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What factors affect attachment style in autistic children?

Autistic attachment: What parents should know

Updated: March 3, 2024 · 9 Minute Read

Jeryn Cambrah

Written by:

Jeryn Cambrah

Highlights

  • Authoritative parenting (also known as gentle or positive parenting) is generally accepted by the scientific community to be the best way to raise emotionally healthy, confident, independent children.
  • Researchers found that parents of autistic kids tend to practice authoritarian parenting instead of authoritative parenting.
  • Parents who understand their own trauma and have healthy ways to cope with it are able to securely attach with their children even when they don’t have a secure attachment style themselves.

A loving, engaged relationship with your autistic child starts with secure attachment. While older research showed kids with autism securely attach with their caregivers less than neurotypical (non-autistic) kids, newer research shows they may securely attach just as often as non-autistic kids.1,2 Either way, there can be unique challenges to securely attaching with an autistic child. But what goes into attachment, and how can you set yourself and your child up for success? Let’s explore 9 factors and how they affect attachment style for autistic kids and their parents.

 

 

1. Parenting style

It’s important to know that parenting style has an effect on attachment style and your overall relationship with your child. Parents of autistic children tend to practice authoritative parenting less than parents of neurotypical children. They also tend to show more negative and controlling behaviors than parents of non-autistic children.1

 

Authoritative parenting is generally accepted by the scientific community to be the best way to raise emotionally healthy, confident, independent children. (Authoritative parenting is also sometimes called “conscious”, “gentle” or “positive” parenting.) Parents of autistic children who practiced authoritative parenting reported less challenging behaviors and fewer mental health issues.5,14 Children whose parents practiced authoritative parenting less were also found to be less securely attached to them.5

 

Researchers found that parents of kids with autism tend to practice authoritarian parenting over authoritative parenting.5 This demanding and inflexible parenting style clashes with autistic kiddos who already have difficulties that can be perceived by parents as “bad behavior”. Parents may view their children as inflexible, demanding, and less intelligent, causing them to interact less with their child and be less responsive to them.5 Kiddos could then find it hard to securely attach to the parent, and it kind of becomes a “vicious cycle” of frustration and disconnection for parent and child.

 

Autistic children with parents who practice child-centered parenting (including positive comments, praise, and child-led play) have less challenging behaviors and are more cooperative.2 This approach to parenting has also shown promise when parents make adjustments based on their child’s sensory needs, anxiety, and other autism-related concerns. (For example, creating a sensory diet for your child or working with their “quirks”). Critical and controlling parenting behaviors, however, increased challenging and aggressive behaviors in autistic children, such as self-injury.2

 

In other words, calm and warm parenting will help your child regulate and feel close to you, while reactive, combative parenting will likely just agitate your child and frustrate you both.

 

2. Environment

The home environment has a lot to do with attachment as well. Abusive homes, neglectful homes, or homes in which children do not feel accepted or allowed to be themselves will make secure attachment difficult. If there’s domestic violence or marital problems, that can put a strain on the child and their relationships with their parents.

 

Caregiving might have an even greater impact on development of an autistic child than on a neurotypical child. Special needs kids are especially vulnerable because they may lack the self-protective mechanisms that make up for less-than-stellar parenting.11 Where a non-autistic child may be able to overcome negatives in their environment, a child with autism could experience more negatives and greater reactions to their environment.

 

There’s already a ton of pressure as a special needs parent, and it can be hard to bring your best every day. It can be easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. What this research shows us is that our best really does matter, and has incredible influence on our children’s development and well-being.

 

Attachment style with parents and teachers may affect a child’s educational/school experience. Children who are securely attached to their parents tend to do better in school and receive better treatment from staff. Children may also form attachments with their teachers and non-parent caregivers (like babysitters or daycare staff), which can be secure or insecure.

 

Whether it’s at school or home, the environment and people your child around affects their mood, self-esteem, and mental health.

 

3. Instability or inconsistency

Frequent changes in caregivers, or caregivers who don’t keep the same way of doing things all the time (such as being really calm one moment and explosive the next), can make it tough to form a secure attachment as well. If a parent or caregiver struggles with mental health issues, substance abuse, or addiction, it can create disconnection between them and the child, making secure attachment unlikely.3

 

4. Parent’s personal history

When a parent battles with postpartum depression or depression, has a history of abuse or neglect themselves, has experienced intervention from child protective services, or has been involved in the criminal justice system, their children often have difficulty forming a secure attachment with them.

