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Autism and Trauma Recovery

In order to recover from trauma, there are 5 key factors:

Changing the environment to feel safe

If you aren’t yet safe, then it’s not possible to process your trauma.  Your body literally won’t let go of those memories if it still feels unsafe.  This might mean that things need to change at school, or that you need to decide that you won’t be going back to school at all.  It might mean that you need to stop contact with people who you aren’t comfortable around. It might mean reducing demands in your life. This could be deciding not to do so many GCSEs in one go, or having a break from some activities you regularly take part in, and prioritising your wellbeing for a while. 

Increasing general wellbeing

The better sense of wellbeing you have, the easier it is to process your trauma.  This might include things like exercising, eating food which makes you feel good and planning your life so that you can get enough time off between the things that you do. It will involve doing things that you enjoy and spending time with people who make you feel good about yourself. 

Using effective ways to process difficult experiences

When something difficult happens to you, you need to process that event in some way to help it move into the hippocampus. This can involve just talking and thinking about what happened.  It might involve talking to others to find out more about what went wrong, to make sense of the situation. 


It is only possible to use your techniques to process trauma if you are currently safe. If you are still repeatedly being exposed to the traumatic situation then your trauma response continues to be necessary to keep you safe.

Internal enablers

There are a few key feelings/ thoughts/ beliefs that you need in order to increase your ability to process trauma. 

External support

Even though there are things you can do to process trauma better, it is the people around you who have the power to enable these things. Therefore, they should take responsibility for helping to facilitate what you need in order to thrive, and ensure you are in a safe environment that prevents more trauma. There are also a few important things they can do to help with trauma processing, which you are unable to do on your own.


Changing the Environment to Feel Safe

If you have too many negative experiences (or experiences that are too difficult), you will not be able to process them in the short term, as they are too overwhelming! What happens to you exceeds your ability to cope. 


Having too much to process day to day also means that you will have no spare energy to process previous experiences, so you can stay highly traumatised.


It is important here to remember that some things may not be negative to everyone, but can be for you:  It’s okay for you to find things highly distressed which other people don’t.  Everyone experiences the world in a different way - just remember, there are people who climb very high buildings like the Eiffel Tower without a harness, for fun. One person’s fun can be another person’s nightmare.  


  1. If you are highly traumatised, you may have lots of triggers , because your brains perceive them as dangerous even if they are safe.  

  2. Often people do not realise how difficult loud sounds, bright lights and strong smells are because they do not experience the sensory world in the same way as autistic people. 


“The school bell sounds like a lion roaring inside my brain” - Autistic young person 


It is important for other people to try and understand how you experience things and to take you seriously when you say something is distressing, even if they don't perceive it the same way.


The more difficult experiences you have, the more stressed and traumatised we are likely to become. Having a high level of stress also means learning new things is much harder. You won't be able to learn new ways to process negative experiences and make plans to challenge our trauma if we are in a state of survival. 


Be really honest with yourself about how your daily life makes you feel.  You are probably used to telling yourself ‘I shouldn’t feel this way’ or ‘I should be able to do to this’.  Try to ignore those critical thoughts for a moment and just focus on how you really do feel. What makes you feel unsafe? How could it be changed? 

Increasing general wellbeing

"Autistic people have been through so much, we are often resilient enough. What we need is a reason to stay resilient."


Often, services follow a top down approach to wellbeing. They can focus on making adaptations to optimise learning, or teach 'coping strategies' for your current life situation. 


But to be able to process negative experiences (and to be able to learn!), you need to have the best possible wellbeing, and this is easier to achieve if a young person’s situation is improved, rather than learning how to cope when you are in a bad place. When you are struggling, it is also much more difficult to learn and implement coping strategies, as your energy may be focused on survival.

“When a person is drowning that is not the best time to teach them how to swim.” - David Pitonyak


We all want to do things that are new, meaningful and different. Every autistic child wants to learn and progress. But it isn't possible to do this if we do not feel safe.


Feeling safe may include not having external people coming into your home and activating triggers. If someone comes to your house and asks about going back into school while you are still traumatised by it, this will just make returning to school more difficult. It is like throwing a spider in the face of someone who has a spider phobia!


It might mean agreeing with your parents that they won’t make you go back to school, even if you start to feel happier.  It might mean agreeing that they will let you quit things without asking ‘Are you sure?’ and without giving you a lecture about giving up too easily.  


Wellbeing involves being able to do things you enjoy, keep your body and mind healthy and looking after yourself through things like pacing yourself through the day, giving yourself enough time off to recover from activities and spending time with people who help you feel good about yourself. 


We need a bottom up approach to wellbeing and we need people to know that it may take time to recover, then start to thrive.

