Learning as Trauma for Autistic People

 teenage girl with auburn hair with her hand resting on her chin, looking away while sitting in a classroom with text that reads, "Learning as trauma for autistic people".

Learning is a traumatic experience for me. I think this is something I knew in the back of my mind for a long time, but haven’t been able to really articulate until now.

You know when something is a part of who you are for so long, you don’t even realize other people not only don’t experience life the way you do, but they don’t even KNOW what it’s like to experience it, or that it even exists?

I now wonder how many people need to read this because this is what their autistic or otherwise neurodivergent loved one might go through, and they, themselves, don’t even know it.

This is why I experience learning as trauma:

I grew up in the ’80s when there were very clear lines drawn between what people saw as “abled” and “disabled”.

That said, my difficulties with learning was seen as either laziness or purposeful obtuseness.

It also didn’t help that, like many of my neurodivergent peers, I excelled in certain classes and absolutely bombed in others.

I was (and still am) horrible at math. The simplest calculations make no sense to me. I remember very distinctly being in 2nd grade and being called on to go up to the blackboard to work out a math problem, and I just started writing random numbers.

The teacher got so frustrated, she literally shrieked at me in front of the entire class, her face twisted in fury, “You need to go back to Kindergarten!!!!!”

It was terrifying.

I was so stunned and scared and mortified, that any chance I would have had to learn or comprehend math stopped right there, permanently.

But my trauma isn’t limited to math. Learning anything new, unless I took to it instantly, was incredibly exhausting for me.

Between trying desperately to focus on something my brain had no interest in, dodge the taunts of bullies, and endure the pencil-snapping frustration of teacher after teacher who couldn’t understand why I didn’t “get it”, learning was a punishment to be avoided at all costs.

Since I couldn’t physically avoid it, I often disassociated. If a person instructing me, even in my adult life, showed the slightest hint of frustration, or worse, disbelief in my confusion, I tuned out completely like I was about to be horribly abused.

Even now, teaching myself something new…a piece of software, an app, a new way of doing something, it frustrates me to near-meltdown levels and leaves me weak with exhaustion.

Between the PTSD associated with learning and my brain trying to learn what it has no interest in or comprehension of, I need a lot of rest afterwards, and I will do just about anything to avoid learning something new.

That’s why I got a smartphone nearly a full decade after everyone else, I use Photoshop from 2003 and not the updated version I don’t understand, and I wouldn’t drive a car that had all the “bells and whistles” even if I could afford it.

I need everything to remain the same, or it causes me incredible anxiety and distress, and God forbid I try to explain this to others, and they reply with, “But, it’s easy!”

No. No, it’s not easy. It’s painful and traumatizing and horrible, and if I actually take the time and energy it takes to learn something new from you or for you, rest assured, you are VERY important to me because I’m performing the emotional and mental equivalent of walking over hot coals for you…both ways.

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9 Responses

  1. Nat says:

    Thing is I am a philomath polymath and live learning. It was SCHOOL that was traumatic for me. And, yes, I was bullied a lot and also through my working life.

  2. ghost-child says:

    What a coincidence, I had just asked my therapist if it was possible to be traumatized by academia

  1. May 10, 2020

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    […] Learning, for many of us, is exhausting and can bring up traumatic memories, so we have to prepare ourselves and be aware that we are expected to learn. […]

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    […] learning is both traumatic and exhausting for me, so, once I finally “get” something, I’m able to do it on autopilot (which takes […]

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