Hands overlapping with a heart painted in the middle


In expanding our definitions of trauma, we must make sure we see trauma as a structural issue, not just an individual one. Scholars now recognize what people from marginalized communities have always known: oppression, bias, and discrimination cause trauma (Haines, 2019; Becker-Blease, 2017; Khasnabis & Goldin, 2020). Racism causes trauma. Islamophobia causes trauma. Heterosexism causes trauma. Transphobia causes trauma. And I’m not just talking about visible incidences of hate crimes. Oppression causes trauma through the ways it is built into the everyday structures of school and society and how these structures have persisted throughout generations. Trauma doesn’t just happen at home—students can be traumatized by conditions and events in schools, and schools can cause trauma. And trauma’s effects can be passed down through generations and spread through communities.

Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education

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

What Types of Events or Conditions Cause Trauma?

Judith L. Herman, a leading voice in the literature on trauma, wrote that “traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life” (1992/2015, p. 33). The modern concept of trauma was developed through the activism of Vietnam War veterans and women survivors of domestic violence (Herman, 1992/2015; Van der Kolk, 2015). Since that initial wave of activism and research, our understanding of trauma has expanded greatly, and it is now recognized that many types of events and circumstances can cause a traumatic response, including abuse, neglect, bullying, racism, natural disasters, and more.

Trauma can also be understood from a collective lens, as when a community undergoes a shared trauma (e.g., the Jewish community and the Holocaust). Historical trauma refers to the collective impact of trauma throughout generations (Brave Heart et al., 2011). And we can also understand trauma as an ongoing environment. Educator and healing justice advocate Shawn A. Ginwright (2016, p. 3) has pointed out that for many youth of color there is no “post” as in posttraumatic stress disorder; instead they experience a persistent traumatic stress environment.

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 

People who enter services are frequently society’s most vulnerable—people who have experienced extensive trauma, adversity, abuse, and oppression throughout their lives. At the same time, I struggle with the word “trauma” because it signifies some huge, overt event that needs to pass some arbitrary line of “bad enough” to count. I prefer the terms “stress” and “adversity.” In the book, I speak to the problem of language and how this insinuates differences that are not there, judgments, and assumptions that are untrue. Our brains and bodies don’t know the difference between “trauma” and “adversity”—a stressed fight/flight state is the same regardless of what words you use to describe the external environment. I’m tired of people saying “nothing bad ever happened to me” because they did not experience “trauma.” People suffer, and when they do, it’s for a reason.

Psychiatric Retraumatization: A Conversation About Trauma and Madness in Mental Health Services – Mad In America

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

Survival Mode

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 

Fight, flight or flood

Agitated, crying, trying to get away, angry, pacing, aggressive, violent, speaking fast or more loudly than usual. 

Window of tolerance

calm, engaged with life, able to cope when things go slightly wrong.

Fawn, flop or freeze

Keeping still, shut down, not able to hear or respond. OR very compliant.

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 


Being trauma-informed means consciously cultivating space in our mental models so that, even if we know nothing about a particular set of circumstances, we avoid the temptation to mindlessly apply rules.

How Trauma-Informed Are We, Really? – ASCD

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.

The trouble surfaces when we apply trauma-informed education in ways that risk reproducing trauma or that ignore significant sources of trauma. It is in response to that trouble that I share three transformative commitments for trauma-informed education. My hope is that, by embracing these commitments, we might maximize the transformative potential of trauma-informed education rather than just layering it onto our program pile.

Commitment 1

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.

Commitment 2

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.

Commitment 3

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

But if we’re trauma-aware, we realize that the burden can’t be on people—on children—experiencing trauma to educate those who created the institutional culture in which the trauma is happening. That expectation is, itself, potentially traumatizing.

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.

Source: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education

Hands overlapping with a heart painted in the middle
Fingers bathed in rainbow light form a heart shape

Principle 4: Human centered—Trauma-informed education means centering our shared humanity.

Principle 5: Universal and proactive—Trauma-informed education is a universal approach, implemented proactively.

Principle 6: Social justice focused—Trauma-informed education aims to create a trauma-free world.

Source: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education

  1. ​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.
  2. ​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.
  3. ​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.
  4. ​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.

Source: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education

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:

  • 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.
Review: Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education | Human Restoration Project | Chris McNutt
Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Teaching w/ Alex Venet

Autism, Trauma, and Stress

In other words, autistic people are indeed traumatised by a wider range of things than the teams were expecting. And diagnostic teams should be considering PTSD after a wider list of possible triggering events.

Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, Bullying, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Behaviour. The links?

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).

A review that examined trauma and PTSD among adults with intellectual impairments discussed the difficulty to differentiate between stressful life events and traumatic events, and argued for broadening the examination of different types of events and experiences that may potentially be perceived as traumatic (Martorell & Tsakanikos, 2008). Another review, by Kerns et al. (2015), indicated that individuals with ASD may experience a variety of stressful situations (e.g. intense sensory stimuli, changes in routine, medical ordeals) as traumatic. Various characteristics of sensation, perception, social awareness, and cognition, which are unique to individuals with ASD, may determine which events would be experienced by them as traumatic. A recent article discussed this issue and focused on traumatic subjective perception of three groups of patients who are at risk to developing PTSD, one being ASD (Brewin et al., 2019). The authors argued that these groups’ PTSS are often overlooked and suggested adding an “altered perception” subtype to PTSD criteria in the future. Specifically, it is possible that social stressors are a significant source of vulnerability for individuals with ASD (Haruvi-Lamdan et al., 2018; Hoover, 2015). Several studies suggest that social demands are more often appraised as stressful by individuals with ASD compared with typical individuals (Gillott & Standen, 2007; Jansen et al., 2003). Individuals with ASD experience greater social isolation and distress compared with their typical peers (Tani et al., 2012). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that some social interactions are experienced as particularly stressful, and even traumatic, among this population.

Source: Autism Spectrum Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: An unexplored co-occurrence of conditions – Nirit Haruvi-Lamdan, Danny Horesh, Shani Zohar, Meital Kraus, Ofer Golan, 2020


Glad to see a topic important to the community getting some research and validation.


This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

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.

Source: Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story – The Peripheral Minds of Autism

Trauma and Mental Health Services

The messages put forth by the powers that be were strong: mental illness is a life-long biological disease over which one has little control and trauma is essentially background noise.

Trauma and Madness in Mental Health Services
Trauma and Madness in 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

Further reading,