Trauma or autism? – understanding how the effects of trauma and disrupted attachment can be mistaken for autism

Al-Attar, Zainab and Worthington, Rachel Elizabeth (2024) Trauma or autism? – understanding how the effects of trauma and disrupted attachment can be mistaken for autism. Advances in Autism . ISSN 2056-3868

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Early bio-psycho-social experiences can dramatically impact all aspects of development. Both autism and traumagenic histories can lead to trans-diagnostic behavioural features that can be confused with one another during diagnostic assessment, unless an in-depth differential diagnostic evaluation is conducted that considers the developmental aetiology and underpinning experiences and triggers to trans-diagnostic behaviours.

This paper will explore the ways in which biological, cognitive, emotional and social sequelae of early trauma and attachment challenges, can look very similar to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism. Relevant literature and theory will be considered and synthesised with clinical knowledge of trauma and autism.

Recommendations are made for how the overlap between features of autism and trauma can be considered during assessments alongside consideration for interventions to enable people to access the most appropriate support for their needs.

Many features of the behaviours of individuals who have experienced early childhood trauma and disrupted or maladaptive attachments, may look similar to the behaviours associated with autism and hence diagnostic assessments of autism need to carefully differentiate traumagenic causes, to either dual diagnose (if both are present) or exclude autism, if it is not present. This has for long been recognised in child and adolescent autism specialist services but is less well developed in adult autism specialist services.

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