Neurodiversity and trauma

Neurodiversity and trauma
Photo by David Tyemnyák / Unsplash

There's a lot to untangle between neurodiversity and trauma. In this livestream I will:

  • Share my own preferred explanation.
  • Explore some of the experiences that can lead to neurodivergent trauma.
  • Speak about what this means for how we think about neuro-inclusive work and workplaces.

Content warning: This talk contains discussion of, though not detailed descriptions of, traumatic experiences.


  • Ghanouni, Parisa, and Stephanie Quirke. “Resilience and Coping Strategies in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders.” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders 53, no. 1 (January 2023): 456–67.
  • Fulton, Rorie, Kate Richardson, Rachel Jones, and Emma Reardon. Sensory Trauma - Autism Sensory Difference and the Daily Experience of Fear, 2020.
  • Grove, Rachel, Hayley Clapham, Tess Moodie, Sarah Gurrin, and Gabrielle Hall. “‘Living in a World That’s Not about Us’: The Impact of Everyday Life on the Health and Wellbeing of Autistic Women and Gender Diverse People.” Women’s Health (London, England) 19 (2023): 17455057231189542.
  • Doyle, Nancy Elizabeth, and Almuth McDowall. “Context Matters: A Review to Formulate a Conceptual Framework for Coaching as a Disability Accommodation.” PLOS ONE 14, no. 8 (August 22, 2019): e0199408.
  • Perry, Ella, William Mandy, Laura Hull, and Eilidh Cage. “Understanding Camouflaging as a Response to Autism-Related Stigma: A Social Identity Theory Approach.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 52, no. 2 (February 1, 2022): 800–810.


Hello, everyone, and welcome to another one of my live streams.
Today, I'm going to be talking to you about neurodiversity
and trauma.
This conversation comes up in a lot of conversations
that I have, actually.
And I really wanted to explore a little bit of this today.
Hopefully, it won't be too heavy.
And I also hope it will be quite useful for you, particularly
in a work context.
So the first thing I'm going to talk about
is the neurodiversity and trauma relationship.
Then I'm going to talk about what's
kind of different, what can be different about neurodivergent
trauma, how it can show up differently.
Then I'm going to apply that to work and workplaces
and what that means for work and how we approach it.
Obviously, a bit of a content warning on this one.
I will be mentioning traumatic experiences,
though there won't be detailed descriptions of anything
too traumatic.
But I will be talking about them.
So please do ask questions if you're watching live.
And I will try and bring them into the talk.
A little bit about this.
So this topic came up.
It's something that I often speak to people about.
And I've found that people often find quite useful.
It's been a bit of an issue for me and my own journey
and understanding this, unpicking this.
And what I'd like to really start with
is sharing the model that I use, how I've
come to understand this stuff.
So with neurodiversity and trauma,
it's quite a complicated relationship, right?
It's something that I think has been quite entangled.
There are certain people out there
who I definitely don't agree with who
believe that all neurodevelopmental conditions
are solely based in trauma and are therefore
should be approached that way.
I use a different model, which is
to say that there are neurodivergent conditions,
neurodevelopmental conditions, acquired
neurodivergent conditions.
And then there is trauma as a separate but related thing.
So in this model, you can be neurodivergent
and you can be perfectly mentally well
in the sense of not carrying any trauma,
not carrying any disordered behavior,
not carrying any difficulties beyond just the difficulties
of hitting the disabled barriers that we all face,
if we're neurodivergent anyway.
But there is also the possibility of having trauma,
having picked up, having life experiences that were too
difficult to process that mean that you've
got these patterns of now unhelpful behavior that
are really hard to shift.
But equally, we can be otherwise neurotypical
and have these patterns of trauma-related behavior that's
really hard to shift.
So they're kind of separate things.
I do want to say with a little caveat,
if you experience trauma and you live with it for a long time,
you're likely, your neurology is likely to change.
