Neurodivergence and Trauma

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The Neurodivergence Trauma Cycle

There is so much overlap between neurodivergence and trauma that it’s difficult to pick apart what behaviours or traits may be as a result of trauma or as a result of being neurodivergent. 

I wanted to try to clarify the way I see trauma alongside neurodivergence, specifically autism and ADHD. 

So I produced this graphic “The Neurodivergence Trauma Cycle” (A.Peters 2024), to demonstrate the, often misunderstood, traumatic experiences of neurodivergent people.  (Note that the term Neurodivergent encompasses much more than just autism & ADHD, this is just what I am focusing on in this article.)

diagram demonstrating neurodivergent trauma cycles

When it comes to the world of autism and ADHD, understanding the intersection with trauma is difficult. It’s hard to know where neurodivergent traits begin and trauma symptoms end as they often mirror each other.  

The prevalence of trauma amongst the neurodivergent (ND) population is sadly all too high. Many of us have had experiences which our brain encodes as traumatic, leaving us with wide ranging effects and neurodivergent people are no exception. In fact we are more vulnerable to experiencing trauma. 

Added to this though is the fact that just existing as a neurodivergent person in our (neurotypical) society, is traumatic in itself, and you have a ND population which is almost certainly feeling the effects of trauma on a regular basis. 


I think this is difficult for some to understand, that the neurodivergent experience is not just ‘feeling a bit left out’, it is actually traumatic. So, based on my own personal and professional experiences, I’ve found that a pattern emerges—the Neurodivergence Trauma Cycle. I hope this graphic and this accompanying article goes someway to explain how it is for many autistic/ADHD and otherwise neurodivergent people.

Negative Experiences

Imagine facing frequent misunderstandings and miscommunications as a regular part of life. For many neurodivergent individuals, this becomes a defining aspect—a starting point that shapes what we call the Neurodivergence Trauma Cycle.

Masking

To navigate a world not built for us, neurodivergent individuals often wear a mask. It’s not about pretending; it’s a survival strategy, an often subconscious action in order to blend in, even if it means suppressing our natural selves to avoid judgement.

Self Blame

We often feel as if these misunderstandings and miscommunications are our fault, wondering why we always miss the mark or get things wrong. This leads to self blame, shame and the feeling that it’s not ok to be ourselves out in the world. Which of course then leads to more masking. 

Hypervigilance

In response to the challenges of misunderstanding and self-blame, the neurodivergent brain becomes hypervigilant. Every interaction is carefully scrutinised to prevent mistakes and navigate the intricacies of social dynamics. We desperately want to get things right this time so we become hyper aware in every situation.

Intensifying Stress

This heightened state of alertness unfortunately contributes to a cycle of escalating stress, anxiety, and burnout. Everyday experiences take on a different tone, with the nervous system coding more encounters as traumatic, leading this trauma cycle to continue.

The Way Out of the Cycle

Think of the Neurodivergence Trauma Cycle as a roadmap, as a self awareness tool. Especially for late identifying neurodivergent people this cycle has likely gone on for many years without us even knowing it. Building self awareness is key to setting apart the trauma from your neurodivergence. 

It is also so important to build your neurodivergent knowledge, to start to understand how your traits interact with each other. This can be done with the help of a therapist, coach or perhaps just using a tool like my Neuro Cards to increase your awareness. 

This cycle is why I am so passionate about neurodivergent affirming therapy, providing a space for understanding and safe reflection with someone who can ensure that the cycle doesn’t continue within the therapy itself. The last thing we need is more miscommunications and misunderstandings with our therapist – all this leads to is more masking (which takes us further from ourselves) and more trauma.


Amy is the founder and lead counsellor at Newglade. Newglade provides a range of specialist neurodivergent services including in person and online counselling, parent support, professional training and therapist support/supervision. Please contact us for more information.

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