Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion of addiction, death, metaphors around death, dehumanisation, and mistreatment.
What defines us as a human?
Is it rhetorical ability? Emotional experiences? Perhaps the tools we use?
I would argue that one of the defining characteristics of our humanity is our ability to to recognise humanity in others, or perhaps more specifically, our ability to deny the humanity of others. Thanks to years of colonialism, warfare, and eurocentric beliefs, we have developed a strange sort of morality. This morality is what we use to ordain or deny a person or object as human/human-adjacent.
Unfortunately, when you are an addict, human-adjacent would be a big step up in how the world sees you. For as long as we have existed, we have been ignored, spoken over, driven out of our homes, and killed. This because contemporary spins on normative morality posit that to be an addict, is to be a monster. We are beyond help and reason.
We are what you fear your children will become.
The truth is that all judgements on addiction come from a place of moral relativism. Addiction is only seen as a moral failing because of cultural attitudes towards the behaviour associated with addiction. Fundamentally, it is seen as a moral failing, rather than a response to trauma and unmet support needs. If we could move society to a more “trauma-informed” culture, it is likely that attitudes towards addiction would alter quite significantly.
This isn’t to say that addiction doesn’t represent a risk to others. As addicts, we find ourselves doing things we never imagined or wanted ourselves doing. The lengths that one might go to in that desperation can lead to some truly awful consequences. To put it another way; we still have to take ownership of our shitty behaviour, whatever the reason. However, we also require some level of compassion. Compassion can go a long way one the journey to recovery.
Sadly, compassion doesn’t go all the way. We still need professional input from those who know how to deconstruct the circumstances of addiction, and help the person to rebuild their life. We need to build a life where it is easier not to engage with our addiction. This is made ever more difficult by the defunding of services that work to do such things. Besides that, we need to recognise that heroin, crack, and alcohol, are not the only substances that need attention from services. The world of addiction grows more complicated by the day, especially since the dawn of novel psychoactives.
Considering the future, we need to build a world where it is not necessary to become addicted to survive. A world where if we do become addicted, we are not shunned to the outer edges of our community. We need people to stop acting like addicts choose to be addicts. Addiction knows no boundaries, it can come for anyone.
Deconstructing societal and cultural attitudes will take a long time. Things like decriminalisation are important, but if done badly could actually reinforce moral judgements of substance users. For this reason, we need further longitudinal data looking at other countries that have done such things, seeing where the positives and the pitfalls lie.
It’s vital that we do this work, because moral judgement and “not in my neighbourhood” attitudes are literally killing addicts. The world has blood on its hands, and it doesn’t even realise it.
Some 4(ish) years ago, my debut blog post on this website was Standing on the corner: Where autism and addiction meet shortly covered by Recovery services as an Autistic adult. Back then My writing was merely an attempt to scream into the void, offloading my frustrations. Little did i know that in 4 years, my articles would have garnered over 25,000 views, and that people would ask me to go places and do things. I was also pretty surprised to discover that for the most part I don’t mind going places and doing things.
With that in mind, I decided it’s time to take another crack at this one, seeing if 4 years of experience makes for an improved experience for you, my wonderful readers and followers.
So here we are.
I’m David. Born Autistic at the dawn of the 1990’s. My life was pretty standard for what you’d expect of a truamatised, psychotic, recovering addict. So let’s consider where this particular part of my journey started.
My long term relationship came to an end (mutually, but still painful none-the-less). On that very same day, I had a peculiar experience. I heard a number of voices calling my name, but it seemed that it wasn’t the people around me that were doing so. Interestingly, this was the day of my first ever cigarette as well. Hindsight tells me that the fact that my first cigarette led to me smoking an entire pack in a number of hours should have been a huge warning for what was coming. Sadly, hindsight isn’t good for much, and I have a traumatised AuDHD brain that at the time was going through what some might term a “prodromal phase” for the psychotic condition I would later be diagnosed with.
Over the next week I discovered that smoking cannabis really helped my growing paranoia and auditory disturbances chill the f*ck out, and that when drank a litre of vodka, I just didn’t give a sh*t. Just a note here for anyone who can’t see what’s coming; drug-use and trauma is a volatile mix. Some people use psychoactives safely and medicinally their whole lives, with no real negative outcomes. I on the other hand came to resemble one of those warning videos your school would have shown you about the dangers of peer pressure and drug-use.
So, naturally I did what any normal AuDHD’er would do when they discovered something that makes them feel good. I did it again. And again, and again, ad infinitum. Each time I used, my consumption grew. Each new environment I entered I would break down another boundary in my life. First it was cannabis, then alcohol, and I figured that since these two weren’t the dangerous and hellish things my school had made them out to be, perhaps other psychoactives would be okay as well. Side note: this is why using scare tactics and abstinence based approached to stop young people from getting high is f*cking irresponsible, because when they find out they’ve been lied to, they don’t truat you on ANYTHING.