Using effective ways to process difficult experiences

Processing difficult experiences means making sense of what happened to you.  When a memory is processed, it starts to feel like it’s in the past and you can talk about it without feeling very distressed.


It is important to note that it is not possible to process difficult experiences, or learn new ways to process experiences when you are highly stressed. You need to:

  • Change the environment so you are safe  

  • Increase general wellbeing 

before being able to use these strategies.


If you have a negative experience, no matter how small it may be, it is really important to be able to process this so it doesn't get stuck!


There are a few really helpful ways to process negative experiences which we would like to recommend. Some young people can try on their own, some can be done with support from the people around them.


Talking to a close/ trusted person

Sharing your emotions/ version of events with a trusted person is really important for being able to process negative experiences. 


While meltdowns are sometimes an important way to process emotions, a trusted person who has the right approach/ understanding can sometimes prevent this response and allow processing in a less hurtful way. This is explained more in the 'External Support' section. 


Physical activity 

Physical activity is known to have a wide range of health benefits, but physical activity is also fantastic for reducing stress. Doing the right activity based on how your body is feeling organises your nervous system, meaning you are more likely to be less stressed and more regulated. This then makes it easier to process negative experiences, in addition to reducing overall feelings of stress/ overwhelm. 


Physical activity isn't just sports like football or cycling, but it can be anything that gives the input you need to feel more calm/ relaxed, that also gives physical feedback. This can include:

  • Bouncing on a trampoline or trampette 

  • Running for a short period of time 

  • Stretching 

  • Hanging from a bar 

  • Swimming 

  • Using some weights

  • Climbing a tree

  • Going on a walk 

There is more info about sensory regulation on our Autism Understood website.


There are some possible barriers to physical activity it can be important to consider:

  • Some autistic people can find team sports difficult because of the unwritten rules of how the sports work, but others can thrive in team games, as they require less complex interaction than other forms of socialising.

  • Some activities are difficult to enjoy until you are good at them, and this steep learning curve that comes with a new activity can be hard for an autistic person who sets high expectations for themselves. 

  • Autistic people often have co-occurring conditions such as dyspraxia or hypermobility, which can make some physical activities difficult to take part in. This also means your ability to do physical exercise can change day by day, but also throughout the day.

  • We may struggle with the competitive aspect of games, as we often strive to be the best. So we may prefer physical activities that can be done individually. 


Some young people have said that they particularly enjoy climbing, bouldering, swimming, yoga, running and cycling as ways to keep active without having to be part of a team or be competitive. 


Mindfulness done the right way


Mindfulness is NOT just meditation/ yoga. Mindfulness is about doing anything that allows you to be ‘present’ in the moment. This makes it easier for thoughts to come and go. Something where you have a state of flow. When you have this and are thoroughly enjoying this/ engaged, it can make it a safer space for thoughts to process. You can have more meaningful chats with others at your most comfortable, but can also process for yourself. Gaming can be mindfulness!


"Gaming is a way to break free of your actual reality and let yourself at peace in another"
"Gaming gives me a chance to just take my feelings out without hurting anyone and also it's a time to chill out"
"Even when I am struggling in the real world, gaming makes me feel fulfilled"


Find the right activity for mindfulness

Above gaming was mentioned as an activity that enables you to be 'present', but there are a variety of activities that can offer the same opportunity! This is an activity that puts you into a 'flow state', where you are focused on something, and you are content while doing it in that moment. Our community members have shared a variety of activities that put them into flow states:

  • "Playing with my dog"

  • "Trainspotting"

  • "Finding out new things about my interests"

  • "Building PCs"

  • "Vibing to music with friends"

  • "Watching YouTube videos"

  • "Reading about Sci-fi"

  • "Cycling"

  • "Watching Doctor Who"

  • "Art"

  • "Drumming"

  • "Programming Roblox games"

Sometimes you can be so stressed that it can be extremely difficult to spend any time with free thought, and you feel you always have to be distracted. Having an activity like this gives opportunities to slow process thoughts, as it feels safer to talk about what happened  and process your own thoughts while you are doing a mindful activity. 


Relaxation techniques 

There are a variety of common 'relaxation techniques' that can be used to calm your nervous system, which have varying degrees of effectiveness with autistic people. One key aspect here is that they need to be taught BEFORE someone is highly stressed and practised regularly, or it will not be possible to recall the techniques and use them when you are in survival mode. Some more common techniques are: 


Deep breathing

When you are stressed/ anxious, your breathing can become more shallow, which can make you short of breath and increase stress/ anxiety. Taking long, slow, deep breaths in and out. helps to regulate your body by sending a message to your Nervous System that you are safe, in addition to giving you something to focus on, for example if you count while you breathe in for 4 seconds, then breathe out for 4 seconds. Some people can find deep breathing difficult which means it might not help them feel calm, so don’t worry if this doesn’t work for you!  There are lots of examples of this on Youtube if you want to find something to listen to to help you do this. 


