IDD-MH Prescriber Guidelines

Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders

Roberto Blanco, MD, Karyn Harvey, PhD, Jill Hinton, PhD, and Andrea Caoili, LCSW

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“We need to presume the clients we serve have a history of traumatic stress and exercise ‘universal precautions’ by creating systems of care that are trauma-informed.”1

Trauma is a common reality in the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). There are several typologies of trauma that people with IDD might experience, and Table 1 represents a listing of the most commonly reported experiences (people may have one or more of these during their lifetime).

Table 1. Most commonly reported traumatic experiences

  • Physical, emotional, sexual abuse, exploitation
  • Neglect or abandonment (food insufficiency, unmet basic needs, homelessness)
  • Death of a parent
  • Divorce
  • Family life that includes substance use, parental incarceration, domestic violence
  • Rape
  • Serious chronic or acute illness/disease
  • Exposure to war, combat or civil unrest
  • Catastrophic loss due to natural disasters
  • Witnessing horrific events involving violence or death/serious injury (ex: car accident)
  • Bullying social exclusion

Presentation of trauma-related disorders in persons with IDD

Several variables influence the clinical presentation of trauma and stressor-related disorders: gender, age of the person at the time of the traumatic experience, type of triggering event, frequency and persistence of abuse, and/or the source of trauma (family member, stranger, natural phenomenon). Each vulnerability factor represents psychosocial sources that interact with neurobiological vulnerabilities such as genetic risk factors, temperament, intensity of physiological response, and co-occurring neurodevelopmental and/or psychiatric disorders. For individuals with IDD, additional considerations include factors that contribute to resilience, including the degree of cognitive capacity, problem solving abilities, communication skills, and adaptive skills, along with social supports.

Social trauma frequently goes unnoticed and under-reported by informants involved in the lives of people with IDD. Left unaddressed, both large (“big T”) traumas and smaller (little “t”) traumas such as bullying, isolation and exclusion can serve as risk factors that lower the threshold for persistent post-traumatic stress disorder.

The prevalence of trauma and stressor-related disorders therefore may be largely underestimated and should be considered in diagnosis and treatment planning. The DSM-52 and DM-ID-23 provide a diagnostic framework for Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders.

Trauma and Stressor Related Disorders (DSM-5)

  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for children 6 and under
  • Acute Stress Disorders
  • Adjustment Disorders
  • Reactive Attachment Disorder
  • Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most well-known and commonly diagnosed trauma and stressor related disorder. Diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to actual or threatened death or serious harm (direct, witnessing, learning of violent event for close family member/friend). Symptoms associated with PTSD are included in the table below.

Table 2. PTSD symptom presentation in persons with IDD

PTSD symptom category


Presentation in persons with IDD

Intrusive symptoms


  • Intrusive memories, images, or perceptions
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Intrusive daydreams or flashbacks
  • Exaggerated emotional and physical reactions
  • Dissociative experiences (feeling disconnected from one’s body and environment)

Re-experiencing the event may manifest in symptoms that are more overtly behavioral (concrete) and may include self-injurious behavior and trauma-specific re-enactments. Re-enactments can look quite bizarre and it is important to distinguish such symptoms from psychotic disorder symptoms.


  • Avoidance of memories, thoughts, feelings
  • Avoidance of external reminders –people, places, activities, objects

Can sometimes be seen or described as non-compliance


Alterations in cognition and mood

  • Inability to remember event
  • Negative beliefs about oneself or others - “I am bad”, “no one can be trusted”
  • Negative emotions –fear, anger, guilt, shame
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Reduced interest in activities
  • Feelings of detachment from others

Negative emotional states may present in externalizing behaviors


Alterations in arousal and reactivity

  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Irritability and angry outbursts
  • Recklessness
  • Hypervigilance: Being on guard much of the time
  • Insomnia and other sleep disturbances
  • Difficulty concentrating

Aggressive behavior is often described as “coming out of nowhere”



Each of these neurodevelopmental and emotional/behavioral responses relates to the acuity and severity of traumatizing events, level of activation of the stress response (fight, flight or freeze response), and duration of symptoms. The differences among responses should remind us of the heterogeneity of trauma symptoms as a result of the unique perspectives of each person. For people diagnosed with PTSD, several factors relate to chronicity and the evolution of new behavioral and psychiatric comorbidities. A clue to the presence of transformed PTSD is the presence of treatment-refractory mood, psychotic, behavioral and substance use disorders in the context of comorbid PTSD or history of past trauma. These individuals may experience multiple medication trials and failures but make significant gains with trauma-informed therapeutic interventions.

To accurately assess PTSD for people with IDD/ASD, differing presentations to common symptoms should be considered, as described in Table 2. There are also some additional adaptations to consider:

Adaptations of diagnostic criteria for PTSD

  1. Investigate history for possible traumatic exposure; Caregivers may or may not be aware of exposure to trauma
  2. It is essential to ask the person how they felt about the events
  3. Keep in mind that adults with ID may express trauma in overt, behavioral ways rather than via verbal expression
  4. When caregivers report “non-compliance” as a problem, consider the presence of avoidance
  5. Hyperarousal may present as irritability and/or aggression

Trauma-Informed Care and Psychotherapeutic Interventions

It can be difficult to accurately diagnose PTSD in individuals with IDD and studies to guide appropriate treatment of individuals with IDD and co-occurring PTSD are limited. Characteristics of therapies for treating PTSD include increased caregiver support, psychoeducation and training, along with availability of multiple therapists and trainers to address individual needs. Most available evidence points to treatment using Trauma Focused-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). 

