At first glance, it’s a connection that most people would not make. Complex post-traumatic disorder (C-PTSD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) seem to be operating in completely different realms. However, overlapping traits between the two disorders are well-documented, and neurological similarities also exist.

This is not to imply C-PTSD and ASD are the same — far from it. However, an important task is identifying symptom overlap even when the cause behind those symptoms differs greatly. In addition, since people with autism are at a greater risk of trauma, there is a reasonable possibility that ASD and C-PTSD are co-morbid in many individuals.

3 General Connections Between C-PTSD and Autism


woman covering face with her handThe autonomic nervous system plays a role in both conditions. This system controls our flight-or-flight responses, along with emotional regulation and sensory processing. Also, the prefrontal cortex — ground zero for our executive functioning — is impacted by ASD and C-PTSD.


People with ASD are more likely to experience social isolation, bullying, abuse, and traumatic events. All of these effects place them at a much higher risk for C-PTSD.

Overlapping Symptoms

A few examples:

  • Struggling in social situations and personal relationships
  • A preference to be alone
  • Poor emotional regulation — from suppressed feelings to extreme emotional expression
  • Fearful, easily startled
  • Repetitive movements
  • Dissociation
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Desiring to control situations
  • Feeling out of place but not always understanding why

With this as a foundation, what can the individual, their caretakers, and their medical team do to clarify their diagnosis?

Important Steps to Better Discern the Possible Presence of C-PTSD and/or Autism

Is Trauma Present?

Obviously, you can rule out C-PTSD if trauma is not present. This is a tricky but very necessary step. The key reality is that people are born with autism. Should trauma occur, it does so at any point after birth. Through careful observation, taking a detailed medical history, and speaking to family members, this important distinction can be made.

What Is Causing Social Problems?

The person with C-PTSD understands what other people are thinking and saying but often chooses to avoid them no matter what. Self-isolation is an unhealthy coping mechanism. Individuals with ASD can struggle to comprehend social cues and nuances. They want to connect with others but often find it to be impossible.

Why Are They Having Trouble Sleeping?

A person with autism may not produce enough melatonin to sleep well. With C-PTSD, sleep disturbances are typically caused by nightmares and other flashbacks.

Are They Regularly Feeling Overwhelmed?

A trauma survivor often lives in a state of high alert. Such hyper-vigilance keeps them distracted, fatigued, and mentally overwhelmed. It’s exhausting to work all day to avoid reminders of their complex trauma. For those with ASD, the source is usually sensory-related. They feel everything — noises, lights, textures, smells, etc. — intensely and get overwhelmed by the experience.

Why Does the Person Prefer Routines?

For both populations, routines make the world feel a little safer. Why they feel unsafe, of course, is different and described in the entries above.

Are Both Disorders Present?

Following the questions listed above can lead to a conclusion that, for example, the person in question is overwhelmed for both sets of reasons. Again, since someone with ASD is more likely to endure a traumatic experience, it’s important to consider that potential cause-and-effect scenario.

Once such professional evaluations and assessments are made, a diagnosis can be made. From there, based on what has been discovered, a therapist can design a specific treatment plan. Therefore, if the information above sounded familiar, it is vital that you get the kind of help and support you need and deserve. Contact me to learn more about trauma therapy.