My time at university can be summed up by quoting myself “I don’t think you’ve ever seen me this high, have you?” and the phrase said to me most often “How the f*ck are you still alive?”. You see, I hadn’t noticed it, but I was taking drugs by the shed load. I was out of my mind on pretty much anything I could get. It’s easier to list the drugs I haven’t used than the drugs I have used; To date, I’ve never used “street” heroin, or crack cocaine. More on this in a moment.
What this meant was that when I ran away from my environment, making the 300 mile journey back to my mother’s house, I swore I would never use again. After all, I had nearly died on a couple of occasions, and found myself on the radar of what one might describe as “less than savoury people”.
More on my drug use…
Yes, I have never used Heroin or Crack, but what did happen was that I got addicted to Oxycodone, Diazepam (Valium to my american followers), and Spice (you know, that zombie drug that everyone was talking about for a matter of months until it became illegal and everyone decided to pretend like the problem was solved). Of course, I was drinking a litre of whiskey most nights, and I also had excellent taste in red wine and ales.
Unsurprisingly, I found myself under the treatment of what would describe itself as a “Substance Misuse Service” (SMS), interestingly, there seems to be an unwritten rule that when you spend more time in hospital from drug overdoses than you do at home, they get a little angsty with you. Here’s where I start getting pissed off.
By the time I was under the SMS, I actually wanted to stop using, but had completely forgotten what normal life was like. I hadn’t been sober a number of years, and was quite frankly spending most of the day looking like I had just left the set of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. My keyworker was a wonderful person, and conveniently specialised in Novel Psychoactives like Spice. Sadly, that’s about as far as my good experiences go.
You see, I had also been referred to the local secondary care mental health service, referred to as the “Assessment and Treatment Service” (ATS). Again, they took umbridge with my repeated unaliving attempts, and decided they should probably do something about this obvious wild card called David.
Here’s the problem though.
The SMS needed my mental health to be treated. How can a person stop using drugs to hide from trauma, when that trauma is still ongoing and not being processed? Luckily, the ATS had a stellar response; “We can’t treat your mental health until you are sober”. Thank goodness that we could all agree on absolutely nothing.
I was quite privileged eventually, because my lead practitioner at the ATS actually spoke to my keyworker at the SMS, and we eventually got somewhere. It was a psych ward, but it was still somewhere, and that’s what matters.
I detoxed off the psychoactive stuff, and then detoxed some more in the community. April 7th 2016 I had my first day of sobriety in close on a decade. This warranted a celebration, naturally, so naturally I threw myself into a monotropic spiral, had a major psychotic episode as a result, and earnt myself a free trip back to the psych ward. Oh, and by the way, being Autistic on a psych ward is a huge steaming pile of bullsh*t that has been placed in an already burning dumpster.
So what other issues did I face? Services were woefully ill equipped to take on a neurodivergent client on just about every front.
The entire system for appointments was clearly designed by and for neurotypical people who assumed that everyone had a good grasp of time-keeping, sensory regulation, emotional regulation, and their short term memory. It was an absolute nightmare.
So what was different about my drug use compared to a neurotypical?
I think the largest difference was my approach. Drugs were my special interest, still are to an extent (just without the use of said drugs). I used myself as a science experiment. I kept detailed journals of what I’d taken, what dose, what I had combined it with, and how it affected me over a number of hours. My ultimate goal was to find the sweet spot where I was no longer aware of my existence, but still alive.
Another interesting aspect of my drug use was my blatant identity crisis. Growing up Autistic meant being constantly told that who I was, was incorrect. Everything about me was a target for the neurologically provincial bigots. So when I discovered that drugs allowed me to build a new identity, one that I felt was better accepted (says something when your addict identity feels better accepted than your Autistic one, doesn’t it?), I leaned into it and allowed psychoactives to become my ENTIRE identity.
Of course, I was still Autistic and ADHD as hell, so drugs often served to extend my spoons reserves far beyond their limit.
The biggest pull of drugs though? I could switch off my feelings, or change them in a matter of minutes to hours. I had the control, I felt what i wanted to feel. Take that, brain!
Of course I tried things like the 12-step program to get sober. It really wasn’t my sort of thing, but apparently voicing that in meetings is a huge faux pas that means none of the 12-steppers continue to talk to you when you leave the program. I ended up taking things I had learnt from multiple sources and building a life where it was easier to not use anymore. When I was struggling, I would reach out and help someone who needed help. It became a philosophy that I lived by. These days I have to be a bit more careful with my spoons, but still essentially try to live life by helping others out of the dark spaces that litter the world.