So you could see otherwise neurotypical
but having experienced trauma and lived with it for a while
as another form of neurodivergence.
But to really tease these apart, this neurodevelopmental
condition, say ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, whatever,
as separate but related to trauma.
And one of the reasons it's so difficult to separate
and to pick apart is because when we are neurodivergent,
we're sensitive to certain things,
we're susceptible to certain things,
given our particular condition.
And that means that the environment out there that's
not designed for us is quite likely to result
in relatively consistent patterns of trauma, of overwhelm,
of experience that we can't quite process and handle.
So what we can, what we end up doing is having these kind of
patterns on top of our lived experience.
And that's a kind of confusing and difficult thing.
Clinically, I think it's the root of a lot of the difficulties
that the clinicians have teasing these things apart
and people have teasing these things apart.
So you've got these kind of patterns of trauma
and then you've got these,
you've got the underlying condition.
And a lot of the trauma that we have as neurodivergent people
is related to really being in trouble,
suffering for being punished for things
that were outside of our awareness,
or even if they were in our awareness,
were out of our control.
There were things that we simply couldn't do
and manage in quite the way that other people could.
Now, one of the stranger things about trauma work
and being neurodivergent is I think a lot of people,
particularly if you're late discovery neurodivergent,
you go into doing work around this,
you maybe you go into therapy,
maybe you do other self-development things.
And you have this expectation,
oh, okay, once I've done this, I'll be more normal.
It'll be easier for me to fit in.
I'll be more like other people.
My responses will be more like other people.
And this was kind of my expectation
actually going into a lot of this.
Instead, what happened was that I became less masked,
I became more stereotypically neurodivergent
than I was before I'd done all this work.
So I think it's a really important thing to understand.
If you're neurodivergent and you've experienced trauma,
it might well relate in masking, results in masking.
And with that masking,
there's a very high chance
that when you get rid of that trauma,
you'll actually become less in inverted commas normal
and actually perhaps show more of the outward symptoms
experiences associated with being neurodivergent
than you otherwise would.
I'd like to move on to thinking about
where neurodivergent trauma actually comes from particularly.
Why is this a thing for neurodivergent people?
Why is this a particular difficulty?
And the biggest thing I think for me is to,
I just want to go through some of these and talk about them.
So the first one of these is sensory trauma.
Now, sensory trauma is really the fact
that when we experience the world differently,
sensory things can be overwhelming.
Loud noises, smells, tastes or tactile sensations,
light, brightness, all of these different things
can be really, really overwhelming.
And we can experience them
as being completely out of our control
and having really difficult experiences
even to the point at which we can't process,
can't stay functional in a situation.
And that can be really difficult
and compounded with the fact
that sometimes we're not allowed to leave those spaces,
saying, I'm overwhelmed, I can't handle this
because it's outside of other people's experience.
Why would you find a loud space?
Why would you find a supermarket, for example?
There's an example from my own childhood,
an overwhelming space to be it.
And then people are not understanding.
So we get this kind of sensory trauma
and then the invalidation of that as well.
And related to this is social trauma.
Now, social trauma is very much this kind of,
okay, I was behaving, I thought I was doing this,
I wanted to behave in this way,
I wanted to express myself,
I wanted to convey this experience
and I got completely opposite reaction
or I didn't get the right reaction
or I was misunderstood, misinterpreted
or a whole load of other things.
And if you're interested in misunderstandings
and misinterpreting and social trauma,
take a look at some of my previous livestream
on neurodiversity and misunderstandings
because I think that would be a really,
really good place to explore more
around where social trauma comes from.
One of the other things I wanted to pick up,
which I think is perhaps less grounded
in kind of pure psychology theory,
but I think is really valid in this context,
is educational trauma.
And you can see in the resources,
there's a link to what educational trauma is
and why we pick it up.
