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Attachment & Autism

Autism & Attachment Theory

Based on research by Capps, Mundy, and Sigman (1994)

By: Justine Kroeker

Attachment theory was developed by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, and has since been used to describe a child’s way of relating to their parents and to the world. For a more in depth description, please read my previous paper on Attachment Theory. Briefly, there are three main styles: avoidant, anxious (both categorized as ‘insecure’) and secure attachment.

However, when it comes to children with autism, how does attachment theory differ? Do they form attachments? (Spoiler: of course they do!) How does it look different compared to neurotypical children? What can I do to improve my child’s attachment style? These will all be discussed in this paper.

To begin, people with autism DO form attachments to others! All humans do. Children with autism will attach to their parents or other caregivers just like any other neurotypical child. Of course, every relationship is unique, and that’s even more so with children who have autism.

Further, attachment often looks different between children with autism and their caregivers. One problem is that some behaviours that would classify a neurotypical child as insecurely attached are actually just part of the child’s personality or self-regulating behaviours.

So, what does that mean for parents? Overall, the literature shows that parents can have a secure attachment with their children who have autism. They

can do so in the same way that any parent connects to their child: making and responding to bids for connection. According to psychologist and researcher John Gottman, bids are a way of trying to connect with someone. It can be as simple as saying “look at my toy!” because, very basically, it is an opportunity to respond to your child.

With children who have autism, bids often look vastly different. In my experience, a neurotypical child will come up to me and say “Want to play a game with me?” whereas a nonverbal child may come up to me and _____

It’s important to look for the meaning behind the behaviour. For example, a child may try to connect with their parent by pulling their hair. In their mind, the child might be thinking “I love my caregiver, their hair is so soft. I want to touch it.” and may get carried away. When that parent then yells at them for hurting them, the message received by the child can be “My caregiver does not want to connect with me.”

So, where does that leave them? Obviously we can’t let children run around and pull hair! One way to respond to that situation while maintaining secure attachment but allowing your child to understand that they can’t do that is showing them you’re hurt, and saying “I love you, but that really hurts me. It makes me sad when you do that.” This way, the child doesn’t doubt their parent’s love for them, but also learns not to do that.

There are many behaviours that may look like “bad” behaviours (and some should be corrected in a healthy, safe way). Examples are throwing things, screaming, being “demanding,” or hitting. All of these may be bids for connection.

Ultimately, while attachment in children who have autism looks different compared to neurotypical children, it doesn’t mean that they don’t attach at all. Rather, it is just as beautifully complicated. Connecting with your child makes them stronger and more resilient throughout life, so make sure you take the time to do it!

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