The fundamental problem with my experience in “the system” was that no one had any appropriate training around neurodivergent people. To be fair, I didn’t even know of things like monotropism, double empathy, meltdowns, burnout, or really anything to do with actual neurodivergent experience, so I couldn’t really act surprised when services didn’t either.
Life hasn’t been perfect since I got sober, but I’m glad I got to experience it. Sobriety has been a gift that I gave to myself, I don’t intend to ever return it, but one thing I have learnt more recently is that if you spend your entire life trying to predict the future, you’re not going to have a fantastic experience of the present.
A set of final words? If you are struggling right now, with any of the stuff in this article, I want you to know that it CAN get better. I don’t say that to bullsh*t you. The ugly truth is that not everyone survives this stuff. I do, however, urge you to give yourself the best chance you can. 7 years ago, as I embarked on my recovery, I could not have imagined being where I am today. The suffering I was experiencing seemed unending and inescapable. I got out, though.
I truly believe that everyone deserves a chance to be a happy and content member of the society they live in. Of course mental health and addiction are only a small part of peoples experiences, which no doubt I have already, or will, elaborate on in some capacity.
I just need one thing from you, dear reader, don’t give up. Keep trying.
Below is a survey on Autistic people and substance use. The aim is to collate data anonymously on the use of drugs and alcohol in the Autistic community, and use that data to write a report that will be published on this website.
The hope is that these insights may help Autistic people better advocate for themselves with regard to this topic.
None of the questions are mandatory, but the more that you can answer, the more data we will have to look at.
They say in life that nothing is certain, but if anything is, then it’s the fact that shame will deny us entry into recovery.
I’m going to consider this from the perspective of addiction recovery, although it applies to recovery from any psychological trauma. I merely choose addiction recovery for this article because it makes the illustration of my point much more simple.
Consider the nature of addiction. A person’s needs are unmet. Due to the trauma that arises from this they seek to escape their pain, and in doing so turn to a path of addiction.
Addiction is seen by society as a moral failing, and so is the behaviour exhibited by those under the influence of their addictions. People are chastised for their addiction which creates shame.
This is a fatal mistake.
Shame is like poison to an addict. Shame in itself creates more trauma from which their is even more need to escape. Which in turn results in further, or even increased engagement with their addiction.
This in turn leads to further chastisement, and thus the cycle perpetuates.
This cycle can, and often does, continue until fatal consequences occur.
In order to help an addict break away from active addiction and enter recovery, we need to remove the shame that comes with addiction.
This takes many forms such as trauma-informed treatment, adequate socioeconomic support with things like housing and finances, and an adequate support network.
It’s not just about being nice to addicts, it’s about putting them in a safe place to rediscover their love and pride for themselves. This applies to more than just addiction.
Shaming addiction and other forms of psychological trauma is an act of violence that can both directly and indirectly kill people by barricading recovery. Until society drops the moral judgements, shame will continue to kill indiscriminately.
Today I am 6 years sober from addiction. During those six years I have learnt many lessons, but in this reflection I would like to consider something that has played on my mind for the past three years of my advocacy work.
While not overtly a bad thing, it is often misused to infantilise and minimise the achievements of disabled people while hiding behind a mask of feigned respect. This phenomenon is known as “inspiration porn”.
A good (hypothetical) example of such a thing would be a video of a disabled person doing something completely mundane, like dancing, but they would be dancing with a non-disabled person. The video would centre the non-disabled as some kind of saviour to the disabled person for doing something as basic as treating them like a human being. The implication of the video, albeit in subtext, would be “Look at the amazing things that disabled people can achieve when an abled person rescues them from their shameful existence”.
It’s dehumanising and wrong.
So, addiction advocacy.
As a recovering addict in the public eye, I do what I do because I want to help others overcome similar challenges to my own, and help reduce their suffering. This does in fact require inspiring people. If it weren’t for the sober addict who showed me kindness during my first stretch on a psychiatric ward, I might not have chosen recovery.
The fact that they had turned their life around, and become someone I wanted to look up to was inspiring, and that isn’t a bad thing.
What would be bad would be if people like myself are allowed to become another source of inspiration porn. It’s a difficult line to walk. I want people to have what I have found, not get off on the tragedies that have formed who I am.
Contrary to popular belief, addicts are people. We are not burdens, we don’t deserve our suffering. Regardless of whether or not we are in recovery, we deserve food, housing, health care, support, and kindness.
This is what I want to inspire in people.
So please, don’t look at me and think it’s a miracle that I recovered. My recovery shouldn’t be the inspiration. I was privileged to have a loving and supportive set of family and friends. I had good key workers (although the services they came from were woefully ill-equipped). I was in a place where I was ready to enter recovery.
What I want to inspire in you is the idea that all addicts deserve recovery. I want to inspire you to challenge the systems that keep people like me trapped in a world of suffering.
I want you to know that those with less privilege than myself need us to get in the trenches and help them fight this war.
