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Providing information, education, and training to build knowledge, develop skills, and change attitudes that will lead to increased independence, productivity, self determination, integration and inclusion (IPSII) for people with developmental disabilities and their families.

Positive Behavior Supports

Mike Mayer

What is trauma informed care and why does it matter?

Mike Mayer: Trauma-informed care is something that we relatively recently started learning about and that is that every time something bad happens to us, our brains process it in a similar way, and it creates neural pathways or kind of like highways in the brain so that when a bad thing's happening, it knows where to go.

When we're stressed, when we're scared, we wind up with more adrenaline coming in, and that's what makes our palms sweaty and we feel a little flushed and those kinds of things. Well, that's just one of the effects of stress. But there's other things that are going on that we may not even necessarily feel.

And I'll give you an example. When we hear a loud noise behind us, we have tendency to flinch and try and get down just a little bit, and we turn our attention towards wherever that sound came from. Well, that's because we're wired to try and figure out what was it, is it still a threat, was it a real threat? But our body responds as if it was real even if it happened three blocks away from us. It still sounded like a gunshot. It may have been a car backfiring, but it sounded like a gunshot. It felt to our brain, to our unconscious selves, like it was danger. And we flinched, and we reacted, and we got smaller so that we wouldn't get hit if there was a second gunshot or whatever.

And that's the beginning understanding of what trauma-informed care is, is that people who've experienced repeated traumas been abused, been restrained, been isolated, been… any of those kind… been punished repeatedly, you begin to develop a similar set of patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. And the problem is how you think affects how you behave because it affects how you feel. How you feel affects how you think, which affects how you behave. And how you behave becomes a pattern of things which then affects how you feel and think because you call the new set of behaviors normal.

So the bad thing happens, I think it's bad, it feels bad, I behave by trying to avoid the person who did the bad thing to me or that place that the bad thing happened to me. And so by my avoiding those experiences, I create a new set of patterns of behavior that now are affecting how I think and feel, which then affects how I behave. So you've just created this pattern, within your brain, of dysfunction, not because you did anything wrong, but because the system didn't know how to support you.

So when we're doing trauma-informed care, what we're trying to do is help people learn how to trust, learn how to rewire that part of their brain that says they have to be hyper vigilant. We've all heard of post traumatic stress disorder. Well, trauma-informed care and PTSD kind of go hand in glove. Not everybody who is receiving trauma-informed care necessarily has PTSD. But everybody who has PTSD needs trauma-informed care. Okay?

So it's important for us to understand that this is about helping the individual adjust to a world that isn't going to punish them for everything that they do. They don't need to be afraid of everything. They don't need to resort to chemicals or alcohol or whatever in order to be able to manage those feelings. And this isn't just for people who have intellectual disabilities.

This is, like I said, this is for folks who are coming back from Afghanistan or people who have had repeated sexual abuse or any of those kinds of things. And people who have intellectual disabilities need the same kind of, you know, we're going to help our services understand what it is we have to do to help this person recover from the bad things that have happened to them, oftentimes that we did in the name of "we're going to help them," when we really didn't know what we were doing so well.

So that's trauma-informed care is. Why is it important? Because if you don't fix it, it's only going to get worse. If you don't provide the intervention, if you don't provide the supports that enables the individual to get past that way of thinking and feeling all the time, it's just going to get deeper and deeper ingrained, and the behavior's going to get more and more dysfunctional, and it tends to get generalized across more and more places.

So now it's not just the guy who has the curly hair who wears the leather vest who comes to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays that I have to be afraid of. It eventually becomes all people who are men, who work with me on the 3 to 11 shift, or whatever. And we're trying to help people not have to go through that for the rest of their lives. And that's why it's important.

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The GCDD is funded under the provisions of P.L. 106-402. The federal law also provides funding to the Minnesota Disability Law Center, the state Protection and Advocacy System, and to the Institute on Community Integration, the state University Center for Excellence. The Minnesota network of programs works to increase the IPSII of people with developmental disabilities and families into community life.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 2001MNSCDD-03, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.

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