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Neurodivergency, ADHD, trauma, genetics and the complex reality….

My hesitation to write about trauma and the pull to do so

I’ve been researching this for a long time now, both by listening to my fellow neurodivergents on various social media, and during gathers like NeuroEmergence and by listening to and reading some of the experts in both fields (trauma and neurodiversity).

For a long time now I’ve considered James Ochoa‘s concept of intervention fatigue a valuable name for what is part of the neurodivergent trauma. He describes continuously being unaccepted for who you are, and presented with solutions that do not fit very well with the ways our brain operates most of the time. And then being “blamed” in a way for being so “hard to help”. This in itself can cause trauma, even if no other traumatic things happen to you in childhood or adulthood. It’s becoming more and more clear that neurodivergencies and trauma are intimately acquainted in various ways.

I’ve felt very hesitant to write extensively on the topic, because I am not an expert in it at all. I hold no degree or credentials other than my personal experiences, what I learned by listening to others, and initially through the -slightly disorganized yet tenacious – type of research ADHD-ers tend to do. But of course, by now I have done my share of hyperfocused deep dives on the subject, since the topic comes up in my practice as a coach a LOT.

I am still working out how to organize my thinking and writing around what is such a big topic, but as this survey recently came out I did not want to miss the chance to shed some light on the recent article ADDitude magazine did on the topic. According to their survey at least 82 % of people with ADHD are somehow ‘haunted’ by trauma. (read more here: https://www.additudemag.com/trauma-mental-health-impact-adhd/ )

ADHD = trauma, really?? Is that ALL?

Even more extreme: some discourse on ADHD seems to be shifting to sometimes equate ADHD with trauma. Personally, with what I’ve learned so far I do not believe this to be the case. Our ADHD may make us more susceptible to long-term negative effects from traumatic events, but I do not believe ADHD can be “explained away” completely by trauma or a high occurrence of ACE’s (adverse childhood events).

I see so many experts trying to remain nuanced in the face of an onslaught of people seeking “simple and easy explanations” and hoping to confirm their bias. In these days of fast and short and “aiming for more clicks” media coverage that is NOT easy. And I see plenty of people hoping to profit from selling those simplified narratives and the solutions that fit with them. The denial of physical or genetic factors in ADHD seems to be especially popular with people suspicious of medication being part of the solution.

I saw Dr. Gabor Mate‘s attempt to remain neutral and scientific about ADHD (calling it ” not … a disease but as a problem of brain development in the context of a stressed society.”) on one specific podcast get overshadowed by one such a ‘sales narrative’ from a family who claim to have ‘cured’ their kids ADHD completely. But when you read on they have just decided to not treat him as disordered anymore and give him plenty of accommodations. That is in itself great! But it does not mean his ADHD is gone and he will be able to make it perfectly fine in a non-neurodivergent-friendly world once he gets a job!

The dangers of putting the genetic and physiological or structural explanations FIRST

I suspect Gabor Mate and many alongside him (not just people pushing the “ADHD = trauma narrative, but also many others) are highly uncomfortable with the shadow of eugenics that can fall over the “it’s all brain wiring” or “it’s all genetic” narratives. It’s true that this could easily slip into talk about “curing all of us by eradicating our variations in the gene pool in the future”. As evidenced among other things by the huge upheaval about the Spectrum 10 K research project and it’s subsequent pause. And so they downplay the genetic factors or deny the brain-wiring explanations (and to be fair, a difference in brain chemistry might be closer to the truth).

And they are not wrong to be afraid. Those are big risks. Especially in our current, technology-obsessed society that is drunk on its ability to control and manipulate nature. And these are risks that worry me too. I’ve seen Gattaca, it was my favorite movie in the late 90’s! And wayyyyyyyy too few research projects involve the Neurodivergent community in writing and executing their research proposals. Or even just commit to having them comment or consult on proposals.

The challenges are SO real…and so is the evidence for structural and genetic factors

I see many benefits in discussing the way we treat different neurologies and how much changes in culture, society, parenting and workplace organization, can help to alleviate many of the challenges neurodivergent brains have.