If that is what I inspire in people, then I am happy with what I am doing. If, however, you look at me and see a walking miracle, then I have not gone far enough.
The tragedies and traumas of my life should not be celebrated. They should be wielded as weapons to dismantle the masters house, and rebuild it into something where we can all coexist and thrive.
This article was co-authored by David Gray-Hammond and Katie Munday
Trigger warnings: This article discusses gaslighting, trauma, criminal exploitation (on various topics including sexual exploitation), substance use, mental health, cuckooing, county lines.
Due to the extensive trauma that we experience as Autistics in our formative years, many of us find ourselves seeking connections with other people. Trauma can be a very isolating experience, and naturally we desire love and support, but don’t always look for it in the right places. We often don’t even know what healthy love and support looks like, we are looking for some elusive phantom of love without any idea of what it could be. This is common place for those who have had traumatic lives; disconnected families, intergenerational trauma, all of these things remove the prospect of having a safe space in which we can grow and develop.
This creates an environment where we become susceptible to being taken advantage of by people and groups who show us the slightest bit of interest. We find ourselves in circles which are exciting, fast paced, and offer support (at a price). These groups often have clear hierarchies and expectations that on the surface appeal to Autistic people who thrive within structured environments. However there are a lot of expectations that are left unsaid.
When considering the criminal exploitation of Autistic people, we must also consider the situations that lead to them being in such a position in the first place. There is a significant overlap between Autistic people and substance users, albeit largely unacknowledged. This has a distinct relationship with the extensive trauma we have already mentioned; when the environment is incompatible with our wellbeing, we look for ways to numb the discomfort. Substances can make it easier to mask in environments where we feel unsafe, and give a sense of community by allowing us to feel like we finally fit in somewhere in society.
Due to the criminalisation of substance use in many parts of the world, drug and alcohol consumption can very easily lead to criminal activity and exploitation. Once you become a regular user of mind-altering substances, it is no longer inconceivable to do things outside of your previous ethos to continue your habit, and strengthen relationships within organised groups. Your boundaries are no longer solid, but malleable, depending on what is required of you to access the substances of your preference. This breakdown of boundaries makes it easier to be manipulated, by people you are gaslighted into believing have your best interests at heart.
The substances alter your reality, as do the people around you.
What does exploitation look like?
Exploitation can take many forms. It usually starts with a small favour between friends. The frequency and significance of the favours may increase, but the perceived balance in reciprocity isn’t what we are led to believe.
Some of us are made to do things that we are completely uncomfortable with, but feel we have no choice in. It can range from violence to sexual exploitation. It can represent an escalation in what we are doing, one minute you are smoking a joint, the next there is heroin on the table. While there is no such thing as a gateway drug, there are people who act as gateways, ushering us deeper into a world that we are no longer comfortable to be in.
Perhaps two of the best known forms of criminal exploitation in the UK are cuckooing and county lines.
This particular form of exploitation involves a criminal individual/organisation taking over an individuals place of residence. The victim is always vulnerable in some way, usually due to age, disability, and/or substance use. The criminal enterprise will then use that persons home as a base from which to perform criminal acts such as drug dealing.
County lines refers to the trade lines of criminal enterprises that cross boundaries, the name specifically refers to the phone lines used, but it is more complicated than that. Vulnerable people, usually children, often disabled, are sent up and down the country to distribute illicit goods. This is often used to settle debts between the individual and the dealer.
When considering an Autistic person who has fallen into this kind of exploitation, there are a few notable features that should be considered.
The person may suddenly be “gifted” expensive items such as new phones by their friends.
There may be a distinct change in social activity, such as suddenly spending a lot of time out of the home, socialising at odd hours.
They may be reticent to allow people into their home, especially in the case of cuckooing.
There may a change in attitudes and behaviour surrounding substance use.
Change in behaviour or inconsistent behaviour may indicate substance use.
Having a knowledge of things outside of their age/stage of development. This may be harder to define in Autistic people.
Protective factors for Autistic people
In short, this issue comes down to socioeconomics. Autistic people with adequate access to the right support are much less likely to be exploited. Most importantly, access to the Autistic community should provide a much safer and more accepting avenue to meaningful relationships. Other considerations are access to adequate housing, support with mental health and substance use, positive and affirming information on being Autistic, access to work and education, also, access to welfare benefits where required.
This is not going to end until substance use is treated as a public health issue, rather than a criminal issue. It is also important that we continue to dismantle systemic and societal bigotry such as racism, transphobia, and ableism as those who are exploited are often multiply marginalised, this is especially true for Autistic people.
My years of active addiction account for a lot of the suffering that myself, my friends, and my family experienced. The very fact that I am alive right now is some sort of miracle, yet to be explained by science. I remember trying to picture what recovery would look like, it was difficult to imagine.
