Skyilar, age 20, was a high school senior when they first learned about something called an ACE screening. It’s a series of questions about adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs).
It doesn’t take long to complete and it’s relatively easy to find online (we like this one from NPR if you’re new to the idea; also available at the bottom of this article). Behavioral health professionals, social workers and an increasing number of health professionals use ACE screenings to understand their clients better.
The ACE screening does come with a trigger warning and we highly recommend having a trusted adult nearby because the questions are pretty personal. For Skyilar, it was their teacher who recommended they take the ACE test and who sat with them to help make sense of it.
The Lasting Impact of Toxic Stress
Fortunately, Skyilar’s teacher knew toxic stress – as a result of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or living in an unhealthy or unsafe environment – could affect brain development. It was possible that many of the struggles Skyilar had – in school, or with relationships, for example – could be attributed to the effects of trauma.
When Skyilar did the ACE screening, they scored very high. In fact, out of the 10 adversities listed, they had experienced all of them.
“At least I had an explanation,” says Skyilar, about the moment they realized there wasn’t something wrong with them. Instead, many of their behaviors, such as alcohol use, were actually an attempt to cope with their response to trauma.
Skyilar’s teacher was the first to ask, “What happened to you,” rather than, “What’s wrong with you.” This gave them a new outlook so they would not be held back by their experiences. “My ACE score helped me realize all the places I needed to heal,” said Skyilar.
Knowledge is Empowering
That’s the thing about ACE scores, they help connect the dots between early experiences, behaviors and even physical health in the long-term. They aren’t a diagnosis as much as they are a study in what could happen during childhood and adolescent development as a result of toxic stress.
Skyilar describes knowing their ACE score as empowering. “It made me more accepting of myself,” they said.
“My childhood really could have negatively affected my decisions and my health in the future. But instead, I decided not to let toxic people in my life anymore and I started to pursue my passions like writing, storytelling and photography.”
Where to Learn More
In a recent segment for 60 Minutes, Oprah Winfrey shined a light on the effects of childhood trauma. SaintA’s Chief Clinical Officer and our former client, Alisha Fox, both sat down with Oprah for that story. In case you missed it, here is the 60 Minutes story about childhood trauma and adversity.