The Safe Room

Most of us have only seen these rooms on television. Some of us think about our tornado shelters or cellars when we hear the words, “safe room.” Regardless of purpose, these rooms are places that shelter us from harm from the physical world, whether it be intruders or Mother Nature.  A place we go for protection when the world poses a threat. We have a small storage area in our basement that is surrounded by concrete that gives us reassurance when the idea of a tornado ripping through our small town becomes worrisome. Knowing we have a place to protect us and keep our loved ones safe helps us sleep at night, especially when storm season rears its ugly head.

What happens when the threat is not physical in nature, but an emotional or mental threat? About three years ago, I was part of an accreditation process in a residential facility for children and teens impacted by autism. As I met with one of the accrediting staff, she asked me how we were addressing and treating trauma that has occurred with our residential population. I remember being perplexed and wondering why I hadn’t considered this course of treatment or programming with our children. After that meeting, I began studying trauma and the effects it has on children impacted by autism. As a professional, I had felt well versed in post-traumatic stress disorder, which we often see in individuals who served in combat, family members who witnessed or lost their loved ones unexpectedly or those who witnessed or been a part of life altering events such as tornadoes or car accidents. But, children impacted by autism experiencing trauma was a new concept for me, and a new passion within me was ignited. “ I must know more,” I remember thinking. 

Studies suggest that children and adolescents impacted by autism are exposed to the same stimuli or circumstances that cause trauma as their peers. The more I sought answers about my question of the relation between autism and trauma, the more intrigued I became. You see, I began to understand more about the biological make-up of those impacted by autism. Studies show those impacted by autism typically have overactive amygdalae.  Amygda-what?  You may ask?  This is our brains’ mechanism for processing many of our emotions, fear responses and pleasure.  When you break down how many humans respond to pleasure and fear, a large percentage of us are able to process these emotions adequately with coping mechanisms we develop throughout our lifetime. However, many of those impacted by autism have heightened response and recovery times for these life events, which often results in experiences of intensified pleasure and trauma. 

It’s not an easy concept to comprehend. What does intensified processing of trauma mean for children, adolescents and adults impacted by autism?  Research is limited in this area, but as scientists and professionals, we have become more aware of the need for more understanding in this area. While we understand that many individuals impacted by autism experience feelings associated with trauma more intensely, we are limited in resources needed to help these individuals cope more efficiently with these life-altering events. We need to learn more about how to create mental “safe rooms” for these individuals. What we can do as professionals, friends and family of those impacted by autism is to make room in our minds for the variances in how individuals impacted by autism’s systems process emotions related to fear and pleasure.  While we may have a visual map for navigating our way to our “safe rooms” in our homes and our plans for getting our family members there in the event of potential danger, we must remain cognizant of the potential lack of ability of these structures, maps and plans for emotional trauma in our children and family members, especially those impacted by autism. 


Published 2016/05/20 by Nicole McLain
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