Understanding ACEs: What is a ‘number story’?

Over the past 16 months, OCDE has been partnering with CHOC, the American Academy of Pediatrics Orange County and other state and local agencies to shine a light on Adverse Childhood Experiences and how ACEs can affect the lives of those who experience them.

As we’ve previously mentioned, ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in children before age 18. ACEs can include physical and emotional abuse, neglect, substance abuse, caregiver mental illness and household violence. And a person’s ACEs history can be measured using a score that’s based on the number of adverse childhood experiences that happen to them before they turn 18.

So let’s dive a bit deeper into the numbers. We recently sat down with Pamela Kahn, OCDE’s coordinator of health and wellness, to talk about the “numbers story.”

What is an ACEs number?

An “ACEs number” is the amount of different Adverse Childhood Experiences a person has had. The original ACEs fell into three categories: abuse, neglect and household challenges. But research shows there are additional adversities that a child may experience, such as discrimination, poverty and racism. The higher a person’s ACE score, the higher their statistical chance is of suffering from a range of psychological and medical problems like chronic depression, cancer or coronary heart disease.

Why is a person’s number story important?

It’s important to remember that a person’s ACEs score isn’t a crystal ball; it’s just meant as guidance. It tells a person about one type of risk factor among many.

Pamela Kahn, RN

While an ACEs score does indicate that a person may be at higher risk for challenges related to health and well-being, remember that ACE scores don’t tally the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and protect a child from the effects of trauma. For example, having a grandparent who loves them, a teacher who understands and believes in them, or a trusted friend they can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma, psychologists say.

How can children and adults overcome their ACEs, and how does resilience come into play?

ACEs can have lasting, negative effects on health and well-being, as well as life opportunities such as work and education. Children growing up who experience ACEs — or toxic stress — may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships.

But tools are available to help children thrive in the face of adversity and go on to meet their full potential. And one of the most effective tools we’ve seen is resilience.

Resilience can be described as having traits like determination, toughness, optimism, faith, positivity and hope. While some children seem to be born with more resilience, outside influences like a loving family, a strong community and a support system can act as “protective factors.” These protective factors help ensure that children and youth function well at home, in school, at work, and in society.

For more information on how to help build resilience in students, educators may want to check out the 40 Developmental Assets, created by the Search Institute. These are preventative measures, positive experiences and qualities that young people need to grow up healthy, caring and responsible. Studies have shown that these assets serve as protective factors. The more assets a child has, the less likely they are to engage in risky behaviors, and the more likely they are to thrive now and in the future.

Additional information, including how to find your own ACE’s number, can be found at https://numberstory.org/.