Man sitting on couch with hands clasped

Featuring Expert Advice from Licensed Master Social Worker and DBT Therapist Kimberly Knickerbocker

Trauma can affect anyone at any point in life. In fact, states that roughly 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.

This statistic is even higher for those who deal with intellectual disabilities. JARID (Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities) says, “It is increasingly being reported that people with an intellectual disability are significantly more likely to experience adverse life events, abuse, and trauma in childhood compared with others in the general population.”

This is deeply concerning, but let’s take a step back and discuss what trauma is.


Man sitting covering his face in a cluttered room.
Man sitting covering his face in a cluttered room

Trauma is a person’s emotional response to a distressing or disastrous event.

Some examples of traumatic events are things like:

  • Losing a loved one
  • Abuse
  • Moving
  • An injury
  • Car crash
  • Robbery

Anything that shatters our sense of security or safety could be considered traumatic. That is why two people can live through the same experience and only one walk away traumatized.

This is especially important to remember when helping an individual with intellectual disabilities because, as our Senior Executive Director, Kimberly Knickerbocker, explained, they may not be able to communicate when they feel unsafe. When this happens, emotions get bottled up, leading to worsening symptoms and higher distress levels.

Kimberly Knickerbocker, Senior Executive Director of Behavioral Health
Kimberly Knickerbocker, Senior Executive Director of Behavioral Health

How does trauma differ for those with intellectual disabilities?

Trauma is more likely to happen to those with intellectual disabilities since they are often left in vulnerable positions and are unable to speak up for themselves. Because of this, they may struggle to communicate when something traumatic happens or when something triggers them.

While anything can be considered traumatic, what may seem like a small thing to others is often a big deal for these individuals–for example, changes in routine.

Yellow old-fashioned clock lying on a brown and white blanket.
Yellow old-fashioned clock lying on a brown and white blanket 

Routine is essential for those with intellectual disabilities and can take years to establish. However, once established, it can help the individual feel safe and secure. If that changes, especially without warning, it can be traumatic because, to them, their safe, secure world is falling apart.

This leads to higher stress that must be met with empathy and understanding for the individual to adjust, which is why we here at Beacon are careful to establish routines and communicate any changes with all of our individuals.

Another issue these individuals face is a lack of care. Mental health care can be difficult for anyone to get in the US, but the options for those with intellectual disabilities are even fewer.

That is the reason we do what we do here at Beacon. We understand these issues and aim to offer the best care to as many individuals as possible.

Trauma symptoms to look out for in those with intellectual disabilities

Trauma and trauma triggers show themselves in much the same way in those who have intellectual disabilities as those who don’t. The difference is that those with intellectual disabilities may not be able to communicate or understand their trauma.

It’s up to us as caregivers to do our best to uncover hidden traumas by using trauma-informed care. Kimberly defined this type of care, saying, “For us, it’s being knowledgeable that everybody has experienced trauma in some way or another throughout their life.”

Trauma symptoms can present themselves in myriad ways and are different for everyone. Kimberly explained that the first thing you will often notice is symptoms of distress, such as staring off into space. Another example would be if “Someone who is normally very talkative may all of a sudden be very quiet. We may also sometimes see someone suddenly start acting out behaviorally.”

Girl sitting on a sandy hill. Bridge on her left, ocean to her right.
Girl sitting on a sandy hill. Bridge on her left, ocean to her right

We know from research and experience that behavioral inconsistencies are a clear sign of trauma. Studies gathered and published by JARID “report an agreement…that trauma for adults with an intellectual disability tended to be expressed behaviorally and emotionally rather than cognitively.”

This means they are more likely to act out their feelings than communicate them through words. This makes sense when we consider how aggressive behaviors are also a significant sign of trauma, according to a 2016 Taylor & Francis Online study.

Other physical symptoms to look out for:

  • Nightmares or changes in sleeping patterns
  • Adverse reactions to sudden movements or sounds
  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Any changes in eating habits. This could mean eating a lot more, a lot less, or suddenly becoming picky.
  • Shortness of breath or sweating

Looking for these signs is second nature to everyone at Beacon. We understand how important it is for your loved one to receive the care they need, and the ability to notice these signs quickly helps us do that.

