I first developed an appreciation for EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy and how it applies to autism as a result of an experience with my family. Raising a teenager can be considered a challenge, to say the least. So it makes sense that raising a teen on the autism spectrum could result in some trauma for the people who live with him. This was the case for our family.
When we talk about trauma, we discuss “big T’s” and “little t’s.” Big T’s can be things such as sexual abuse, being shot, severe physical abuse, or a major accident where your life is threatened. Little t’s are smaller, yet just as significant to the brain. These may include bullying incidents in elementary school, the time when your dad forgot to pick you up from preschool, or the time your mom said a dress made you look fat. Not life-threatening, yet potentially devastating just the same.
Our brains are designed to store memories by looking for patterns. Like goes with like. A person who smells pizza may get hungry when his or her brain processes the scent because it recalls other times pizza was eaten as part of a pleasurable experience.
Another person, however, may smell the same pizza, and the brain links that smell to a time when he or she ate it and then came down with the flu a few hours later. The brain and body associate smell with experience. The person with a negative association may even experience nausea. That person’s body will react even without the conscious thought, “That smell is pizza and the last time I ate it I got sick, so my body is now reacting with nausea.” The person could rationalize that it’s silly, that he or she shouldn’t feel that way, that the association is due to the coincidence of eating pizza the same day he or she fell ill. But it’s possible none of that self-talk will be effective; self-talk doesn’t access the subconscious, where the memory is stored.
EMDR therapy helps the brain access memories on the subconscious level and brings them to a conscious level where they can be properly processed and stored. The body, in kind, responds appropriately rather than with sickness.
Many of us are walking around with unprocessed memories that are causing our bodies to react in ways we can’t control even if we tried. This brings me to my own experience with my son, who has severe autism.
A few years ago, my son managed to get out of our backyard by hopping the fence, and disappeared into the woods behind our house. The babysitter, a few feet away, watched in horror as he did it, unable to get to him in time. He was missing for several hours, and police helicopters and search dogs were dispatched to help locate him.
At the time he went missing I was providing therapy to someone, and when I finally checked my phone after the session, the screen was littered with alerts regarding the texts and calls I had missed. After discovering what had happened, I raced home and could hear the helicopters overhead before I even pulled into the driveway, which was covered with neighbors and police.
The good news: he was found safe after several hours. The bad news: my brain had made some unwanted connections. For the next few months, every time I checked my phone and it had more than one or two missed-call alerts, my body immediately responded with an increased heart rate and mild panic. Every time I heard a helicopter overhead, my body responded in the same way. It didn’t matter how much I told myself that everything was fine, that the helicopter wasn’t looking for my son.
It wasn’t until I attended EMDR training that I was able to process these memories and my body no longer had the reaction. The issue was resolved after only one session of EMDR therapy.
My story, of course, is just a simple example—a little t. I wasn’t diagnosed with posttraumatic stress. It was just a somatic reaction to an event that my brain had stored improperly. But imagine the effects that abuse, combat, or a natural disaster can have on a body. The long-term effects can be devastating to a person and to his or her relationships.
In the next segment, I’ll talk about what the EMDR process looks like in therapy, and my experience with it as a clinician.
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