Trauma, Anxiety and Sleep Issues in Autism

A blog on Trauma, Anxiety and Sleep Issues in Autism by Andy Rotherham

It is not uncommon for Late-Diagnosed Autistic People to present with symptoms similar to what would be expected in someone who is experiencing PTSD.

Although different in origin to PTSD the relentless piling up of anxieties and trauma that occur in an undiagnosed Autistic person’s life can still be seriously debilitating.

I speak openly and often in training sessions about incidents in my past that caused me such trauma. They all boil down to one thing though; communication.

A lifetime of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, having your morals and intentions constantly questioned. Having your intelligence incorrectly assessed because you can’t communicate it in the same way as your classmates. Being tongue tied when put on the spot, and being slow in group conversation because you are still processing all that has been said and are behind the arc.

Can you imagine the frustration of this happening to you constantly? Having to endure this? The more you try to explain they have you wrong, the worse it gets.

Some of my earliest memories are lying in bed crying myself to sleep with a painful knot of anxiety in my gut. It would be from a playground confrontation, or maybe a teacher who just didn’t get me at all. I learned from an early age not to behave in what I now know to be an Autistic way. It would only lead to punishment if I did. And of course that punishment, usually physical and brutal, added to my frustration and anxiety. This translated into poor, anxiety laden sleep. And of course even now if I am tired and sleep deprived my Autism is far more visible and obvious.

After I was diagnosed as Autistic at the age of 50 I had to deal with this Anxiety. In applying for help I was advised to ‘play down’ my Autism and specifically ask for help with Anxiety. My Autism was only mentioned as a foot note when I asked for a counsellor who would be familiar with Autism.

By adapting the way I presented my case i I managed to get some CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) sessions. For me it worked well. It gave me a way of dealing with this Anxiety which, by that time, had made me chronically ill both mentally and physically. I learned to apply pure logic, something that comes naturally to me. Did someone say Vulcan???

I was able to dispense with all the specific incidents that had traumatised me as they resurfaced in my memories.

However their indelible footprint still remains to this day and manifests itself in different ways.

My anxiety is pretty much under control, and I am careful not to let new misunderstandings that occur to linger in my head. I either try and solve it at the time, later when I can be clear, or walk away knowing I did my best.

However the thing I still haven’t got to grips with is poor sleep and nightmares. They are no longer about specific incidents from memory. They tend to be scenarios that my unconscious mind makes up that brings the anxiety back. It usually follows the pattern of being either misunderstood or finding my place, whether it is my barrack room or my office and belongings have been interfered with. Sometimes I have been replaced and no one told me, or I have retired but they don’t accept that fact and keep bringing me back. Most of these are based loosely around things that did actually happen to me.

I try my best to deal with this through lucid dreaming. Before I fall asleep each night I repeat a chant to myself that I am no longer in the services or working for my last employer and that they have no power over me. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I am able to interrupt my own dream by lucidly taking control and reminding myself that I am no longer in their control.

I have been in more than my fair share of tragic events. I have witnessed the aftermath of many violent deaths. I have been in more life threatening situations than I could count. Yet none of that troubles me.

Following a major breakdown at work my employer compelled me to complete a full Psych Evaluation. The results of this test showed very high scores for both Autism and PTSD.

They then made me see a GP who worked for them via their Occupational Health Dept. He led me back through some of the incidents I mentioned above and asked me if I ever dream about these. The meeting ended up with him screaming at me that I could not have PTSD if I am not troubled by such things and that I could not possibly be Autistic if I was able to work in such a job. Which of course added to my anxiety and trauma…

I was eventually able to get my Autism diagnosis through a referral from my GP to an Autism Consultant as a Private Patient.

We need to rethink about how late diagnosis of Autism affects us. To diagnose (If you are lucky) and not offer any specific support in the aftermath is not helpful. It is the start of a journey, not the end.

It took me a year to get my head around the implications of the diagnosis and deal with the Anxiety I have spoken about.

I am in a happy place now in my life. If I can find a way to deal with these nightmares my life will be pretty much perfect. Although I find talking to my Wife about my dreams helps I am still searching for a permanent solution.

Andy Rotherham

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