Jacob Stern’s harrowing look for The Atlantic at the mental health aftermath of California wildfires had me thinking again about autism and trauma, which came to mind a bit ago when I was being struck by all those realizations about having autobiographical memory deficiencies.
Psychologists sometimes say that trauma gets burned into the mind, like the imprint of a branding iron, and in a way it does. In truth, though, trauma is not so much a scorch mark as a flame, flaring up and dying down, inconstant. It burns in the mind. And just as some materials burn more readily than others, so too do some minds.
Part of this is genetic. Another part is cognitive. But a growing body of research has also linked vulnerability with prior exposure. “When traumas accumulate over time,” says the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, “they may be associated with more severe and complex psychological reactions.” For an alcoholic or a battered partner or a victim of sexual abuse, this means a heightened risk of serious mental-health problems. And if another disaster strikes—say, a pandemic—the risk rises higher still.
It got me thinking about how much worse would be the mini-traumas (I’m trying to find the language to describe what I try to get at when I talk about autism and trauma in a way that doesn’t seem like I’m trying to complete with what I keep wanting to call real trauma) my autistic brain experiences if I wasn’t memory deficient, aphantasically incapable of retrospective visualization.
What I mean is that the little traumas suffered by my particular autistic brain aren’t attached to actual stored memories of the traumatic stimuli themselves. Rather, it’s like my, for example, sensory pathways are ridden with potholes caused by such stimuli. When new stimuli has to travel those same pathways, well, it’s much like you don’t need ever before to have driven down a road in order to suffer the bumps and bruises of its potholes. For all intents and purposes, my not having any true experiential memory of things is akin to not having driven that road before (even though, technically and actually, I have).
So I can’t imagine having to suffer not just the potholes themselves but the sense-memory of the trauma that put them there in the first place.
It was in my mind mainly because I was trying to understand how these mini-traumas the autistic brain is beset by could really cause a kind of accumulation of bad feeling, and how new stimuli could “recall” earlier such traumas if the memory parts of that same brain can’t actually recall those earlier traumas.
For some reason this Atlantic piece, for entirely indirect and just sort of quasi-associational reasons, made me realize that trauma effectively causes stimulus pathway damage, whether or not you actually can remember that damage being done.