But these negative experiences
in an educational context,
which can be both doing really well,
doing really badly, doing well in the wrong way,
which is definitely a thing that is for a lot of us,
is a real challenge and can leave us even as adults
with difficulties around working with qualifications,
being in the workplace,
with the idea of being assessed by other people.
I do wonder whether a lot of the
in inverted commas sensitivity to criticism
that a lot of neurodivergent people have
is really related to the fact that we've experienced
a ton of trauma around this.
We've experienced some really horrible things.
So any sense that we're being evaluated
or criticized in that way feels unsafe and unwelcome.
And so there is something really interesting
to unpick there.
And I really suggest for everyone,
maybe take a look at that and have a think about
where in your educational experiences
is still kind of showing up in work
that might be causing you issues around this.
Now, one of the other things I'd like to mention,
and I think doesn't always get spoken about,
and it kind of is an emerging area around
when neurodivergent trauma comes from,
is CPTSD, stands for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Now, when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder first came out,
it was very much associated
with huge traumatic singular events.
So people who'd been in disaster scenarios
or had very been in combat scenarios,
all sorts of really difficult,
those kind of classically traumatic events.
Now, that kind of idea of PTSD I think has lingered
and what trauma is has lingered
in the wider outside of psychology worldview.
But what we've also started to discover more recently
is this idea of CPTSD,
which is repeated potentially smaller trauma.
They're still trauma, it's still overwhelm,
but it adds up over time.
And I think one of the really big challenges
around the being neurodivergent
is we have a very high chance
of having a lot of small traumas
that we never quite get to the bottom of
and never quite get to process
because the world doesn't really allow us that.
So I think it's a really interesting angle
to look at why neurodivergent trauma shows up
in the way that it does.
Now, there are an awful lot of methods of processing
and integrating our experiences,
which is kind of the root of dealing
with a lot of this trauma.
Not all of them are perfect
and some of them are predicated on assumptions
that may not work for you as a neurodivergent person.
In my experience, the most effective things,
if you are thinking about exploring this a bit more
is really somatic things that have a somatic element,
have an embodied element that help you get into the body.
Because for me, an awful lot of the experience of trauma
is actually held in the body, almost in physical tension.
And that's why I think sometimes
we can have those weird experiences
doing something physical.
I don't know if you've ever had a massage
or done yoga or done something really physical.
And then suddenly felt this huge outwelling of emotion
that that was kind of stored somehow in the body.
And so it's really worth exploring these things.
I think particularly because it can be a more direct way
than some of the more cognitive methods
that either use metaphor or use techniques
that don't always work for us as neurodivergent people.
Now, what I'd like to kind of start to round up this talk
is really thinking about neurodivergent trauma
and the workplace.
Now trauma-informed workplaces in general
are kind of a new idea, I think.
And the idea, we've unfortunately picked up a work culture
that kind of thinks about pushing through,
getting over things and actually ignoring a lot of this stuff.
It's only in the last few years that we've started
to realize quite how damaging that can be in general
for all people at work.
And the idea of neurodivergent trauma
on top of that is even more difficult.
I want to go back to the thing I mentioned before
that sometimes our experience is
what we might experience as overwhelming
as neurodivergent people,
as people sensitive to different things
in the environment, in the world.
Don't always line up with other people's expectations of those.
And if we have senior people around us
who really need to see things
that only they would find overwhelming or difficult
and will only accept that as valid,
we might well experience our own trauma around that
as well as finding the thing overwhelming.
This invalidation of experience, I think,
is the root of a lot of difficulty.
You know, we face a lot of stigma around conditions still,
And this can lead to the masking and camouflaging
that I've also spoken about in previous episodes.
Now, this masking is actually a really costly thing.
And it's a really costly thing,
not just to the individual,
though it is a really costly thing to the individual,
but to the organization itself.
And I really think this message
needs repeating as often as possible.
The value of neurodivergent people
is the unique strengths and perspectives
that we can offer into that wider workplace context.
