As 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.
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