Oct. 19, 2023

Doctoral student examines the intersection of trauma and autism

Abdullah Bernier's graduate research into lived experience of Syrian refugees with autistic children launches underexplored line of study
A man with short hair and beard and who is wearing a white shirt stands smiling.
Werklund doctoral student Abdullah Bernier Courtesy Abdullah Bernier

The journey of acculturation — adapting to a new culture as an immigrant — can be an overwhelming and highly stress-inducing experience, even more so for individuals who have been displaced due to the horrors of war or political persecution. Now, envision the added challenge of caring for a neurodivergent child within this scenario — maneuvering through unfamiliar health and social services in a new land, all while tending to that child's own trauma, which may be masked by their unique condition. 

University of Calgary student Abdullah Bernier's graduate research in school and applied child psychology at the Werklund School of Education examined this scenario, delving into the lived experience of Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada with autistic children or adolescents in their care. 

Interviewing several such families for “Autism in the Context of Humanitarian Emergency: The Lived Experiences of Syrian Refugee Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum,” Bernier’s qualitative data reveals the myriad challenges facing caregivers, both pre and post migration. These include facing stigma over their children’s diagnoses to the outright destruction of schools due to the conflict back in Syria to navigating day-to-day resettlement difficulties in a new country while trying to access services for autistic individuals. 

Bernier says his intention was to fill a scholarship gap on the use of supports by this population and to offer concrete recommendations to settlement agencies and service providers. He presented the study to a representative of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, and he says it was well received. 

"What I really wanted to do is to understand where the difficulties and the complexities are [in accessing autism-related services] and then provide that information to organizations for policy development, says Bernier. “The systems are hard enough for somebody who is born and raised here, never mind having to navigate that with a language barrier.” 

Since completing his master’s, Bernier, who is the recipient of multiple awards, including the 2023 Izaak Walton Killam Doctoral Scholarship and the 2021-2023 Eyes High Doctoral Recruitment Scholarship, is continuing his autism-focused research as a PhD student, also in school and applied child psychology at Werklund. 

“I developed a passion for working with that specific population as an undergraduate in psychology. I did a lot of in-home intervention support,” he says. “I was mentored by speech pathologists, occupational therapists and psychologists. 

When I was looking at graduate programs, I specifically wanted to work with children and adolescents because I really loved working with kids. Also, one of the faculty at the University of Calgary under Werklund is my supervisor, Dr. Adam McCrimmon, who is one of the leading experts in autism in Canada.

I felt fortunate that I was able to apply and be his supervisee and to learn more about it from the research side, but also how that informs the clinical side as well.” 

One of the key points emphasized by participants in his master’s research was that professionals need to consider refugee children’s experience of crisis and war, and how the traumatic effects of this presents in autism-related behaviours. This served as a launchpad of sorts in terms of Bernier’s current doctoral research on the intersection of trauma and autism, though not relegated to a specific sub-population as in his earlier study.

Autistic individuals, he says, tend to have a high co-occurrence rate with mental conditions, yet those related to trauma — PTSD, for example — haven’t been fully investigated. 

“Because of that intersection between autism and trauma, a lot of the time they can show similar symptom expressions, or they might not be able to relay their experiences. There is a lot of diagnostic overshadowing which I feel is important to do more research into,” says Bernier.

“If an autistic individual has experienced trauma and meets the criteria for trauma-related disorder, and that’s not recognized in assessment or intervention modalities, it may impact their outcomes and potentially do harm for that individual as that part of their experience isn't recognized and supported.” 

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