood. I know something of trauma.
I carried that trauma everywhere: soccer practice, the dinner table, school. And I behaved in perfectly reasonable ways for a sexually abused child to behave (Everstine; Everstine, 2015). I was restless. I passionately resisted being in confined spaces with adults.
Teachers called this “acting up.” They punished me for little behaviors that I now know were proportionate to my trauma (as, really, any behavior is for a sexually abused child). Then, because I received poor behavior assessments, I was punished at home. I can’t recall anyone being curious about why I behaved the way I did. There was no root cause behavior analysis, just reactive rule-flinging.
So, I’m all in on trauma-informed education—by which I mean I’m all in on what it can be if we commit to applying it mindfully and equitably.
Attend to the practices, policies, and aspects of institutional culture that traumatize children at school
My biggest source of trauma is how I’m treated here. In every school, the first trauma-informed step should be mapping out all the ways students, families, and even we, as educators, experience trauma at school. When we skip this step, we render the entire trauma-informed effort a hypocrisy.
We must infuse trauma-informed education with a robust understanding of, and responsiveness to, the traumas of systemic oppression
Shari associated her trauma with racism and transphobia at school. Her story is a critical lesson on why we should shake free from the deficit-oriented view that traumas are mostly the result of students’ home lives. This view obscures the traumatizing impacts of systemic oppression. If we’re not responsive to these impacts, we’re enacting a privilege-laden version of trauma-informed education.
Dislodge hyper-punitive cultures and ideologies
Bad ideologies are harder to break than bad practices. This might be why, in my experience, the hardest transition for most schools adopting trauma-informed education involves dislodging hyper-punitive educator ideologies and school cultures. Perhaps philosophically we recognize that avoiding reactive rule-flinging and responding to the root causes of student behavior is a trauma-informed practice. But to what extent do we apply this in practice? Hyper-punitive ideologies remain an education epidemic, even in supposedly trauma-informed schools.How Trauma-Informed Are We, Really? – ASCD
Principle 1: Antiracist, anti-oppression—Trauma-informed education is antiracist and against all forms of oppression.
Principle 2: Asset based—Trauma-informed education is asset based and doesn’t attempt to fix kids, because kids are not broken. Instead, it addresses the conditions, systems, and structures that harm kids.
Principle 3: Systems oriented—Trauma-informed education is a full ecosystem, not a list of strategies.
Principle 5: Universal and proactive—Trauma-informed education is a universal approach, implemented proactively.
- Shift from a reactive stance, in which we identify who has been traumatized and support them, to a proactive approach. Trauma-informed practices are universal and benefit everyone.
- Shift from a savior mentality, in which we see ourselves as rescuing broken kids, to unconditional positive regard, a mindset that focuses on the inherent skills, capacities, and value of every student. Educators shouldn’t aim to heal, fix, or save but to be connection makers and just one of many caring adults in a child’s life.
- Shift from seeing trauma-informed practices as the responsibility of individual teachers to embedding them in the way that we do school, from policies to practice. Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed leaders.
- Shift from focusing only on how trauma affects our classroom to seeing how what happens in our classroom can change the world. We can partner with our students as change makers for a more just society.
When we shift our focus to systems, we recognize that we must see trauma as a problem for everyone, not only certain individuals. This builds into the principles of an equity-centered, trauma-informed education:
Review: Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education | Human Restoration Project | Chris McNutt
- It’s anti-racist and focuses on anti-oppression. One must understand oppression to recognize it and properly fight against it.
- It’s asset-based. We recognize that children have the inherent capacity to survive, thrive, and heal. We’re not saviors by helping them — instead we’re preventing inequities that cause harm.
- It’s system-oriented. Policies must be changed from the top down to make structural changes in oppressive practices.
- It’s human-centered. A classroom centered on standardization and depersonalization prevents us from treating people like humans. One we embrace zero-tolerance or one-size-fits-all models, we never leave room for flexibility or individualism.
- It’s universal and proactive. This form of education is meant to help everyone — not rank, sort, or file them.
- And it’s social justice focused. Ending the practices that currently exists is just the start, then we must push for a more just world.
Autism, Trauma, and Stress
This study on autism and PTSD offers some relatable paragraphs about stress and trauma.
It is well documented that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience high rates of psychiatric co-occurrence, with other conditions—attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression being the most commonly diagnosed (Joshi et al., 2012). Recently it has been suggested that individuals with ASD are at an increased risk of experiencing potentially traumatic events and being significantly affected by them (Haruvi-Lamdan et al., 2018; Kerns et al., 2015).
Glad to see a topic important to the community getting some research and validation.
This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.
“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”
That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with Autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience. It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior. In work situations I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.
What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of an over-sensitive physiology and ramped up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning of us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those with Autism are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.
Trauma and Mental Health Services
Since then, the field of trauma studies has continued to expand and the findings consistently support instinctual wisdom: people go mad, become aggressive, and are fearful because they have been profoundly hurt. Despite these findings, the biomedical paradigm continues to reign, treatment continues to be centered on a coercive and paternalistic framework, and “mental illness” is still asserted by many to be a real disease that is based in genetics and brain dysfunction. The trauma field at times perpetuates this both by separating out disorders based in trauma from what is believed to be more genetically determined illness, and by implying that trauma causes brain dysfunction that is permanent. Yet, brain difference does not equal disease, what is maladaptive in one context is actually highly adaptive in another, and the brain is constantly changing—nothing is necessarily permanent.
The harm done by excluding certain disorders from those based in trauma is particularly evident for categories such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. In this, an apparent conceptual separation exists that deems experiences like hearing voices or paranoia as “psychotic-like” in those individuals (usually White women) whose trauma is easily recognized as being associated with such experiences, while others (usually Black men) are designated as having a brain disease (i.e., schizophrenia ) and truly psychotic for expressing these same internal experiences in a more confusing or symbolic manner (Chap. 3). Perhaps more troubling are those individuals whose trauma is recognized but whose responses to this trauma are dismissed as a personality defect, manipulative, fake, and/or representative of a multitude of different diseases (i.e., comorbidity; Chaps. 2 and 4).
There is much debate within the mental health field as to how useful, if at all, these diagnoses are and if they actually inform or improve professional interventions.Trauma and Madness in Mental Health Services