Body scan

This is where you use both breath focus and progressive muscle relaxation together, to release mental and physical tension you may feel in different parts of your body. 


Mindfulness Meditation

This is a technique focused on staying present in the moment without drifting concerns about your past or future. Often, you can do this with a narrator (from a YouTube video or an app such as Headspace or Calm) who guides you through the process. 



Yoga is a physical relaxation technique that can be done in groups or on your own (with videos as guidance at home). The physical parts of yoga give organising sensory feedback, while focusing on these can help distract you from racing thoughts.  Yoga is quite physically intensive so does not work for everyone, but some autistic young people find this very helpful. 


Reframing your experiences

The way that we think about something matters. I may lose a game and get really angry. In the moment, I feel really angry and upset. In retrospect,I might start to think that losing is good as I have the opportunity to pick up on my mistakes and learn how to improve. Reframing is the process of reflecting on the experience, and learning from it in this way.  


The alternative option is to stick to 'cause and effect' and dissociate from emotions. We might blame other people or themselves.  This can be a good coping strategy in the short term during bad experiences and it helps avoid the difficult feelings, but too much of it has negative long term effects. If I lose a game and get angry, I never play the game again, don’t think about it and react negatively whenever anyone mentions it because it’s now in my alarm system.


A problem is that the brains of people who have been through negative experiences (and autistic brains!) are often focused on cause and effect and tend not to reflect on their experiences and change their minds (research within the Spectrum Gaming community shows this). This means we sometimes do not fully process situations and information, so can take actions and decisions without sound reasoning and judgement.


Reframing can be learnt through practice, but is something that is commonly not taught. Sometimes this is because many adults also aren’t good at reframing, so it is something we can all benefit from learning!



Therapies that have been recommended by autistic young people in our community:


Counselling:  Counselling is when you meet someone, usually once a week, to talk about how you are feeling. The counsellor will be non-judgemental and won’t give you advice.  Counselling is  focused on day to day life and can be really helpful.  It usually won’t be focused on trauma and past experiences although some counsellors may have extra training in this. 


EMDR Therapy: EMDR is a form of trauma therapy.  The therapist will start by helping you feel safe and stable.  This might take a long time.  Then you will gradually think about the things which happened to you, and at the same time the therapist will guide you to move your eyes from side to side or tap your hands.  Some therapists use buzzers.  This helps memories move from the amygdala to the hippocampus and become less distressing.  It sounds really weird but it does work and lots of autistic people have found it helpful. It can be done online which many autistic young people find easier. 


Play Therapy: Play therapy is usually for children but can also be used for young people.  Play therapists will have a range of different toys and they will help children to express their feelings through play.  


Animal Therapy (e.g. equine therapy): Some people find therapy with animals really helpful and you may be able to find someone who does this type of therapy in stables near you. 


Other helpful therapies may include:

Art therapy. Art therapists use art to work through difficult experiences. This can be helpful for people who find it hard to talk about what has happened. 


Music therapy: Music therapists use music to help you express your feelings and emotions. Again this can be helpful for those who find talking hard. 


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) ACT focuses on helping you accept your feelings and responses, and then deciding on what you want to do and what has value to you. 


Drama therapy - drama therapists will use imaginative techniques and play to help you work through what has happened to you.


Important Things to Consider when Looking For a Therapist


The most important thing when looking for a therapist is whether you feel comfortable with them and feel that you can be honest with them.  This can be more important than the type of therapy that they do or even any extra training they have done.  


Sometimes people get very focused on trying to find someone who has exactly the right experience as well as extra training in autism, but the most important thing with a therapist is whether they ‘get you’ and you feel heard by them.  Extra training might help, but it doesn’t always as it can mean they have preconceived ideas about what might work for you. 

Internal Enablers

What are the things which you need inside yourself in order to recover from the things which have happened to you? 

Self understanding

Autistic young people often don't have opportunities to understand what autism is.


But it is really important to know which parts of you are unchangeable and need accommodations, and which you can challenge, when you feel ready to.


Without understanding, young people may:

  • Feel that anxiety, depression, trauma and other difficulties are always part of them and they will never get better, despite this not being true. If you believe this is true, it is much more difficult to process your memories, as you will feel there is little reason to try and do so.

  • Feel parts of them are changeable which are not. For example, sensory differences are innate to autism. Trying to 'desensitise' to innate traits like sound sensitivity through graded exposure and other techniques can only ever cause harm/ trauma.  It’s also true that sensory differences can feel more intense when a person is anxious or traumatised, and so increasing wellbeing can reduce how much sensory differences affect your life. Sensory differences also can change through your life. It’s common for young children to be extremely sensitive and for this to become a bit less intense as they grow up. 