I am the sort of Autistic person that some might reductively call a “black and white thinker”. For me, things fall into good or bad, and when I can not easily categorise things, I fall apart.
It’s no surprise then that my brain told me that once I escaped the horrors of active addiction, life would be sunshine and good times. I think, perhaps, this is a trap that many addicts fall into. Unsurprisingly, it is an inaccurate, and frankly dangerous assumption to make.
Recovery is not all positive, because life is not all positive. Truthfully, I have faced some intense suffering and struggles since achieving sobriety.
I was privileged in the support that I had around me for those times, there are a number of people without whom, I could not have remained sober up to this point.
This is where recovery gets dangerous.
If you are not privileged enough to have that support, it is easy to fall back into active addiction. Our minds constantly seek oblivion, and will use any excuse to pull the trigger. The unhappy realisation that bad stuff still happens when you are sober is one hell of a reason to pull that trigger.
This, truthfully, is why I have written this post. If you are embarking on a journey towards sobriety, you need to be prepared for the good and the bad that life brings. You need to know that when the shit hits the fan, you don’t have to throw your sobriety into the fuck-it bucket.
I have watched too many good people lose their lives in recovery. Autistic people are already disadvantaged by a system that simply does not care for our existence. It is my hope that my fellow Autistic addicts will read this and be prepared.
Sobriety is not easy. Life is not easy. I spend a lot of my time wishing I could turn down the difficulty settings on my life.
Sobriety is worth it, you are worth it. You can have a happier life, regardless of the bullshit. Your suffering is not your fault.
When life hands you lemons, squirt lemon juice in its eye; stay alive, even if it’s out of spite.
I was happy to see that Autistic Inclusive Meets have restarted the #ShowUsYourMeds campaign. Campaigns like this are essential in normalising the life-saving medication that so many of us rely on day-to-day.
Stigma surrounding the use of medication, in particular for the treatment of mental health issues, is still widely prevalent in society, with many people feeling a great deal of shame over the use of medication.
Where does this shame come from?
A good place to start is the misunderstanding between being reliant on a medication for your wellbeing, and addiction to a drug. So many people conflate supervised prescription drug use with addiction that it (quite frankly) makes me sick.
Not only does this diminish the very real and terrifying experiences that addicts face every day, but it places a moral objection towards safe prescription medication use on the patient. It’s not just laypeople that do this either. Doctors will happily label people as “drug-seekers” for asking for treatment for very real and debilitating conditions. This particular form of stigma will not change until we move away from the moral judgment of addiction and substance use as a society.
Toxic positivity is also a very real issue when it comes to med-shaming. Attitudes that suggest one should consider all the people who live with a so-called “worse” situation serve absolutely no one. Such attitudes lead to people remaining silent, and ultimately, dying. You don’t have to be grateful for your suffering. Suffering is subjective. It is impossible to judge who has it worse.
Another popular way of invalidating those who need medication is to claim that you experience the same thing, and that you just need to “push through it”. This is a common myth that is trotted out by people with little to no understanding of mental and/or chronic physical health problems. Mental health problems in particular are invalidated in this way. Completely ignoring that many of those conditions change the physical structure of the brain. You can’t just push through it. This is another good way of killing people.
Also, let’s not forget the institionalised patient-blame placed on people. Refusal to treat a person because they can not engage in the expected way is first and foremost, an act of systemic violence and oppression based on deepy ingrained ableism. This is a problem that affects neurodivergent people in particular, for whom services rarely design themselves with them in mind.
The truth is, I could list a thousand reasons why people are shamed into not taking medication, but it won’t change the truth.
Taking medication is vital for a huge number of people around the world. Denying a person access to medication, or shaming them into not taking it, is an act of aggression and violence. People literally die without their medication. Shame belongs firmly on the shoulders of the people shaming ill people into not taking their meds.
I refuse to be ashamed of my medication. It keeps me well. I would be dead without it. Yes, the side-effects have been unbearable at times, but it’s necessary for me to stay alive. I do not have the privilege of chosing not to take my meds.
Anyone out there feeling like their medication is a shameful secret; I see you, and I promise you have nothing to be ashamed of. Stay well, drink lots of water, and take your meds.
This article was co-authored between David Gray-Hammond and Tanya Adkin
Trigger Warning:Some of the research quoted in this article contains person-first language or references to aspergers. While the authors do not agree with the use of such language, we must access the research and statistics available to us.We are also aware that some of the research cites Simon Baron-Cohen, unfortunately it is almost impossible to avoid him when writing this kind of article.There are also detailed discussions of various traumatic experiences including mentions of suicide, addiction, and mental health issues.
