How to Spot Trauma

September 15, 2022

Community Access Unlimited

How to Spot Signs of Trauma in People with Disabilities

Research shows that those who have disabilities experience trauma at significantly higher rates than the general population. Recognizing and addressing trauma in people with developmental disabilities is crucial in helping them achieve and maintain a sense of safety, power, and self-worth. However, signs of trauma in a loved one who has a disability can often be overlooked. In many cases, your only clues may come in the way of highly nuanced non-verbal cues. The signs are there; you just have to know what to look for.

8 hallmark signs of trauma in individuals with developmental disabilities

A traumatic experience can manifest in many ways. Here are some of the most common:

  1. Cognitive changes: Look for new confusion, memory loss, or lack of concentration. You might also notice difficulty learning new skills or a noticeable appearance of being distracted.
  • Altered behavioral patterns: The onset of mood swings, withdrawal from friends and family, and lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities are also red flags of trauma, as are aggression, hyperactivity, and even self-criticism.
  • Sleep disturbances: From difficulty falling or staying asleep to sleeping too much, changes in a person’s sleep patterns are among the first signs of trauma. Frequent nightmares, bedwetting, and even fear of sleep are also common following a traumatic event.
  • Unexplained physical symptoms: Trauma also commonly manifests as body aches and pains, GI disturbances, rapid heartbeat, loss of bladder or bowel control, and even sexual dysfunction. You might also notice changes in appetite, new muscle tension, extreme exhaustion, sweating, or a rapid fluctuation in weight.
  • Changes in hygiene: Changes in your loved one’s self-care routine are also a cause for concern—from a diminished desire to shower or keep up with oral hygiene to wearing the same clothes on repeat.  
  • Psychological changes: You may also notice a range of new psychological issues, including anger, heightened anxiety, frequent panic attacks, new obsessions, compulsive behavior, depression, and even outward displays of shame.  
  • Verbal idiosyncrasies: Pay careful attention to any changes in the way your loved one speaks, including repetitive statements, out-of-the-blue comments about something unrelated to the current situation or setting, or recurrent questions about something very specific.
  • Avoidance behaviors: Notice any new phobic mannerisms towards specific triggers, including places, people, sounds, or smells.

When people with intellectual disabilities experience a highly stressful life event that shatters their sense of security and wellbeing, they may experience an intense sense of helplessness beyond their normal coping capacity. Letting these fears and feelings go unchecked can have long-term emotional and physical consequences.

As a leader in trauma-informed care, CAU can help you work with your loved one to ensure his or her trauma is adequately addressed. We understand that traumatic experiences can manifest differently—and require a different approach—in individuals with disabilities. That’s why we take a customized approach that integrates the proven principles of trauma-informed care to set those suffering from trauma on a positive life trajectory despite challenging past events.