Being able to distinguish between the two is incredibly important so you can do one of two things:

  • If something is changeable, it can be accepted and you can have adaptations for it for now. But when you are ready, you can take steps to challenge/ change it e.g. feeling angry all the time

  • If something is unchangeable, you know you may need adaptations as a result. e.g. ear defenders


Young people should be able to learn about what autism is, anxiety, meltdowns, sensory differences, spoon theory and more. The more they understand themselves, the more they will be able to advocate for themselves, and create the changes they would like to see so they can thrive.


Self-acceptance is really important. Often autistic young people can blame themselves/ autism for negative experiences they have. It can be difficult to be autistic, but autism isn’t the reason why autistic people struggle, it is often that their environment isn’t well adapted to their needs.  


With acceptance of what autism is and who you are, you are able to stop blaming yourself leading to less of a build up of trauma.


Acceptance isn’t just about you, however. Acceptance is much more difficult when others do not understand or accept you. Peer, parent and professional acceptance are all key for self acceptance. If you spend your days in an environment where people don’t accept you for who you are, then that needs to change first. That isn’t your fault. 


“How can I accept my autism when I am laughed at or hit every time I go into school”


Acceptance is like turning on a light switch – once you reach it, it has a very positive

long term impact on wellbeing.


What does autism acceptance mean? 

Acceptance means different things to different people. 

  • For some, their diagnosis is very important and is part of their identity

  • Some people may accept their strengths and needs as an autistic person, but may not want to describe themselves as autistic. This is ok too. 

  • There isn’t a right way to feel about being autistic and you may feel differently about it over time.  


At the best: "Embracing autism and using your autistic strengths in the best possible way"


At the worst: "I'm stuck with it whether I like it or not, so I might as well try to enjoy it"

Reframing your experiences

Reframing often isn’t natural to autistic people, but can be learned over time! It can be really helpful to dedicate time to this during the day every day, so it becomes a regular activity.


Time for burnout recovery

We need people around us to understand that recovering from burnout means regaining and learning how to manage our brain energy. Then we will be able to step out of survival mode and start to have higher level thinking. It is this higher level thinking, being able to have hope and set goals, which enables recovery.We need people to understand that this may take time/ patience.

See Burnout

Having a goal/ purpose

To be able to process trauma, you often need a REASON to look at it differently and be able to move forward, there is more information on this in our guide to wellbeing (coming soon!).

External support

There is a lot that can be done to enable the processing of trauma for autistic young people, but it should be the  responsibility of adults to make them happen. This section is written for the caregivers of autistic young people.  

Trusting Relationships

Young people need a trusted person to talk to so they know that sharing thoughts/ feelings will not have a negative impact and they won’t be blamed or punished for them. They need to know what they say is accepted rather than dismissed (see what should a trusted person/ adult be like/ how can adults help). It is the adult’s responsibility to build trust, not the young person’s. If a young person doesn’t have someone like this, it might help them to talk to a counsellor.  


Adults have a lot of power 

Young people tend to have little control over their lives. They need the adults around them to meet their basic needs such as having access to food, water, shelter and safety. Adults also have more power to create change. At home, parents are in charge. In a school, teachers run the room, but also have the ability to create wider changes to positively impact on their lives.

Adults can also act as advocates, if you know what a young person needs, you can work with the Local Authority and services to gain access to this, whereas there are seldom opportunities for young people to do this for themselves.


Adults can make things worse  

Without realising it, there are things we can say or do that may cause a traumatic stress response. This isn’t intentional, but is something that we can change.


For example: If a young person is upset by a situation or scenario, it is normal for those around them to avoid talking about or doing anything related to this, due to being worried about how a young person may respond. 


In the short term this is really helpful as it stops the increase of strong emotions/ stress/ meltdowns.


But in the long term, not addressing negative experiences means they do not get processed, and this build up of trauma has a negative impact on young people’s lives.Punishing young people for their behaviour can also have a similar impact. Punishing someone for their behaviour means you are not addressing the underlying reason for their behaviour, so even if punishments result in a behaviour change, they will still have an underlying unmet need, or difficult emotions that they have not been able to process, plus they will feel that having this need is wrong, or bad, in some way. 


To know how to help young people to process trauma, it is important to recognise this may mean having to unlearn a lot of what you may think you know about autism and behaviour, and that a lot of what we think we know, is what has contributed to high levels of trauma in autistic young people, which has a detrimental impact on their lives.


As a result, this section on external support has three different sections:




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