As we learn to listen to people with autism, to their families and to their friends, evidence is growing that, in certain extreme circumstances, behaviors typically explained away as newly-emerged symptoms of the person’s autism may in fact indicate something else: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
The general public may have heard of this disorder occurring among Vietnam veterans, Bosnian civilians, or even the young witnesses to the recent spate of schoolyard shootings. In the book Trauma and Recovery (NY: Basic Books, 1992), Judith Lewis Herman, M.D., describes the origins and consequences of PTSD: “The human response to danger is a complex, integrated system of reactions, encompassing both body and mind. Threat initially arouses the sympathetic nervous system, causing the person in danger to feel an adrenalin rush and go into a state of alert. Threat also concentrates a person’s attention on the immediate situation. In addition, threat may alter ordinary perceptions: people in danger are often able to disregard hunger, fatigue, or pain. Finally, threat evokes intense feelings of fear and anger. These changes in arousal, attention, perception, and emotion are normal, adaptive reactions. They mobilize the threatened person for strenuous action, either in battle or in flight.
As Dr. Herb Lovett observed, “People who have been hurt in the name of therapy may not understand their plight any differently than survivors of cult abuse or sexual abuse. A common feature of post-traumatic stress syndrome is the flashback in which a person acts as if a memory is present reality…. every time they recall their previous maltreatment, unless their panic and rage are recognized as a function of stress, they are likely to be further stigmatized as `impossible to serve.’” (p. 208, Learning to Listen, 1996).