Autism, ADHD, and Family Trauma Disguised as Drama
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Autism, ADHD, and family trauma are unfortunately intertwined. I talk a lot on this blog about the importance of the framework a diagnosis provides. What I talk about less (because I’m still actively living, experiencing, and processing it) is how that framework continues to evolve. Having the framework of autism and ADHD is incredibly helpful. However, for many of us who start operating under that framework as adults, we start realizing just how much trauma we’ve been subjected to.
The framework of a diagnosis helps us understand ourselves better. We understand our reactions to things better. Behaviors we’ve had or learned to hide since childhood suddenly make sense to us. But as we start to understand ourselves better, we start see others’ treatment of us differently.
Recently I’ve had some big breakthroughs in coping with my autism, ADHD, and family trauma that have changed how I see things.
Waves of Trauma Processing
The shock or adjustment to a diagnosis isn’t a one-time thing; it becomes waves of changing framework. And with those waves of changing framework brings waves of trauma processing for those with autism, ADHD, and family trauma.
You just never really know how big or small the next wave is going to be. Even if you’re watching the flow for signs of what to anticipate, those waves can (and will) still surprise you. Just as you get oriented after being pummeled by one realization, something else rushes into place. Suddenly another wave is smashing into you. You’re thrown in every direction all at once, unsure of which way is up and desperate to find your footing. Once you find it, you’re left to orient yourself and hope you can figure out where you’re supposed to be.
Only, you’re not actually at the beach. You’re an adult with adult responsibilities, expectations, and judgements that come with them. How are you expected to catch your breath?
Neurodivergent Children and the Dramatic Trope
Recently I’ve realized how much of my autism, ADHD, and family trauma is intensely tied to the dramatic neurodivergent trope. When parents tell people their child is autistic or has ADHD, there’s a common response. It’s along the lines of: “Wow, that must be so difficult for you!”. So much of the narrative around autism and ADHD revolves around how it impacts the parents rather than their child’s experiences and needs.
Autistic people feel things deeply and have an enhanced sense of justice. This is often perceived as an inability to let things go, being overly dramatic, or attention seeking. This perception is false and damaging. In reality, we take in more sensory input than neurotypicals. That sensory overload triggers a fight or flight response. We are responding directly to things as we feel them. Then we are diminished, dismissed, and punished rather than being heard and having our needs met.
Autism, ADHD, and Family Trauma and the Impact on Young Brains
Autism and Alexithymia
As a result, we are traumatized AF. 1 in 5 autistic people have alexithymia, a condition that makes it difficult to identify and describe our emotions. It causes us to struggle with how to show or feel emotions in socially appropriate ways. Some experts think alexithymia as a co-occurring condition with autism. Others, including many within the autism community, are of the opinion we develop it as a trauma response. As children we are told so often that what we are feeling is wrong. For autistic children who feel things more intensely, many are punished for their feelings to the point we learn to separate ourselves from our feelings. This can lead to outbursts that even surprise the individual. The individual must work backwards from the outburst to try and make sense of what emotions led to the outburst.
Autism and PTSD
Additionally, autistic people are more likely to experience PTSD than the general population. PTSD and autism have many similar symptoms. As a result, many autistic women with PTSD only get half a diagnosis. With only their PTSD diagnosed, the stress responses related to autism cannot be assessed or treated. When we are repeatedly exposed to stress, it alters our brain. When that happens too many times, it can lead to PTSD or CPTSD.
So basically, autistic children are regularly and falsely perceived as being overly dramatic. They are forced by the adults in their lives to ignore the signals their brain is sending them. This can lead to lifelong issues such as alexithymia and CPTSD, among other conditions. Yet, the trope of the dramatic autistic child persists.
Age Appropriate Issues
In a weird twist of irony, autistic people never really get to be treated their age. As adults we are often infantilized over our interests or how we dress. But as children, many of us were treated older than our age. Many autistic children have hyperlexia, or advanced reading skills. This can make them well-spoken with a broad vocabulary that may give a sense of being wiser than our years.
Newsflash: young children that are interested in wind-turbines and comfortable talking with adults isn’t a sign of maturity. Those are symptoms of special interests, masking, and difficulty making age-appropriate friends. They say autistic people can’t read social cues but I maintain it’s odd that neurotypical adults don’t see this kind of behavior for what it is and instead treat the child like an adult. For many autistic girls I know, myself included, this also put us in the role of being a parents’ confidant at a young age.
We’ve covered a lot of ground so let’s recap: we’ve all been told our experiences are invalid, we develop alexithymia and CPTSD to cope. Then adults start talking to us like we’re also adults even though we’re literally children. When we can’t handle it all, we have meltdowns and outbursts and get labeled as dramatic, difficult, and hard-to-handle. Seems legit and super, super fair.
Airing My Personal Trauma
I didn’t start this blog with the intention of using it to air my family trauma and drama. That being said, I think my experiences are probably ones many other neurodivergent people can relate to so I’m going to share in hopes it may help somebody else.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand my family better once I started learning more about neurodivergence. It has helped in some ways but if I can take the time to try and understand them better, why have they taken so little time trying to understand me? I was a literal child with divorced parents, an alcoholic, abusive, narcissist of a dad who lived two states away while my mom was blending a family with a man who never seemed to like me. None of my friends or their parents ever seemed to like him either but surely it was just my poor, childish taste in friends.
