EMDR Therapy for Families of Children with Autism, Part I

mother and her son lying on the grassAs a mental health therapist who specializes in treating families living with a loved one(s) on the autism spectrum (ASD), I see a variety of symptoms in my office on a daily basis. But there is one constant cluster of symptoms that I see often. It includes the following:

  • flashbacks and intrusive thoughts
  • exaggerated startle response
  • difficulty sleeping
  • anxious or angry mood
  • sense of fear/hypervigilance
  • emotional numbness
  • feelings of detachment
  • lack of interest in normal activities
  • headaches, body aches, physical numbness

Due to the coverage in our media lately, with soldiers returning from Iraq, you probably guessed that I’m talking about posttraumatic stress, or PTSD. In basic terms, it occurs when soldiers experience such a high level of stress and threat to their physical well-being that their nervous systems never have a chance to return to baseline after leaving the battlefield.

However, I don’t treat soldiers. I treat parents. For them, the battlefields are their own homes and communities. And the enemy isn’t Al Qaeda; it’s autism.

I’ve often heard the term “warrior mom” or “warrior dad” associated with parents raising children with autism, and I couldn’t agree more. The ASD parents I know are some of the strongest, most resilient, persistent fighters I have ever met. They kick butt and take no prisoners.

But they never get to leave the battlefield. Even rest and relaxation are hard to come by. And, it turns out, you can’t be a triumphant warrior and escape the fallout. Consequently, we have a large number of wounded warriors among us.

For some, the most disturbing memory was the initial diagnosis, and they’re haunted by flashbacks of being bullied by doctors who said they were crazy to think their children regressed after age 2. For others, it’s the never-ending stress of the battles we fight with the school district, insurance companies, pharmacies, labs, or grocery store clerk. For our family and too many others, it’s the fear or the actual experience of having your child wander off and go missing.

In order to qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD, the symptoms must persist for over a month. Those experiencing symptoms for less than a month get the diagnosis of “acute stress disorder,” or … ASD. (Yes, I see the coincidence in the acronym and no, I’m not making that up.)

I have a 16-year-old son with autism who regressed around age 2. So, I’m guessing after 12 years of recurring trauma and hypervigilance, my husband and I have cycled through PTSD/ASD a few times each. (My husband, who is extremely competitive, tells me he’s ahead by one.)

The good news is, treatment is continually being researched and refined. EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy is a relatively new (the past 10 years) evidence-based approach to treating PTSD and anxiety with stunning results. In this blog series, I will be reviewing how EMDR therapy works and how it specifically helps families living with autism spectrum issues.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, Autism Spectrum Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Heather

    January 28th, 2014 at 12:56 PM

    Funny but I have never even thought about the need for the families to have therapy too, only the child with autism. Not that the child would need therapy, but I have only ever thought about him or her needing things, but never about the families and their needs too. This is a real eye opener for me, because now that I think about it I see that there are things that these families deal with that I can’t even begin to imagine, many hardships and difficulties in areas that I take for granted.

  • candi

    January 29th, 2014 at 4:14 AM

    I love that youc all these families warrior moms and dads, because that is so true. They are always fighting, always facing challenges and obstacles that most of us would know very little about or even know how to understand. Whatever we can do to make their lives easier and more manageable, then I say let’s do it.

  • janeen herskovitz

    January 29th, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    Heather and Candi, Thanks for your positive comments. I’ve made it my life’s work to help these families and the more people can empathize with their needs, the better.

  • Frank

    January 30th, 2014 at 4:50 AM

    I am sure that these families who so often feel like they are being ignored or made to feel that they don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to their own children are very appreciative that anyone in the medical and research fields are sitting up and taking interest in them. I am sure that for most families all of the help has always revolved around that for their children, and while certainly appropriate it is good to see that there is not a realization that the families who tend to the children and care for them need help and support too. This is what this is all about, not leaving anyone out on a limb feeling as if they have to do this alone.

  • Margie

    February 1st, 2014 at 9:22 AM

    Call me shocked, but the same sort of therapy that is used for help with those with PTSD applies to families with autistic children? I never knew it could be that bad for these families, makes me much more aware of the hardships that they must face in their homes.

  • Robin D

    April 28th, 2014 at 4:38 AM

    Love this article, can’t wait to read the next one. Where do I find it? As a warrior mom myself and the founder of a summer camp and rec program for kids on the spectrum I can tell you that therapy is key. In my experience though, it has been hard to find a therapist that truly understands autism. It sounds like you have got it!! Can you come to Virginia? :)

  • janeen

    April 28th, 2014 at 9:17 AM

    Robin, keep up the good work, warrior mom! You’re right, it is hard to find therapists who get it. I’d recommend either finding a child psychologist that specializes in the area, or encouraging the therapist you already have to get some consultation in this area. I provide consultation for other therapists and often once they have an adequate understanding, they are more effective.

  • Lisa

    December 1st, 2014 at 5:14 PM

    How do I find Part II of the EMDR Therapy for Families of Children with Autism?

  • janeen

    December 2nd, 2014 at 9:26 AM


    It doesn’t look like Goodtherapy put a link to it. Thanks for letting me know!

  • janeen

    December 2nd, 2014 at 9:26 AM


    And here’s the link to part 3.

  • Ange

    May 24th, 2016 at 7:12 PM

    I was googling EMDR when I came across this article – it was somewhere on the first page. I have a son with high functioning autism as well as a complex brain illness. The PTSD is real. I was asked at the grocery store just the other day if I “cared to donate to veterans” and my response was, not today – I’m currently living in a war zone myself. I totally respect what veterans have been through. And I respect even my younger self – as a survivor of childhood trauma I’m no stranger to the experience of PTSD. The constancy of the trauma, the daily stress of being a caregiver/parent to a sometimes aggressive and non-reciprocating person who is your child (and the grief) – that is what makes it so hard to process. We’re all able to naturally process trauma without therapy – but only to a degree. I feel like recently my “processor” became became overwhelmed and stuck in a loop – like a Cuisinart just spinning, spinning, spinning and all of the food is just in giant chunks, stuck to the side. I’m hoping EMDR will help.

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