Historically speaking, attachment research suggests that autism meant it was difficult, if not impossible for a person to form a secure attachment. This has generated a lot of myths and misconceptions about autistic people and their attachment styles and behaviours, something that modern research is starting to reassess. Therefore, in this clinical psychology podcast episode, you’ll learn how can autistic people be securely attached to a caregiver and others. If you enjoy learning about autism, mental health and developmental psychology then you’ll love today’s episode.
This episode has been sponsored by Developmental Psychology: A Guide To Developmental And Child Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also, you can buy the eBook directly from me at https://www.payhip.com/connorwhiteley
How Can Autistic People Be Securely Attached?
Personally, I wanted to start off this podcast episode by saying that this is very interesting to me because for the most part, I have believed the myths and misconceptions surrounding secure attachment. As well as I have vivid memories of sitting in my developmental psychology lectures and being upset at how I didn’t have secure attachments. Of course, part of this is down to my trauma and abuse that negatively impacted how I’ve been able to form attachments, but another part of this attachment topic is what we talk about in today’s episode.
Autistic people can be securely attached, it just might look different to when neurotypicals are securely attached.
Reminder About Attachment
As I’ve mentioned before on the podcast in lots of different episodes, humans find it flat out critical to create emotional bonds and seek close proximity to the caregiver in childhood. This is even more the case when we are in danger or there is a perceived threat. Therefore, all babies attach to their caregivers and it is the attachment we form in our early years that provides us with a blueprint for how we approach relationships in later life.
As a result, as we grow during childhood and into adulthood, everyone counts on having attachment figures to support us and actually be there when we need them most. Since this helps us to explore the world (like a secure base) and we can reach out to them for help when we are hurt, threatened or in need of comfort.
This is important in neurotypical children because having a secure attachment helps them to self-soothe and regulate their arousal. These behaviours are shown time and time again in research settings by pointing, showing objects to and looking at their mothers when compared to less securely attached peers with Capps et al. (1994) being a good example. As well as these neurotypical children with secure attachment get distressed when their mother leaves the room and they can play with and be comforted by her when she returns.
Why Was It Believed Autistic Children Could Not Form Secure Attachment?
Whereas people used to believe that autistic children couldn’t have any secure attachment in any relationships, because they didn’t always show these behaviours.
Modern research demonstrates this is not the case and autistic children can very much form secure attachments.
For example, a systemic review from Teague et al. (2017) showed that 47% of autistic children could be classified as having secure attachment. Yet the systemic review also highlights how there are less securely attached autistic children compared to their neurotypical peers.
This could be because of conclusion flaws in how secure attachment is measured. Since a lot of studies concluded that autism impairs a person’s ability to form secure attachments, and studies conclude that the high levels of stress that is created for parents by parenting an autistic child makes parents less likely to be responsive and this causes a child not to form a secure attachment.
I don’t buy these explanations for a moment because this is something me and a bunch of autistic friends spoke about back in November 2023. Autistic people can have a lot of empathy for others but it looks different, and considering that secure attachment is based on emotional bonds and empathy is a type of emotional response. This is why I firmly believe autistic people are capable of secure attachment.
And I have also read this research so I do know the answer.
Anyway, another reason why these two conclusion flaws are not correct is because they pathologize autism and they make autism sound like a burden. Neither of these two points are even remotely correct. Due to we need to reframe the attachment behaviour of autistic children as a unique expression and not some wiring or deficiency in their neurobiological processes.
How To Reframe The Attachment Behaviour Of Autistic Children?
The first part of the solution to this problem and to allow us to really understand how autistic children work in terms of their attachment behaviour. We need to realise that just like how parents are confused by their child’s behaviour, the exact same is probably true of the child. They probably don’t understand their parent’s behaviour, so this is why communication is important between both parties.
In addition, if there is an autistic child and a neurotypical adult then this can create a lot of difficulty in understanding, interpreting and predicting the behaviour of the other one. This results in both the child and the adult misunderstand and get confused about the other.
However, the solution to this confusion and misunderstanding is about educating parents on what attachment behaviour looks like in autistic children, so they can better understand, read and respond to their baby’s cues.
Remember, attachment is about the emotional bond between a child and caregiver in response to the caregiver’s responsiveness, more or less.
That’s why this is critical for parents to understand.
Moreover, there is evidence suggesting the benefits of getting parents to understand the mental states that underlie behaviour. This comes from Fonagy (1991) and their parental reflective functioning, which is the definition I just gave you, because this researcher believed reflective functioning is the key to being a sensitive as well as attuned parent and then this paves the way towards secure attachment.
Nonetheless, we need to find out if this parental reflective functioning works for both autistic and neurotypical children or only neurotypical children.