This website houses extensive writing on the topic of Autistic people and addiction, poor mental health, and suicidality, but we are yet to answer one very important question; how do autistic people end up suffering? The truth is that it requires falling dominoes of extensive systemic failure and trauma. In this series of articles, we hope to explore some of the reasons behind the development of poor outcomes in the Autistic population. The reasons listed in this article are non-exhaustive, and we would like to highlight that Autistic people are failed repeatedly throughout their lives.
This is alarmingly evident in the suicide rate for Autistic people. In a large-scale clinical study of newly diagnosed adults, 66% self-reported reported that they had experienced suicidal ideation. This is significantly higher than suicide rates among the general population of the UK (17%) and those experiencing psychosis (59%); 35% of those involved in the study had planned or attempted suicide (Cassidy, S. et al; 2014).
Trauma is a significant predictor of poor outcomes in all people, regardless of neurotype. Since the 1900’s research has indicated that there is a strong link between psychological stress in childhood and adult behaviour (Zarse, E. M. et al; 2019). What we can infer from this, is that childhood trauma plays a role in the development of poor mental health and addiction in adults. The question that arises from that statement is; what constitutes trauma for an Autistic person?
There is an consistent theme in the Autistic community that there is no such thing as an untraumatised Autistic. Kieran Rose (2021) has discussed previously how the diagnostic criteria is based on trauma behaviours, rather than Autistic experience. David Gray-Hammond (2020) has also discussed how current diagnostic criteria is based on Autistic people in distress, and as we move towards a world where Autistic people are better supported and accommodated, the criteria will need to change.
There are strong well evidenced links between autism and PTSD, and links between PTSD and addiction, yet for some reason no one seems to connect the dots. There is also significant evidence of a connection between autism and poor mental health and wellbeing, and connections between poor mental health and addiction. Again, no one seems interested in exploring that intersection.
So, what constitutes trauma in Autistic people?
First, we need to consider sensory trauma. Autistic people are subject to sensory trauma on a daily basis, it is not something that can be avoided in todays society, rather we are literally traumatised by living in a neurotypical world (Fulton, R. et al; 2020). Bearing in mind our sensory differences, this is something that is happening to us from birth.
We are experiencing trauma from birth. Some argue that this could possibly be from prior to birth.
We also experience significant sensory invalidation. Think about the number of times a child has said something is too loud, too hot, too busy; the amount of times that has been met with “don’t be silly”, “there’s nothing to be scared of”.
“Society invalidates the Autistic state of being, daily, hourly, minute by minute – every time one of those scenarios, plus a million more occur.”
Autistic people are also at risk of ‘Mate Crime’. Mate crime is a partcular subset of hate crime where vulnerable individuals are targeted by people posing as friends in order to take advantage of and abuse the individual (Pearson, A. and Forster, S.; 2019). Dr. Chloe Farahar and David Gray-Hammond (2021) had a livestream discussion about Autistic people and crime that included discussion of mate crime, the recording can be found here.
“In a 2015 survey, 80% of autistic people reported that they had been taken advantage of by someone they considered to be a friend. This was a colossal leap from the already significant 48% which had been previously recorded and it illustrated a problematic truth: Autistic people make easy targets.”
Unfortunately, mate crime is not just an experience of Autistic adults (Parry, H.; 2015).
A significant concern for Autistic people is bullying. Bullying can happen to anyone, but it is well known that it happens to Autistic people at a much higher rate.
“I really didn’t understand why kids chased me on the playground. All I know is that when they saw me, and they saw me talking to myself and rubbing my hands together and stimming, that I was all of a sudden “marked.””
Physical violence and hateful slurs from peers is a common experience for Autistic people of all ages. Society itself does not cope well with the existence of diversity. It starts young, but only increases in frequency and severity as we grow up, it can turn into things such as financial and sexual exploitation.
Of course, we can not discuss Autistic trauma without reference to behaviourism. For decades, “therapies” such as ABA and PBS have traumatised Autistic people. In fact, in the UK, SEND support is designed around making an Autistic person behave in a neurotypical manner. Considering this, is it any surprise that Autistic people walk away from these experiences with a great deal of trauma (Adkin, T.; 2021). We are literally being taught that who we are is wrong, and that our needs and wants don’t matter.
Often Autistic communication is invalidated because we do not communicate in the same way as non-autistic people. Many of us are non-speaking, communicating through AAC and similar. Many of us also have co-occurring conditions that make spoken communication a challenge. Autistic people communicate differently, we know this because it’s medically defined as a social communication “disorder”. What constitutes a disorder is defined by the medical model of disability and autism research. Difference is always assumed to be less, this is reflected in the systemic ableism and the insistence that different communication is some how less valid.
Many people have thought that they knew me, but see me in light of my mute mouth and wrongly understood that I think and feel nothing. People are too blind to see the person that I am behind my happy smile. I feel that I am loving and kind and also know that I am empathetic and thoughtful, with feelings that can overwhelm my mind and then they cause me to act like an utter fool.