But I also talk to people struggling everyday with they way their brain functions, who are impaired by their flaky short term memory, their struggles to activate or stop, their issues with emotional regulation and high or low sensitivities to all sorts of signals, and many other challenges. And with everything I see and hear I am hard-pressed to believe that ALL of those struggles are 100% down to traumatic experiences and society considering different brains disordered. Some of these people have indeed had deeply traumatic childhoods, or family histories, some, not so much….

Evidence for medication being effective for many people with ADHD, is abundant. Evidence for many genetic factors connected to various neurodivergencies and real, measurable differences in the ways our brains process information is slowly piling up. Even if diagnosing neurodiversity with brain scans is still a long way off. Unless you want to believe Dr Daniel Amen, who is doing just this already, for ADHD, alongside other diagnostic tools. But then again: he also has a huge financial stake in THAT narrative… Why can’t things ever be easy, huh?

Utopia is not yet here. Is neurodivergency without trauma even possible?

I DO, very much, long to see a world where we all have access to an environment accepting of our differences, with access to good healthy food, great diagnostic tools and treatments for any past traumas. I ache to see how much better things would become if we can make that happen. But I doubt it will magically make ALL of our challenges go away.

While I long to discover what the various neurodivergencies would look like when their expression is less clouded by our collective traumatic experiences… I suspect they would not suddenly say “poof” and disappear completely.

And IF harsh life circumstances make genetic preconditions blossom into the various presentations of neurodivergencies (as Gabor Mate is really saying, if you look past his initial claim that ADHD is NOT genetic), do we REALLY expect that we are so close to a new UTOPIA that we will no longer see those neurodivergencies expressed in many, many people in the near future? That people will no longer need support for these conditions? Are we really that naive?

Why not BOTH?

Similar to the nature/ nurture discussion about parenting and kids: I find myself firmly sitting in the middle ground saying: WHY NOT BOTH? Can we work on two sides of these challenges without competing for attention and research dollars? Can we stop making the discourse a war between black and white opposing views? Could we PLEASE continue to look at the grays and the complexities involved here? And translate this into some concrete ideas for how to make the world a better place. Can we start helping people who are struggling right NOW, AND continue to figure out what the underlying causes might be? And continue to support families, schools and workplaces to lessen the (1st generation and intergenerational) traumatic loads people have to bear, because of their life circumstances, while also working WITH and in support OF their varied neurologies?

What my personal and short-term focus on trauma is, while I wait to learn even more about the interconnections…

In an attempt to do this myself, I will be following two ACO (ADHD Coaches Organisation) presentations for coaches on ADHD and trauma in the coming months and I’ll report back on those soon.

I am also intrigued by IFS (internal family systems), a trauma treatment developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz and others, that has taken the therapy world by storm in these past few years. If you want to know more about IFS I highly recommend the video series Dr. Traci Olds did on it. Find the first video here Due to my recent studies I can now call myself an IFS-informed coach. And I had already learned to work with the heavily IFS-based coaching system from Margaret Moore that uses a “fixed cast” of an internal family to help people manage their emotions (and therefore their lives) better. More on that too, in the coming months.

In closing, I just want to be clear that I am not a therapist, and therefore not the right person to come to for real trauma therapy. If during our coaching sessions a client shows signs of trauma I will discuss this and the potential need for a referral. But if you are looking for a coach who is comfortable working with you WHILE you also work with a therapist on trauma, or perhaps AFTER you have done that work: I am happy to work with you. For some people coaching is the gateway to even being able to step into doing trauma work. As their daily life becomes a bit more stabilized with coaching, they may suddenly feel the need and/ or the room to access those other treatments. Because they are less overwhelmed now.

I’ve seen quite a few coaching clients really benefit from the trauma treatments currently available. I’ve heard even more grueling, yet encouraging stories from the community about the terrible things that have impacted people’s lives and how they work to overcome and/ or learn to live with those realities and attain more confidence, control, resilience and freedom to be their own amazing, uniquely different selves in this weird and wonderful world.

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