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Attachment in Children with Autism



“Fewer autistic people form secure attachments than do their typical peers: 47-53% of children with autism are securely attached, compared with about 65% of typical individuals” (Williams, 2020).

Attachment styles

According to the Attachment Theory – our attachment styles result from early experiences with our primary caregivers, which is how we get our internal ideas about the self, others, and our relationship with them. Hence, they form a template for future relationships and demonstrate the potential lasting impacts of childhood emotional adversity on later-life overall wellbeing (Elliot, n.d.).


There are four classifications of attachment patterns: secure attachment, ambivalent attachment, avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment.

  1. Secure attachment:

Individuals with a secure attachment style are able to seek care and comfort from their caregivers without doubts about whether they would have their needs met. Because their caregivers have been consistently responsive to their needs, they are able to carry this trust into their expectations of other relationships (Elliot, n.d.).


  1. Insecure attachment:

Ambivalent attachment:

  • Individuals that are ambivalently attached try very hard to get their caregivers’ attention. Due to the inconsistent responses from their caregivers, they have poor self-esteem and think themselves undeserving of attention unless it is earned (Elliot, n.d.).


Avoidant attachment:

  • Individuals with an avoidant attachment style tend to push away their own emotional needs, as previous bids to their caregiver for attention had been ignored or punished. (Elliot, n.d.). This leads to a fear of rejection or the belief that their needs are not important, and they may carry into other relationships by rejecting affection from loved ones.


Disorganized attachment:

  • Individuals with a disorganized attachment style display incoherent patterns of atypical behaviour. This results from having caregivers who do not meet their needs regardless of what they do (Elliot, n.d.). Often, the caregiver is also a source of distress – such as an abusive parent. As such, the child does not get to learn how to regulate their emotions through relating.


In serious cases, issues surrounding attachment can be diagnosed as an attachment disorder. These usually develop after difficulties in early personal relationships, such as experiences of neglect or abuse, receiving inadequate care, and frequent change of caregiver (Cambrah, 2023; Coughlan, 2018; Mead, 2023). Such situations introduce uncertainty which interrupt the bonding process & erodes the child’s sense of security around relationships.


Attachment disorders can look like ASD, as they share many of the same symptoms. In fact, a study found that 67% of children on the spectrum also meet the diagnostic criteria for an attachment disorder (Cambrah, 2023). Some examples of shared symptoms include (1) trouble with social skills and communication, (2) repetitive, stimming behaviours, and (3) difficulties with emotional regulation (The Attachment Project, 2023; Mead, 2023). The main difference is that ASD is a lifelong condition, while attachment styles can change when a child moves to a more- or less adaptive environment. Hence, it is never too late to work on strengthening one’s bond with their child.


Attachment in Children with ASD.

Children with ASD are at a higher risk of developing insecure attachment (Cambrah; The Attachment Project; Mead, 2023). More specifically, The Attachment Project (2023) stated that disorganized attachment is more likely in children with ASD, and stronger autism traits increase the likelihood of a child becoming insecurely attached. Then, are these children still able to have a secure relationship with their caregiver? Yes, they can!


Disruption of bonds just happens more easily as children with ASD are usually unable to understand their own emotions and communicate their needs. Furthermore, difficulties with social performance such as eye contact, repetitive behaviours, and the impaired ability to relate to others may be challenging for caregivers to manage. These factors make it challenging for caregivers to accurately understand their child’s needs and meet them in the ways required (Mead; The Attachment Project, 2023). Lastly, children with ASD are at higher risk of exposure to potentially traumatic events (Giannotti & de Falco, 2021) which increase their risk of attachment disorders.


Securely attached individuals with ASD may demonstrate their attachment security differently from neurotypical peers, but they benefit all the same. For starters, attachment style has been found to predict play skills in toddlers with ASD better than their level of diagnosis – illustrating the benefits of a secure attachment on imaginative thinking and play skills (Aubin, 2023; The Attachment Project, 2023). Securely attached children with ASD also possess greater language skills and communicate better, have better emotional regulation, and greater problem-solving abilities. They are more attuned to others’ emotional needs, and this ability to demonstrate empathy allows them to have better social skills and forge stronger relationships with people around them (Aubin, 2023; The Attachment Project, 2023).


