How Trauma Affects People with Intellectual Disabilities

September 1, 2022

Community Access Unlimited

How Trauma Affects People with Intellectual Disabilities vs. the General Public

Trauma can strike anyone at any time. However, research shows that those with disabilities are much more likely to face adverse life events and traumatic experiences than the general population.

Consider this:

  • People with any disability are 1.2 to 2 times more likely to suffer from maltreatment than those without a disability, 3.4 times more likely to suffer from neglect, and 4 times more likely to be the victims of crime1
  • People with developmental disabilities, in particular, suffer 2.5 to 10 times the abuse and neglect of those without2
  • Five million crimes are committed against individuals with disabilities each year in the U.S.3

Why is this?

People with disabilities are highly vulnerable to psychological trauma compared to the general population. Their limited social abilities, verbal skills, and general knowledge base put them at higher risk of exposure to things like abuse and bullying. And with frequent feelings of rejection and isolation, they tend to crave attention and affection, which makes them more susceptible to manipulation by others. And in many cases, they’ve been taught to “do as they’re told” and comply with authority figures without question—in essence, stripping them of the confidence to speak up and advocate for themselves. What’s more, their cognitive impairment and processing delays may make it difficult for them to understand what is happening in an abusive situation—or even decipher the fact that they are being abused as it is occurring.

Beyond acts inflicted by others, trauma can also emerge from life events—from sudden or frequent changes in living arrangements or the death of a family member to a medical procedure or even a new awareness of the reality of their disability. Regardless of where or how a trauma emerges, people with disabilities are generally more vulnerable at all stages of any traumatic event—before, during, and after.

Limited coping skills make it harder to recover

For anyone who experiences trauma, whether they live with a disability or not, recovery is based largely on the ability to face and work through the myriad of complex emotions associated with the event. When it comes to people with disabilities who are less emotionally and mentally equipped than the general population, achieving recovery is far more challenging. Their limited ability to describe a traumatic experience, make sense of what happened, or verbalize their emotions about it puts them at a notable disadvantage on their healing journey. In many cases, it goes unnoticed and unresolved altogether, which can have life-long consequences for the individual. This is where the ability to recognize non-verbal signs of trauma in someone with a disability becomes so crucial.

Changing the trajectory

Recognizing and treating trauma in a person with an intellectual or developmental disability is essential to their quality of life. Trauma-informed care has recently emerged as one of the most effective ways to accomplish this. By offering a more nurturing intervention approach for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to uncover and address trauma, care teams and medical professionals can help the affected individuals cope with adverse events in a healthy and productive way, thereby minimizing any associated aggressive and destructive behaviors.

At CAU, our goal is to empower people with disabilities to live a life filled with promise and opportunity. We work with our members on an individual basis based on their unique circumstances, challenges, and communication style to ensure their voice is heard and their emotional needs are met in a safe and empathetic environment.