One therapeutic approach postulated as effective for all people with IDD is a trauma-informed care approach. Many people with IDD at various cognitive levels respond well to adapted TF-CBT or EMDR. However, in some cases, such as when an individual is unable to process the traumatic events abstractly, approaching trauma directly could lead to worsening symptomatology and unnecessary and inadvertent re-traumatization. Trauma therapy is also contraindicated when acute psychiatric instability, severe suicidality or self-injury are present.


Empowers patients with a sense of control over their lives. Promotes healing and wellness.

Core concepts

  • Awareness of the prevalence of trauma in the IDD community
  • Prioritize physical and emotional safety
  • Choice and empowerment, utilizing strengths
  • Preventing re-traumatization
  • Interdisciplinary

Key components

  • Emphasis on the environment, educating caregivers on trauma effects and how to support patients in a positive way
  • Removal of potential environmental triggers in the patient’s immediate environment
  • Educate caregivers on removing triggers and learning appropriate interventions to deal with challenges
  • Structured activities revolving around strengths, preferences, and choices
  • Empathetically addressing challenges as they arise

Psychopharmacological interventions

Medications may serve as useful adjuncts to psychotherapeutic treatment modalities. One drawback to pharmacological management of PTSD is the complex pathophysiology of its core symptoms. For example, trauma can alter sleep (nightmares, night terrors), and affect emotional regulation, fear conditioning and generalization (sensitization and neuroplasticity) among other things. Trauma affects brain neurocircuitry and functional neuroanatomy by essentially kidnapping the entrainment of stress response networks. Dysregulation can occur when there is an upset to the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Changes in selectivity and reactivity of the HPA axis contribute to the dysregulation of cortisol responses to stress. These alterations interfere with a person’s ability to respond to stressful situations in adaptive ways, self-regulate, and discriminate safe conditions from those that activate “fight or flight” responses.

Antidepressants have been the most studied medications in the pharmacologic treatment of PTSD and more specifically, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are the treatment of choice. There are other psychopharmacological interventions recommended based on the display of symptoms as described in Table 3.

Table 3: Psychopharmacological treatment approaches for PTSD in patients with IDD

PTSD symptoms

Drug class

Most commonly used and recommended medications

Intrusive thoughts



Mood lability



Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)




Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)


Sleep disruption



Adrenergic agents

Non-stimulant ADHD medications





Considerations when selecting psychiatric medications:

Careful attention must be paid to family history of response to medication and comorbid conditions. For individuals with Bipolar Disorder, antidepressants can cause a switch from depression to mania and worsen outcomes. In this case, antidepressant medications may be contraindicated, and a mood stabilizer may be indicated instead. Also, a robust response from a close family member may indicate a potential response for the individual.  Other considerations in patients with ID include higher levels of general medical conditions and side effects from medications. Because of this, any medication administration must be paired with a thorough medical evaluation and frequent monitoring for potential adverse medication effects.


icon of a magnifying glass over a documentCase Vignette

John, a 20-year-old student at a local high school, is diagnosed with moderate ID, ASD and generalized anxiety disorder. When he arrived at school one day, John was told that Linda, the class teacher’s assistant, was not coming back to school for a month because she was having surgery. Linda had been the teacher assistant in John’s high school class for two years and was someone he could go to when feeling anxious. Upon hearing about this, John spiraled into a state of panic. No matter how many times he was told she would go to the hospital, come home and rest, and then return to school, he could not regain calm. He ended up turning over desks and running out of the school. He was so upset that his family was contacted to pick him up. This was portrayed as something John did because he was angry at Linda or as way to get out of his work.

What school personnel did not know is that John is fearful of losing people he cares about. When he was 4 years old, his mother unexpectedly became ill and died. The illness was very sudden and records about what actually occurred are not available. However, what is known is that she went to the hospital one morning and did not return. John was very worried about Linda and her health but was unable to articulate how he was feeling. He panicked at the thought that Linda would never return. This traumatic response was seen as anger when really John was scared. When Linda returned after recovering from her surgery, the IEP planning team decided that she should not return to the same classroom because John was too “attached,” and might have more “behavioral issues.” Therefore, John became further isolated. His need for emotional support was misinterpreted and his trauma unaddressed.

Discussion: If a historical and comprehensive review of John’s history was known to the school, they would have learned about his past experiences and loss. In addition to the abrupt loss of his mother, his three older siblings have left home, and he and his father live in the house alone. This historical information would trigger a referral to psychotherapy and the provision of trauma-informed care interventions within the school.

According to Rumball5, an outline for treatment interventions and modifications for John would look like the following:

  • Trauma-informed care interventions applied in the classroom and considered as part of the IEP planning process

  • Recognition that John had a fear response instead of labeling him as ‘non-compliant,’ would result in a plan for Linda’s return that was not contingent on “behavior”

  • EMDR therapy using adapted storytelling methods taking John’s moderate intellectual disability into consideration

  • Adapted trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy to reduce intense response to stressors

Psychopharmacological interventions: Zoloft 100 mg, Guanfacine 1.5 mg for anxiety and irritability


1 Hodas GR. Responding to Childhood Trauma: The Promise and Practice of Trauma-Informed Care. Washington, DC: National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD); 2006. Retrieved from: to Childhood Trauma Hodas.pdf

2American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

3 Fletcher RJ, Barnhill J, Cooper S-A (Eds). Diagnostic Manual-Intellectual Disability 2: A Textbook of Diagnosis of Mental Disorders in Persons with Intellectual Disability. Kingston, NY: NADD Press; 2017.

4 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.

5 Rumball, F. A systematic review of the assessment and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder in individuals with autism spectrum. Rev J Autism Dev Disabil. 2019; 6:294-324.


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