Cover Image - An Internal Family Systems Perspective For Autism & PTSD

An Internal Family Systems Perspective For Autism & PTSD

By Sean M Inderbitzen LCSW, Member of MINT


Finding Relief for Autism & PTSD

I’m giving a talk this month to therapists. I’m supposed to talk about Autism and Trauma, and how to treat it.

And honestly, it’s going to be hard.

Not because I don’t know what I am going to say but because there’s some parts of my past I’m unwilling to share. Parts that don’t want to be told and some parts that do.

But that’s the thing about trauma. It tends to involve another person, and when you put it out on the internet, you have to wonder who might read it. So, let’s talk a little bit about the work of parts because this has been the work of my past year in my own therapy and this much I’m willing to share.

Internal Family Systems

There’s a version of Sean that is a Dad, there is a version of Sean that is a therapist, and a version of Sean that is a friend. Each one slightly different from the other and driven by its own insecurities and fears. Some versions of me are oriented to protecting me, while others are bent on distracting me. And finally, some are exiled because the protectors and managers don’t think they can quite handle the pain.

This language of parts is what Richard Schwartz, PhD refers to as “Internal Family Systems”, which is the strategy my therapist used with me this past year to heal some broken parts.

For instance, something I’ve alluded to in other articles is betrayal by a loved one. To me she always will be a loved one, but there’s a lot to that. The spark notes version is this, due to an addiction, I woke up one day and my fiancé was done. No warning, no explanation, just done. And for the sake of this person, I’m not going to share more because believe it or not it is possible to care about someone deeply who betrays you in the process of abandoning themselves due to their own deep seated developmental wounds. Wounds which had nothing to do with me but left their legacy on me 20 years later.

As a result of this developmental wound caused by my former fiancé, I live in a constant state of belief that I’m not good enough. This belief permeates my body, my personhood, and my mind. Thus, when my therapist and I tune into this part it tends to present itself as a tightness in my chest. This tightness is heavy, and a bit crushing in nature and makes it hard to breathe.

And as I turn into this crushing tightness within my chest, what tends to show up for me and my therapist is a dragon part. When I sit and visualize it, it appears red, covered in scales, and almost elegant to the eyes. And yet more often than not this is accompanied by a ferocity and breathing fire. It’s angered and enraged at the pain it feels.

And while this imagery may seem wild, it shows how uncomfortable this part of me feels. Now some things to know about this part. Its origins are from when I was 5 when I was hit by someone. It was a fight, where a 5-year-old me was trying to intervene to defend my little brother, and it didn’t end well. So yes, this dragon part feels that fear still 27 years later, and my former fiancé leaving has brought all to the surface.

So, when my interest in someone is not reciprocated, this dragon part feels that wound from my ex, and that child who went to defend his sibling. And that pain literally returns to my face where that childhood hit landed.

Coping

Now the beauty of doing therapy is this work with a skilled psychotherapist trained in internal family systems therapy, they don’t just leave me and the dragon struggling in this pain. They encourage me not to blend with the part by having me tune in with my body.

One of my favorite postures is to take my right and place it on my chest, and let it rest there until it is comfortable. Once it is, I take a breath for about 5 seconds in, and then slowly release it.

And while this may seem silly to some… It works.

It helps me and the dragon regulate.

Understanding the “Dragon”

Now more about the dragon.

When I’m regulated like this, I can begin to understand this part of me from its perspective. That five-year-old-version-of-me’s perspective, which doesn’t have all the experience and knowledge of my adult self or my therapist.

So sometimes I will ask it, “What’s bothering you?” And what it often shares with me is the message, “Sean you will never be good enough”. And with grounding, the help of a therapist, and more deep breaths, I can ask it, “Why do you think that?”

Because compassion is curious, and being mindful, and not blending with this part means staying as my resourced adult self to provide this dragon part with the affection and love it needs to share in.

So I do, I say to it, “Sean look at all the ways you are good enough for me.” And so I might play with it some memories and accomplishments which I’m not willing to share here. But I suspect you get the idea.

One of the ways I do this is that I begin to share with it how its body is beautiful. Its red scales are shiny, and its hue of red is easy on the eyes.

And suddenly what happens is my view of my own body shifts because that dragon is a part of me, and it is becoming more integrated.

So while this may have been a hard read at points. I hope it will be a helpful in explaining what Internal Family Systems Therapy is and provides an example of how it can be applied for the treatment of body trauma and further integration with one’s autistic adult self.

If you are interested in learning more about Internal Family Systems, I’d encourage you to purchase the book by Jay Earley, Self-Therapy. It’s the book I use myself and recommend to my clients when we embark on trauma work.

Photo of Sean Inderbitzen

Sean is a Behavioral Health Therapist, and lives with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. He has a caseload with 33% of his patients that live with ASD and varying comorbid psychiatric conditions. Prior to being a mental health clinician, he was a Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist for Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation for 3 years. He was also appointed by Governor Walker to the Statewide Independent Living Council of Wisconsin. He is an incoming member to the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers, and provides training on motivational interviewing, ASD and employment, and ASD and comorbid psychiatric conditions. For more info, find him at Seaninderbitzen.com or on LinkedIn.