Trauma bit me on the bum!
I thought I went into adoption with less naivete than many, having co-deputized as a manager in a children’s home in the 1990s, I helped create a nurturing environment for children who had experienced a very rocky start in life. We based our care practice on play therapy which was quite progressive at the time, realising that these children needed therapeutic care. I also had experience of working with children in a variety of settings educationally, socially and therapeutically and thought I had some insight as to how the very questionable system worked so felt I was better equipped to make the decision to adopt.
In some ways I was a little less naive, but oh, my knowledge had HUGE gaps!
During the time we have been a family, a great deal more of research and understanding has become available about the impact of trauma on the development on the brain. This in turn affects our child’s ability to learn, to interact, to develop relationships and even have fun. This explained in part some of our child’s ‘quirks’ – developmental delays in learning satiety, toileting and maintaining friendships, but trauma came to bite us on the proverbial as soon as the teens kicked in.
The PACE model developed by Dan Hughes, while our child was younger helped navigate a more gentle way of developing attachment, meeting our child where he was and helping him feel safe, loved and have space to grow in his own time.
I learned that many of the indicators of Developmental Trauma Disorder often present similarly to autism and that this seemed to explain why he found other autistic children easier to get on with. I was told that with Developmental Trauma, many of these difficulties would subside, and although some did, some of our son’s “quirks” plus issues with communication and socialising remained. My partner and I had often questioned whether he was on the spectrum, so when a savvy support worker suggested we get him assessed we asked our GP for a referral.
The waiting list was in excess of two years! This would be too late to address his needs in a timely manner, so our supportive GP referred us to the Lorna Wing Centre, part of the National Autistic Society for an assessment. This meant going out of county to be assessed so our son could receive educational support before leaving school and prepare him for college and beyond if needed. The centre scrupulously ensured they employed experts who well understood trauma to establish whether our son was truly autistic. He was and what relief our family felt. We all felt we could understand a little more how our son can enable himself & how we can support him.
It took us a while to get to the assessment stage though. Our son was born female, and started transitioning this year, and often girls mask their autism very well. Furthermore, he is most articulate and this often fooled people into thinking he is more able than he is and therefore people would not realise he needed more understanding or support than they typically gave him. He is quite remarkable for coping with school as well as he has all these years.
Our family has felt the panic of school refusals, the heartbreak of self-harm, the secondary trauma as parents spark into fight/flight/freeze mode anticipating the next drama, which is driven by an unmet need or fear. We have felt the isolation as friends and family fail to understand our desperation as we tried to navigate uncharted non-stop stormy waters. Or worse, people who have nothing more to do with you as you present as a toxic person when really you just need someone to ask, “are you OK, this isn’t like you?”
We have fought hard to obtain therapy and support over the years:
- Theraplay and play therapy to give our son creative and fun safe space to express himself in a way to suit him
- Art therapy within school for time out and giving our son a positive school experience which is so important when bullying and negative experiences have impacted his school experience
- SEN support throughout school and to enable teachers to “get him”. Obtaining teachers’ understanding and co-operation unfortunately seems to be an ongoing issue. Not all teachers in trauma informed schools are truly trauma informed.
- PACE workshops provided by the adoption unit to help us navigate parenthood more gently; learning to “Keep it Light” was key
- 1-1 child psychologist to help us with specific problems and explore concerning personal or parental issues
- a youth support worker to help understand how to keep safe; vital as one of the autistic indicators that our son presents is that he is highly suggestable and therefore more vulnerable than he would have you believe
- CAMHS to help understand drivers and support through his self-harming as safely as possible (we had to fight to prioritise timely support as the regular waiting list was over two years!)
- LGBTQ+ activities and groups to help support transition safely
- Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy for our whole family to help us better understand ourselves and past relational patterns which impact our family now funded by the Adoption Support Fund
- Sarah Fisher’s supportive connective parenting techniques and resources using adapted Non Violent Resistance approaches to add more therapeutic parenting tools to our box
Those immensely loyal friends & family who stuck with us through all the storms and gave us space to recharge
I see this input now is an investment in my son, his future family however that manifests, and his community. This is I hope the legacy of starting to break the painful cycle of intergenerational trauma; misunderstanding and not recognising autism in people and the impact that has in families; and in accepting people as they are if they do not fit in the usual binary boxes of sexuality.
Our adoption journey has not been easy. It has nearly broken us, but I can hand on heart say that all the hard work has been worth it. I am proud of our son and all he carries, all that he is, all that he can be, because the world is lucky to have him and I am lucky to be loved by him, “quirks” and all. He is my greatest teacher and inspiration. The waters are calm at present, but when they are stormy again, we know we have the love, learning, resilience and support to weather them; every storm passes.