We may not know how to communicate what is happening to us, we may have tried to communicate but it is misunderstood by the people around us, we may have experienced so much communication invalidation that we just stop trying. This can be particularly true of people who do not communicate using mouth words, especially because society has perpetuated a myth that non-speaking means non-thinking. What ever way you look at it, Autistic communication is considered less valid. Often, being Autistic can be used as a reason to cast us out.
All of this means that many Autistic people will isolate themselves from the world, and that isolation starts from a young age. Mazurek, M. O. (2014) stated that greater quantity and quality of friendships were associated with decreased loneliness in Autistic adults. Here’s the problem, Autistic people are in the minority. We do not have access to community as children, especially if we are pushed through a mainstream institution. Even if there are other Autistic people in that class, we do not know what it means to be Autistic.
The double empathy problem tells us that we have better interactions and quality of relationships with other Autistic people as opposed to neurotypicals. Autistic and non-autistic people exist in two different social contexts (Milton, D.; 2012).
“…double empathy problem’ refers to a breach in the ‘natural attitude’ (Garfinkel 1967) that occurs between people of different dispositional outlooks and personal conceptual understandings when attempts are made to communicate meaning”
Milton, D. (2012)
This disjuncture between Autistic and non-autistic communication can be traumatic for the Autistic person (Milton, D.; 2012).
Finally, we need to talk about restraint and seclusion. There are many different forms of restraint and seclusion, but each one of them teaches us from a young age that we do not have autonomy. It teaches us that our communication is not valid, that when we react to situations that we find overwhelming or distressing, we get punished.
An ABA practitioner physically holding our hands still, is a form of restraint.
But restraint has a darker side. As an example, we might look at the case of Max Benson, a 13 year old Autistic child who died as a result of being restrained for over two hours (Vance, T.; 2019). This isn’t just a problem in the USA though, it is happening in the UK also. A 12 year old Autistic child was restrained and handcuffed by police on his first day of secondary school, he was 5ft tall, and multiple police officers and staff used force to restrain him (Halle, M. and Cardy, P.; 2021). I think it is clear why this is traumatic for Autistic people.
Every school in the UK has a restraint policy. Sold as being for “everyone’s safety” while in fact it remains state sanctioned abuse. We have toddlers being restrained into preschool, into environments that cause them sensory trauma. Parents are told “they’re fine once they’re in” by people who have no understanding of masking. If you’re too big to be physically restrained, they use chemical restraint.
David Gray-Hammond (2020) writes of his experience as an undiagnosed Autistic person in a psychiatric ward. He discusses how, due to being a large man, staff chose to chemically restrain him with a heavy regime of antipsychotics and sedatives, rather than address the issues that were causing him distress.
It’s not just adults that are victims of chemical restraint, children under the age of 10 years old have been prescribed antipsychotic medications because it is cheaper and more convenient than meeting their needs.
Seclusion is a problem because it uses isolation as a form of coercion. Children and adults who do not conform to societies neuronormative ideals are secluded for long periods in isolation, seemingly as a punishment for not being “normal”. It’s inordinately unethical, and yet ethics don’t seem to apply when the victim is neurodivergent.
What does all this lead to?
Truthfully, it leads to suffering. Dr. Nick Walker put it best during her session with Aucademy.
The next piece in this series will explore the systemic failings in identification and lack of accessibility.
As a late identified Autistic/ADHD adult, a parent to two children with multiple neurodivergence, and a professional working within the voluntary sector from a young age, I have unique insight from all perspectives.
I have worked within the voluntary sector, starting within the disabled children’sservice, progressing on to mental health, healthcare funding, youth services, domestic abuse, and much more.
For the last six years, I have developed a specific interest both personally and professionally in special educational needs and disabilities, particularly around neurodivergence and the challenges faced by families when trying to access support.
I am dedicating to educating in neurodivergent experience in order to help families thrive by providing insight, reframing, and perspective in an accessible and personable way.
With experience, passion, and an individualised approach in close collaboration withfamilies, I help them work towards holisticchild and family-centered solution
Adkin, T. (2021) Behaviourism damages Autistic children. tanyaadkin.co.uk
Cassidy, S., Bradley, P., Robinson, J., Allison, C., McHugh, M., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2014). Suicidal ideation and suicide plans or attempts in adults with Asperger’s syndrome attending a specialist diagnostic clinic: a clinical cohort study. The Lancet Psychiatry, 1(2), 142-147.
Farahar, C. and Gray-Hammond, D. (2021) Autistic people and crime. Aucademy. YouTube.
Fulton, R., Reardon, E., Kate, R., & Jones, R. (2020). Sensory Trauma: Autism, Sensory Difference and the Daily Experience of Fear. Autism Wellbeing CIC.