How you can help those with intellectual disabilities deal with trauma

Stringlight Heart in sand.
Stringlight Heart in sand

Caring for someone dealing with trauma is no easy feat, and it can feel overwhelming if you’re not trained to handle the tough situations that arise. Still, you can do a few things to help your loved one after a trauma or triggering event.

  • Ask if they are okay

According to Kimberly, the best thing you can do, and the first thing caregivers at Beacon do, is to ask if they are okay. She says, “making sure they’re okay and seeing where they are will help us understand whether or not they need a more serious intervention.”

  • Validate their feelings

We want to validate the individual’s feelings–let them know that what they had to deal with was a scary and difficult situation,” Kimberly said. “Validating their feelings will let them know that you understand what they just went through.”

The goal is to create a safe space for the individual so that healing can take place.

  • Learn about their triggers

This is easiest when you are aware of the traumatic event. For instance, if your loved one was in a car crash, you would know that sounds of a highway may be triggering.

Unfortunately, we don’t always know what the trauma was. Kimberly gave one example when she shared about an individual who often refused to shower and could not communicate why. It wasn’t until later that we discovered the man had extensive trauma that involved the bathroom, making showering extremely triggering for him.

The good news is that once the team learned this, we were able to help him learn coping skills through trauma-informed care to begin healing.

By taking the time to learn about his past, talk with him, and understand his struggles, we could help him feel heard and provide a safe space.

White tile shower with detachable showerhead. Two soap bottles on the side.
White tile shower with detachable showerhead. Two soap bottles on the side.
  • Continue to educate yourself

Continuing to learn about your loved one’s disability is one of the best things you can do for them. Reading articles online, watching videos, and reading books is a great place to learn and build empathy for them.

Stack of colorful books with only their pages showing.
Stack of colorful books with only their pages showing.

Books to check out:

  1. Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most  by Timothy Shriver
  2. Intellectual Disability Guide For Families and Professionals by James C. Harris
  3. Positive Parenting for Autism: Powerful Strategies to Help Your Child Overcome Challenges and Thrive  by Victoria Boone

Articles to check out:

  1. Success Through Clinical Therapies
  2. Sophia’s Story
  3. Starting Care at Beacon
  • Gentle Teaching at Beacon

Gentle teaching is a nonviolent approach and goes right along with trauma-informed care. This simply means we practice gentleness regardless of the situation, person, or circumstance.

This approach helps build trust and allows for safe spaces to grow. This will help to avoid trauma triggers or re-traumatization.

To learn more about Gentle Teaching and how Beacon implements the practice, check out our post: A Culture of Gentleness.

  • Seek out professional, trauma-informed care

Many times, individuals with intellectual disabilities need more care than their loved ones can provide, even if only for a short time, and that’s okay. Knowing when to seek help will not only benefit your loved one but will help you as well.

There isn’t much research on which types of therapy are best in these situations. Still, we do know that according to NIH, “trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) have the strongest empirical support.” Dialectical Behavior Therapy (Kimberly’s specialty) has also been shown to be helpful for those with intellectual disabilities. To learn more, check out our post here.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy written on grey sticky notes on a white wall.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy written on grey sticky notes on a white wall.

Regardless of the type of therapy, Kimberly explained that the most important part is love and care, saying, “We really have to make sure our individuals feel love and safe. They have to have a place where they can share their stories and feel like they’re not being judged.”


Getting the help your loved ones need is crucial following a traumatic experience, so don’t hesitate to reach out and get the information you need.

For more information about Beacon Specialized Living and our services, please contact Alexander Furman, executive director of marketing, at

Written by Mental Health writer Kaitlyn Pfiester

Reviewed and published by Alexander Furman.

Kaitlyn Pfiester

Kaitlyn specializes in B2B and B2C content creation focused on mental health, therapy, and the further destigmatization of mental illness. She can be found living with her husband in Yuma, AZ with their two guinea pigs, Hyde and Kelso.


  • As a teen, Kaitlyn Pfiester began her writing journey in the fiction world, immersing herself in J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Once adulthood hit, the world of mental health opened her eyes to a hurting world. Over time, (and months of continuing therapy) her passion shifted from baking Lembas bread and speaking elvish, to learning more about trauma and how it affects everyday life. Now she can be found living with her husband in Yuma AZ with their two guinea pigs, Hyde and Kelso.