Does Parental Reflective Functioning Work For Autistic Children?
If we look at the historical research, the answer seems to be no because past research firmly blames autistic traits and symptoms for impairments in reflective functioning. The so-called theory behind this is because autism makes a person avoid eye contact, avoid close proximity to their caregiver and they position their bodies differently. Of course, this completely misses the fact that secure attachment presents itself differently in these two populations.
A better way to frame this “impairment” and I really don’t like that term because autism isn’t an impairment for either the child nor the parent. Instead, these autistic symptoms or traits could be thought of as “mutual challenges” because I can promise you, you might not be able to understand the behaviours of autistic people but I cannot understand your behaviours even.
Like small talk, I hate small talk with a passion.
Anyway, these are mutual challenges because both parties have a hard time understanding each other. And we need to remember that reflective functioning is a two-way street and the challenges in communication between a parent and child might cause dysregulation. Leading parents of autistic children to feel like bad parents or lose their own confidence, but there is always hope.
Instead parents can become educated and develop a better understanding of the
communication patterns of autistic children. This allows parents to become more sensitive to their child’s needs and this results in a rather wonderful positive feedback loop. For example, if we take a rather classic example of autistic behaviour about eye contact. If we teach parents that instead of avoiding eye contact being a sign of disinterest in you and teach parents it is just a neuro-difference that doesn’t mean anything bad. Then this can help caregivers feel better, be more responsive and help caregivers not create a negative feedback loop because they believe their child has rejected them.
This is also why identifying autism earlier is important so parents can be educated on attachment behaviours and this knowledge can enhance their reflective functioning in turn. All helping parents to become more sensitive to their baby’s cues.
Why Maternal Insightfulness Is Needed For Secure Attachment In Autism?
Towards the end of this podcast episode, I want to bring our attention to Oppenheim and Koren-Karie (2008) because they studied autistic children and found maternal insightfulness was a key factor in secure attachment. Pulling a quote from the study, they defined this as:
"the capacity to think about the motives that underlie their child's behaviour, to be open to new and unexpected behaviours of the child, to show acceptance of the child's challenging behaviours, and to see the child in a multidimensional way.”
And what is really interesting about this finding is that the severity of the child’s traits themselves were not important for secure attachment. Instead what was important was the caregiver’s capacity to enter the child’s point of view and empathy. Which I think just goes to show how important education is and just being willing to learn can have massively positive impacts on a child’s and parent’s life.
Furthermore, this study demonstrated that secure attachment does look different to neurotypicals. Due to some autistic children showed distress when the mother left and they regulated and self-soothed when the mother returned, even though they didn’t interact or show close proximity with the caregiver.
In other words just because the child didn’t have close proximity or interact too much or at all with the caregiver when they were in the same room. It flat out did not mean the autistic child didn’t care when the caregiver left. This shows the autistic child wanted and watched the caregiver in the room.
And this only means one thing.
Developmental Psychology Conclusion
Overall, at the end of this podcast episode, we can confirm that just because an autistic child doesn’t seem excited or interested in a caregiver being in the same room as them. This doesn’t mean in any way that the autistic child doesn’t care or isn’t attached to the caregiver. The presence of a caregiver still helps the child to feel safe and secure and connected and in that sense there is barely any difference between secure attachment behaviours and its development in autistic and neurotypical children.
Of course, parents need to be educated, they need to be willing to be sensitive to their child’s cues and they need to be willing to be insightful. But autistic children can form secure attachments just like neurotypical children.
It might look different but it is still there and being a child that is securely attached and knows they can go to their caregivers for love, support and comfort. Now that really is the best feeling in the world.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Developmental Psychology: A Guide To Developmental And Child Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also, you can buy the eBook directly from me at https://www.payhip.com/connorwhiteley
Have a great day.
Clinical Psychology and Developmental Psychology References
Capps, L., Sigman, M., & Mundy, P. (1994). Attachment security in children with autism. Developmentand Psychopathology, 6, 249–261.
Fonagy, P., Steele, M., Steele, H., Moran, G. S., & Higgitt, A. C. (1991). The capacity for understanding mental states: The reflective self in parent and child and its significance for security of attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 12(3), 201-218.
Oppenheim, David & Koren-Karie, Nina & Dolev, Smadar & Yirmiya, Nurit. (2008). Secure Attachment in Children With Autistic Spectrum Disorder: The Role of Maternal Insightfulness. Zero to Three, v28 n4 p25-30 Mar 2008.
Teague, S.J., Gray, K.M., Tonge, B.J., and Newman, L.K. (2017). Attachment in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A systematic review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 35, 35-50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rasd.2016.12.002
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