Garfinkel, H. (1967). Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs.
Gray-Hammond, D. (2020) Autism and the future of diagnostic criteria. emergentdivergence.com
Gray-Hammond, D. (2020) My experience of restraint in a psychiatric hospital: This is not a love story. International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion. NeuroClastic. Neuroclastic.com
Halle, M. and Cardy, P (2021) ‘Overreaction’: Autistic son handcuffed by police on first day of term at Notts academy. Nottingham Post
Hernandez, P. (2021) Who am i? nottootrapped.wordpress.com
Milton, D. E. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883-887.
Parry, H. (2015). Shocking rise of «mate crime»: How children with autism or Asperger’s are being bullied, abused and robbed by so-called friends.
Pearson, A., & Forster, S. (2019). Lived Experience of Friendship and Mate Crime in Autistic Adults.
Rose, K. (2018) An Autistic Invalidation. theautisticadvocate.com
Sinclair, J. (2020) Autism exploitation: How to spot it and how to make it stop. autisticandunapologetic.com
Vance, T. (2019) #ShineOnMax Community-wide Candlelight Vigil for Max Benson, Sunday November 17. International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion. NeuroClastic. Neuroclastic.com
Walker, N., Farahar, C., Thompson, H. (2021) What is neurodiversity & why’s it important? Nick Walker with Chloe & Harry: Aucademy in discussion. Aucademy. YouTube.
Wise, M. (2019) The long term impact of bullying. Neuroclastic. Neuroclastic.com
Zarse, E. M., Neff, M. R., Yoder, R., Hulvershorn, L., Chambers, J. E., & Chambers, R. A. (2019). The adverse childhood experiences questionnaire: two decades of research on childhood trauma as a primary cause of adult mental illness, addiction, and medical diseases. Cogent Medicine, 6(1), 1581447.
For the better part of a century now, addiction has been treated largely as a matter of criminal justice, with some focus on medical treatment. Unfortunately this approach leaves a considerable amount out of the discussion. Addiction is a complex matter, with a lot of it coming down to socio-economic issues. As an Autistic addict, I am keenly aware of the social issues that contributed to my addiction, and that is what I hope to discuss in this post.
Why do people become addicted to things? Scientifically, it is because certain activities provide a reward response in the brain, and essentially this is what people become addicted to. The development of that addiction, in my opinion, tends to be dictated by a set of falling dominoes that create an environment for such a thing to happen.
The first point to consider is this; I have never met an addict who was not struggling with some kind of mental health concern, typically it is trauma related. Okay, honestly? It’s always trauma related (in my experience). So we have to think about the environment that traumatised the individual. We know that certain groups face more challenges when it comes to meeting the needs of themselves and their children.
This is often painted as a moral failing, but truthfully it is a systemic failure on the part of a society that demonises and punishes people for living in poverty, after putting people into poverty in the first place. Even now, in 2021, huge swathes of the population rely on food banks and other social welfare to survive. Could this problem be mitigated by the system? Absolutely. Sadly, the people in charge of that system tend not to do anything about that.
We also have to consider that for Autistic people, they are much more likely to experience violence and bullying at the hands of their peers and family. Continuous mistreatment by peers and family members can create a perfect storm for the development of trauma related mental health concerns, and subsequent dependence on addictive behaviours.
Autistic people live in a social context that forever tells them that who they are is wrong. For me this amounted to wishing that I could exchange my social identity for one that could better assimilate. That new identity was one of a drug user, a person who regularly went out partying, and revelled in the hedonism of the culture he was trying to assimilate into. However, this soon was not enough.
To keep my mental health at bay, I needed access to appropriate treatment for my mental health concerns. Unfortunately, Autistic people have considerably less access to mental health services because of the prevailing belief that mental health issues are “part of the territory” of autism. This is obviously a mistruth, but it is a prevalent belief.
Without access to mental health services, my substance use began to spiral as I sought stronger and stronger relief from my suffering.
This leads neatly into the next part of the social context of addiction; crisis-driven intervention.
Western society in particular, will only intervene and provide support when a person is deep in crisis. For Autistic people this can mean that we are ignored for years, because we don’t present like a neurotypical person when in crisis. These types of interventions literally kill people, and I suspect that if more effort was made to identify Autistic addicts before they died, this particular intersection would be discussed a lot more.
We also have to consider that society as a whole is not designed for Autistic people. Even the simplest of tasks can lead to burnout and anxiety, driving people towards emotional outlets that could ultimately lead to addiction.
Autistic people are a socially vulnerable group, not because of a lack of social skills, but because of a system that is not only not designed for us, but actively penalises us for being Autistic. Until that system is fixed, Autistic people will forever be at risk of trauma and subsequent addiction issues.
Is it any wonder we get “hooked” on things that feel rewarding when society is doing its best to oppress us?
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