Autistic people can have powerful memories. This can result in intense flashbacks, which can be painful and embarrassing. In this post I am going to discuss the phenomena of negative flashbacks and their effects.
Autism and Memory
Autistic people can experience memories in a very different way to neurotypicals. As a spectrum condition, experience of memory can vary greatly between individuals. Autobiographical memories can be particularly intense for one autistic person, whereas another may have difficulty remembering the details of events where they were present. They may not be able to accurately picture themselves in a scenario that they participated in.
There are many different kinds of memory. These include declarative, sensory, episodic and working memory types. Autism can affect how these memories are experienced. As an extreme example, an autistic savant may be able to recall tiny details of an artwork or play a piece of complex music from memory. Memory and autism is a huge topic, which hopefully I can return to in more detail in later blogs. However, this post is dedicated to the specific topic of negative flashbacks.
A negative flashback is when an autistic person has a very strong memory of something that happened in the past. This will usually be an embarrassing incident of a social nature, although it could be a distressing event, like bullying. Unlike a normal memory, this type of memory is extremely intense, almost transporting the person back to the time and place over and over again. They feel the emotions and pain over and over, which is extremely unsettling and frightening.
A negative flashback can be combined with rumination. This is when a person plays a scene over and over again in a loop. It is like a stuck record on replay. The scenario replays endlessly in the head, causing great distress. This rumination, combined with the intensity of the emotions involved, can easily lead to a meltdown.
Supporting Someone Through a Negative Flashback
It is important to take the individual into consideration when supporting them through a flashback episode. Firstly it is important to take things seriously. An episode like this can cause intense distress for the sufferer and should not be taken lightly. It is no good telling them to “snap out of it,” as it really is not that simple. Emotional episodes such as this can actually cause physical pain, like chest or stomach pains. Show empathy and kindness. Show that you understand and do not belittle their suffering.
Depending on the individual, distraction can be a good technique. If possible try and talk to the person about different things to draw the focus away from the painful memory. Likewise, grounding and mindfulness techniques can help to ground the person in the here and now, rather then then getting lost in a painful memory. Apps like Clear Fear can help with this.
It may also help to try to address the memory when they are in a calmer state. By talking about it in a calm way, they may be able to minimise some of the more distressing aspects of the memory and see it for what it really is. It is important for them to know that a memory is just a memory and cannot hurt them if they do not give it the power to do so. This may take time.
Negative Flashbacks: More Information
For further information and a first-hand experience of negative flashbacks from an autistic individual, I recommend reading Dan Coulter’s blog. Dan explains how he would be triggered by sights or sounds which would cause his flashbacks.
Dan also mentions in his blog that it may be necessary to get professional help for someone suffering from negative flashbacks.