Flashbacks and autistic children


When I gave birth to my daughter it was an extremely traumatic experience for me. I had planned a domino birth where I was in labour at home, taken into hospital by the community midwife to have the baby and then brought straight home again to recover. It was my first child and although I wanted a home birth due to my extreme hate of hospitals, I compromised with this option just incase anything went wrong.

I was in labour for 24 hours and went through most of that alone. My husband at the time went out and left me in the house. When the midwife eventually came, I was rushed into hospital in an ambulance. I was given gas and air and right before my daughter was born, pethidine because I was exhausted and not coping particularly well.

I was that out of it that I remembered hardly anything afterwards. My midwife got called to a family emergency so I was left in a busy hospital. At times there was noone there with me due to staffing. Shifts kept changing so different people were there all the time. It was light outside one minute and I was having contractions, the next thing I remembered it was dark outside and someone I had never seen before was shouting at me to push. I was not allowed to go home afterwards and because it was midnight and outside of visiting hours, I ended up on a ward, alone again.

For months afterwards I would have vivid and scary flashbacks to that day. Things would trigger memories, and it was as if I was right there reliving parts of the experience over and over again. I couldn’t sleep properly because I would frequently wake in the night having a flashback and it started to affect my quality of life.

In the end I asked for help and a midwife brought my birth notes round to my house. We sat and went through the whole experience in great detail from start to finish so I knew exactly what had happened and when. I was able to make sense of my flashbacks and deal with them better.

This is why, when my son has traumatic flashbacks I am able to understand, to some extent what he is going through. To him they are extremely real and painful experiences that he finds hard to cope with. Last night I was sat with him at 1am for an hour and a half because something I said triggered a flashback and caused him to uncontrollably cry, unable to stop the memory from reliving itself. I could visibly see the pain he was going through. After sitting with him and comforting him for that long, he was in a place where I could distract his mind by telling him funny stories of when I was a child. He was eventually able to go to bed and we got four hours sleep. This is unfortunately something my son goes through quite regularly.

A flashback is a sudden, powerful re-experience of a past experience or part of a past experience. These experiences can be happy, sad or even painful or traumatic. A flashback is usually involuntary and often the person having the flashback re-lives the original experience, unable to distinguish it as a memory.

Whilst not listed as a symptom of autism, flashbacks can be quite common amongst autistic children (and adults).

The emotions involved in these flashbacks can be as real to the autistic child as they were at the time. The feeling of pain, sadness, embarrassment all come back at the trigger of a memory.

Memory triggers can be anything from something someone says to a smell or sight and these are enough to bring back the whole original painful memory.

There are some children who will try to distract themselves from painful memories by self harming such as hitting themselves in the head. For many the memories are too much to think about and enough to cause a meltdown or shutdown.

With all this in mind, if asking an autistic child to revisit the past for any reason, we have to be very mindful that this could be an extremely time consuming and emotionally exhausting experience for them.

Ways to support an autistic child who has a flashback

Be supportive. The memory may seem insignificant to you but to them it is affecting them incredibly deeply and they probably won’t be able to communicate this.

Don’t tell them not to dwell on the past. This is something they struggle to control so you may make them hide further flashbacks from you.

Be there for them and listen. You don’t need to offer advice. Just listen. The more information you have, the better chance you have of finding a way to help your child to understand and manage their memories.

After listening, change the subject to something positive, helping your child to think about positive things instead. This may be a slow process or fast, depending on your child.

Keep encouraging your child to think happy thoughts, being positive around them, this might help to reduce their negative flashbacks.

There are recommended techniques used by professionals to manage flashbacks. If flashbacks are making life difficult for your child getting professional help might be the right choice.

A black and white photo of a child looking down. The words read
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