It’s time to stop ignoring the link between behavior and trauma

What is the link between behavior in IDD and trauma?

  • Trauma is widespread amongst people with IDD.

  • Focusing on behavior without acknowledging and treating trauma can cause harm.

  • As supporters and caregivers, we can trigger trauma responses from the people around us without realizing it.

 

Anything that makes us feel scared and alone can be considered traumatic. This means that big and small events can cause trauma, and seemingly harmless daily occurrences can trigger it. What’s more, our reactions to trauma can take on many forms. They can be difficult for others to see and can also be tricky to understand ourselves.


Everyday experiences and trauma

For example, it took a long time for me to put together that the pit in my stomach I get before going to the dentist’s office isn’t just an untimely coincidence. I’ve had some painful and unpleasant experiences at the dentist so knowing the appointment is coming up can send my body into a hypervigilant state. I get quiet, fidgety, and startle easily.





The connection between trauma and behavior

I’ve learned that the pit in my stomach goes away if I ask the staff at the office to let me know what they’re doing as they do my teeth cleaning. It helps me feel safe and informed. However, if they simply tell me that “I am in good hands” and proceed without letting me know what is happening, it reinforces the feeling that I am not in control and should be afraid. It can make the situation a whole lot scarier.


Telling people they are safe is not likely to make them feel safe. What will make people feel safe is acknowledging their fears and making them feel in control. This is why it is so important to use a trauma-informed approach.

When we are triggered by trauma, we tend to communicate it through behavior. Whether it is holding ourselves back or blowing up, we often find ourselves reacting without even realizing it. This holds true for people with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD). What they’ve experienced plays a big role in how their behavior shows up. We need to stop ignoring the link between behavior and trauma.


Why the IDD sector needs to be trauma-informed

For people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, trauma is widespread and pervasive.


“According to the Center on Victimization and Safety, people with disabilities are at a higher risk of victimization than the general population, including the following :

  • 3 times more likely to experience rape, sexual assault, aggravated assault, and robbery

  • 3 times more likely to be sexually abused in childhood

  • 6 times more likely to experience abuse or neglect in childhood” (Relias)

Recognizing trauma & shifting our thinking

Recognizing trauma responses requires taking a step back and changing our perspective. We need to recognize that trauma teaches us all how to handle difficult situations in specific ways, whether it’s in response to a big event or the accumulation of smaller situations.


For example, frequently having their needs dismissed as a child can lead to someone becoming a fierce advocate for themselves. While they might appear rude or stubborn to some, if we look at their behavior with a trauma-informed lens, we then recognize it as purely practical. This is how this person has learned to get their needs met and survive in their environment.