If we are required to mask to stay safe,
not to be overwhelmed,
you are cutting off all of those,
all of that benefit, all of that value.
You can, you basically as a workplace,
you have the choice between a really excellent,
sensitive neurodivergent person
or, at best, a mediocre, miserable person
pretending to be a neurotypical.
And it's making sure that we're not facing overwhelm,
not facing extra struggles.
That ensures that you get the access
to the really unique talents
that people who don't experience the world
like everyone else can offer.
And I know a lot of workplaces are starting to wake up to this
and there are all sorts of different ways of supporting
and accommodating neurodivergent people
and we are slightly getting better.
I think it's really, really important
to look at the individual, though.
There's, unfortunately, like a lot of these things,
it's become kind of commoditized, standardized
and every individual experiences things differently
and has different needs.
And we'll have had different experiences in the past
that will make some things feel safe
and make some things feel unsafe.
So the extent to which we can say,
yes, this person needs that particular thing
is relatively limited.
It's really about focusing on people's own experiences,
own strengths and building from there.
One of the resources below is about
how important coaching, in the case of dyslexic people, can be.
And what it finds is if it's done well,
it can be really effective.
But it can also be really difficult
and if it's not done well, it doesn't help at all
and can even have a negative effect.
So there are really important considerations
about the individual needs and the individual approach
that we need to consider when we're thinking about this
and when we're thinking about ourselves
and our own needs as well.
I think, unfortunately, this means
that we might have to do a fair bit of trial and error
before we can really necessarily kind of fix this.
There aren't quick fixes for this.
And that's particularly true because we have to deal
with some of this stuff on an ongoing basis.
You know, it's an interesting question about to say
whether it's, for example, hypervigilance,
in the sense of, which is a very common trauma response,
which is this always scanning the environment for threats.
It's like, is it hypervigilance
if you could be misunderstood and get into a ton of trouble
as a neurodivergent person in the workplace?
That's not hypervigilance.
That's an appropriate level of vigilance
to an unhealthy workplace.
So there are really important things to consider
about whether this is just an adaptive response
to an unhealthy environment.
And I think when we start to see those,
these kind of avoidance strategies,
these things we have to be really careful about showing up,
then that's a sign that perhaps the environment isn't supportive,
isn't as supportive as it could be.
And I wanted to include this, the pre-justification trait
that shows up for so many neurodivergent people
in the workplace.
That urge to have to explain yourself in detail
when you ask for anything or request anything.
Having, for me, always wondering why some people
could just write an email and say, I want this
and that would be fine.
Whereas I felt the need to add evidence
and justify everything,
even if it was a perfectly normal need or request.
So knowing where we feel like we're working with the system
and trying to work around the system
and trying to stay safe,
trying to get our needs met
and spending a lot of effort doing it,
it's a good pointer to things that really aren't working
as smoothly as they could in the workplace
and could be a good place to improve.
If you happen to work on your own,
I think some of this is a little bit different
and shifts a little bit as now I work on my own as well.
There is a real different take to this,
though we can still be carrying the patterns
from past workplaces.
So it's really worth exploring
whether we need to continue doing those things,
some of the things that we might find difficult
or whether we can actually drop some of that,
make our lives a bit easier and work more in our own way
and still get what we want done.
Because for me, that's actually a lot of the reason
to work for yourself is because you don't have to justify it
to someone else,
you just have to make something that works for other people.
So I hope that was a useful kind of quick run
through neurodiversity trauma and work.
If you've got any questions,
please do either ask in the comments
or drop me a message privately.
I know there is stigma of these things can be quite private.
So if you've got any questions that you don't want to be shared,
please do just drop me a private message.
If there are any other topics you'd also like to see me talk about,
please do share those in the comments.
That would be incredibly helpful to hear more about.
And there are links to all of the references
and resources that I shared
and there will be very shortly a full transcript
of this talk available on the website
that you can find in the show notes as well.
So I hope that was useful and I will see you again soon.