I’ve realized that for as long as I can remember, my mom has fed me the things she’s upset about with my step-dad. When I get tired of watching him treat everyone terribly, I inevitably say something thanks to that good ‘ol autistic sense of justice. I take the heat and inevitable punishment of his temper. My mom gets to play peacekeeper and still talk to him about the things she wanted to talk about without taking the brunt of his anger.
How Not to Pathologize Your Autistic Child
For this they have pathologized me for the last 25 years as being dramatic and the main source of problems in the household. My step-dad even recently accused me of trying to drive a wedge in his relationship with my mom for the last ten years. I have lived 6,000 miles away for the last eleven years now. I have also come to learn my step-dad has similar battles with his daughter. In my absence the last decade, I’ve heard the rest of our family pathologize her similarly to how I felt they treated me. She is also autistic and just moved across the country from the rest of the family. Gee, I wonder why.
Internalizing the Dramatic Child Trope
For too long I crassly assumed my struggles with relationships could be pinned on my dad. Later I started to understand the impact my autism and ADHD also had. What I wasn’t prepared for (even though everyone warns you that wedding planning brings up a lot of unhealed childhood trauma) was realizing how little of it is actually related to my dad. I spent most of my time at my mom and step-dad’s and I had to walk on an equal amount of eggshells around him as I did my biological dad.
Whenever his temper blew up over something, I wasn’t one to back down because I don’t respect arbitrary social hierarchies if you don’t have any respect for me as a person. My mom would never defend me and would just send me to my room, dismiss my feelings and tell me to just let things go. In private, she’d tell me she agreed that he was being unfair. She would do things to ease my grounding like let me text my friends from her phone when mine had been taken away.
I’ve realized these behaviors are the root of my anxious attachment style. Their treatment of me left me feeling difficult and hard to love. Like my real emotions were something wrong with me and too much for anyone to handle. That if I did find someone to love me and settle down with, they’d probably leave me at some point because I’m so difficult. I still can’t believe I’m lucky enough to have my wonderful husband who has shown me more love, understanding, and support than I’ve ever known. He has enabled me to start working through all of this while still feeling secure in our relationship.
While I’m airing some dirty laundry here, I’m also avoiding (see: desperately resisting) the urge to give a play-by-play of recent family drama because that’s not what this blog is about. The recent drama did make me thankful for a few reasons though. First, while I obviously need to continue working on being more flexible and to let things go more (show me an autistic person who doesn’t though) I’ve noticed a key difference. The things my husband asks me to let go of more are things that don’t actually matter to us. Things like putting off some deep cleaning, trying to solve a mysterious part of someone else’s drama or a plot hole in something we watched. The things my parents are always telling me to let go of is their behavior, especially if I feel they’ve treated me unfairly.
Secondly, I’m thankful that it’s allowed me to feel more confident in myself and my relationship. I don’t think my anxious attachment style will go away overnight. But this most recent round of autism, ADHD, and family trauma processing opened my eyes. I know I am not the easiest person to be around but I also now realize I was surviving a much more toxic household than I previously realized. That leaves a lot of things to be unlearned that have nothing to do with me, my autism, or my ADHD.
This has left me feeling less broken and problematic and more aware that I don’t deserve the crappy treatment they previously had me convinced I did.
Healing From Family Trauma
I am obviously not healed from my autism, ADHD, and family trauma. I am literally in the thick of realizing the depth of “healing is a journey.” But maybe if we all actually talk about it more with one another, more people can recognize the gaslighting sooner. Maybe they’ll stop internalizing the blame the way I have for years and resent themselves less because they’ll actually be allowed to love themselves.
I’m not sure I have any sage advice here beyond you gotta do the work. It sucks and it’s exhausting, but it’s worth it. Therapy is expensive but three books that have really helped me lately are:
- Autism in Heels by Jennifer Cook O’Toole
- You’re not Crazy – You’re Codependent by Jeanette Elisabeth Menter
- Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson
- The Truth about Cinderella: A Darwinian View of Parental Love by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson
Everything is Not Your Fault
You are not the problem. We are all humans and therefore full of flaws. Our neurodivergent experiences are not less valid and our feelings don’t matter less just because they’re inconvenient for other people.
If there are relationships that leave you feeling drained every time you interact, or you always leave feeling badly about yourself and like you can’t truly be yourself; I encourage you to examine why. What are the themes of the stories they tell and the conversations they have? How do they interact with other important people in your life? Do they ever take any accountability and apologize? When they do nice things, do they use it against you later? Are they consistent with what they tell you and what they tell others? Do they always seem to have stories about their conflicts with other people?
Everyone’s autism, ADHD, and family trauma are different. These questions may mean nothing to you or they could lead you into the next wave the way they did me. Wherever you’re at in your autism diagnosis, ADHD diagnosis, and/or healing journey. I hope something I unloaded here was helpful and wish you strength and happiness as your world continues to change around you.