What is Autism and What is Trauma?

I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to tell the difference between the actual symptoms of autism and the symptoms of trauma that come from being rejected over a period of years for being autistic and after that, avoiding things that you might or might not be good at because of the trauma, but not actually the autism. Here’s my best attempt to make a couple of different lists of autism symptoms versus trauma symptoms.

Autism Symptoms:

1. Lack of eye contact

2. Special interest

3. Difficulty reading faces, body language

4. Tendency to take things literally

5. Not understanding typical humor

6. Enjoying finding patterns and repetition

7. Proprioception issues: clumsiness, etc.

8. Picky eating

9. Sensitivity to noise, lights, smells

10. Alexithymia (misunderstanding emotions)

Trauma Symptoms:

1. Trying hard to make eye contact even if it is painful — but not too much

2. Never talking about my special interests because I think they’re boring to others

3. Avoidance of social situations

4. Laughing automatically

5. Assuming that if there was a miscommunication, it was my fault

6. Extreme reliance on schedules and habits because those are the only safe ways to exist in the world

7. Rigidity because it wasn’t explained to me why it had to be a different way

8. Avoiding sports, especially team sports because I was always told I was bad at these things in childhood

9. Constant apologizing for being who I am, liking what I like, and not being up on current fashionable things, shows, etc.

10. Explaining my food habits as “healthy.”

Ultimately, I think that the trauma symptoms of autism might be more difficult to deal with than the autism itself. I suspect that this is especially true for those of us who are diagnosed late (and possibly for women, who have been told our social role all our lives and shamed if it doesn’t fit us well). I listen to younger autists and they seem to have very few of the trauma symptoms that I have. Some of them are frustrated with me and my tendency to be ashamed of my autism or to apologize for it. But I can’t figure out how to get from here to there. Autism was shameful for most of my life. That’s why I wasn’t diagnosed. It’s why it’s still difficult for me to talk about my diagnosis.

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