Building secure bonds with children with ASD.

  • Look inward!

Secure parents nurture secure children. Parents who demonstrate secure patterns of attachment model desirable behaviours in a relationship and are able to better create a positive environment for their children. According to The Attachment Project (2023), caregiver attachment style may play a significant role in a child’s severity of symptoms and their ability to relate with others. Hence, while children with ASD may have slightly different responses to parenting styles, the importance of consistent and responsive caregiving cannot be forgotten!


  • Be responsive and attentive.

Get to know your child well, so you can anticipate their needs and be there to provide support when necessary. If you cannot immediately meet your child’s needs:

Acknowledge their feelings and needs, instead of ignoring them.

Explain why they might need to wait for something.


Set boundaries in an empathetic and loving manner if it is not something you can give them at the moment.


Also remember to be present and give your child undivided quality time, especially when they are engaging with you. This includes – but is not limited to – giving eye contact, frequently communicating with them even if they are not verbal, taking an interest in their activities, and playing with them (Aubin, 2023). Figure out your own ways to communicate with them if communication is a struggle!


  • Be consistent.

Consistency in the way you respond and show up for your child is important. Part of that includes honouring your promises and knowing how to regulate your own emotions around them (Aubin, 2023). For instance, if you made a mistake, it is okay to admit you were wrong; Instead of taking it out on them because you were too prideful. In doing so, you are allowing them to put trust in you as a reliable figure in their life.


  • Keep in mind that all behaviour is communication.

Oftentimes what seems like misbehaviour – throwing things, crying, etcetera – is actually a cry for attention (Aubin, 2023). Children with ASD often have difficulties with expressing themselves. Even as a grown-up, being stuck in such a situation definitely brings about feelings of frustration. Staying open and receptive to your child’s perspective will help you in understanding their behaviours better!


  • Encourage attachment with others.

Social relationships bring about a myriad of benefits, including feelings of comfort, closeness, and joy which support emotional wellbeing. This remains true for individuals with ASD who may not know how to build relationships. Encouraging them to do so from a young age will teach them to be more empathetic and aware of others, as well as lead a more fulfilling life (Aubin, 2023). 


Conclusion

Children with ASD may respond in highly individualistic ways to their caregivers’ attempts at bond-building. They may even have different requirements to build a secure attachment! Hence, a caregiver’s ability to understand their child and be sensitive to their needs will be of importance in each specific context.


As a caregiver, surrounding yourself with a good support system will make a big difference in the experience. Remember to treat yourself with compassion and understand that it is okay to make mistakes. This will allow you to approach the situation with the positive perspective you need!


Written by Leong Jia Hui.



References:



Aubin, D. (2023, August 29). Autism and attachment: How to build a secure attachment. Beaming Health. https://beaminghealth.com/article/autism-and-attachment-how-to-build-a-secure-attachment


Cambrah, J. (2023, August 4). Autism and attachment: Can autistic children securely attach? Beaming Health. https://beaminghealth.com/article/autism-and-attachment-can-autistic-children-securely-attach


Coughlan, B. (2018, October 15). Autism and attachment: A need for conceptual clarity. The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. https://www.acamh.org/blog/autism-attachment-conceptual-clarity/


Elliot, A. (n.d.) Attachment theory. The Child Psychology Service. https://thechildpsychologyservice.co.uk/theory-article/attachment-theory/


Giannotti, M., de Falco, S. (2021, May 28). Attachment and autism spectrum disorder (without intellectual disability) during middle childhood: In search of the missing piece. Frontiers in Psychology, 12(2021). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.662024


Mead, K. (2023). What is attachment disorder? Bristol Autism Support. https://www.bristolautismsupport.org/attachment/


The Attachment Project. (2023, May 12). Autism and attachment theory: Can autism influence attachment and how? https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/autism-and-attachment/#:~:text=In%20fact%2C%20children%20on%20the,is%20to%20be%20insecurely%20attached.


Williams, C. (2020, April 17). Infants’ interactions with parents may predict autism. Spectrum News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/infants-interactions-with-parents-may-predict-autism/

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