 

One study found that parents who personally have a secure attachment style were better able to initiate and respond in social problem-solving communication, and engage in imaginative thinking, symbolic play, and verbal communication with their children.4 These are positive behaviors that support and model secure attachment. When parents are securely attached themselves, they can better connect and securely attach with their children.

 

However, parents who understand their own trauma and have healthy ways to cope with it are able to securely attach to their children even when they don’t have a secure attachment style themselves. If your childhood wasn’t so great or if you are recovering from trauma in your past, you can still work toward securely attaching with your autistic child.

 

5. Social support and resources

Parents who have social support and adequate resources to help them with their child’s special needs are more likely to form a secure attachment to their child than those who don’t.5 Being able to meet your own needs, socialize, and access the support you and your child need goes a long way. Parents of autistic kids often isolate, feel lonely, guilty, hopeless, or like they’re doing a bad job. Having a great support system can help and allow you to show up as your best self for your kiddo.

 

Training programs, including attachment programs like Circle of Security, can help parents form secure attachments with their autistic and neurotypical children.6 Support groups, spiritual communities, and respite care are great resources, too.

 

6. Parental sensitivity and insightfulness

Parents (specifically mothers) of autistic children who are securely attached are more sensitive and responsive than those whose children are insecurely attached. “Maternal sensitivity” is directly linked to secure attachment in children with autism.11 This is true regardless of the child’s “level” of diagnosis, the “severity” of their “symptoms”, or their child’s own responsiveness.7 In other words, mothers who were more in tune with their children and responsive to their signals had secure attachments with them, even if they weren’t super responsive or required lots of support. A study found that when mothers of insecurely attached kids received sensitivity training, their children appeared to be more securely attached than before.12

 

“Maternal insightfulness” can be described as a mother’s (or caregiver’s) ability to see things from their child’s perspective. When an insightful parent sees challenging behavior, they don’t see disobedience or defiance, they think deeply about what they know about their child and why they might be acting that way, and seek to find a solution. They also see their child in a multidimensional way, not closed off to new possibilities or information about their child. Insightful parents recognize the positive in their child’s behavior that others may see as bad or disobedient. For example, while others may see your child spilling something on the floor and making a mess, you see it as a sensory need and figure out ways to meet that need. When others see your child yelling and screaming in the store, you understand they’re just overstimulated by the lights and sounds.

 

Long story short, maternal sensitivity is about what you do, while maternal insightfulness is about how you think. Sensitive interactions with your child breed insightfulness and resolve associated with a secure attachment style.11

 

7. Acceptance of differences/resolve

When parents understand and accept their child’s unique perspective due to autism, it leads to better outcomes for the child and parent.11 This “resolve” is an emerging important factor to secure attachment. We can theorize that parents who process, accept, and become informed about their child’s diagnosis can understand their child’s needs and behaviors better, reducing some stress on the parent.8,9,10 When kids are raised knowing they’re autistic with an attitude of acceptance, they have better mental health as adults.8,9,10 Letting your child be who they are, autism and all, may help them trust and attach to you in a healthy way.

 

Resolve involves finishing the “grieving” process and looking toward the future. You’re no longer seeking a cause for why or how your child developed autism, you’re aware your child is always going to be autistic (it’s not a phase), and you can recognize how far you’ve come since the initial feelings you felt after diagnosis. You then turn your focus to a realistic picture of the future and focus on how you can best support and help your child. Resolve, along with parental sensitivity and insightfulness, is associated with secure attachment in autistic children.11

 

8. Communication

The ability of a child to communicate (typically measured by verbal ability) with their caregiver, and the caregiver’s communication with their child, is a factor in secure attachment. Children with higher language abilities usually display more secure attachment behaviors.12 Communicating verbally with your child obviously would go a long way in connecting with them, but it isn’t necessary for secure attachment.

 

A study found that autistic kids with greater verbal skills are more empathetic, but having a secure attachment with their caregiver had even more effect on empathetic behaviors than language ability.12 Basically, whether the child is nonverbal or verbal, if they’re securely attached, they’re likely to have better social and emotional skills. This could mean that secure attachment with parents can help nonverbal kids overcome communication challenges.

 

When a child is nonverbal, it can be difficult for parents to pick up on their cues and meet their needs. We need more research in this area, but it can mean missing out on interactions or things your child is asking for, which is an important part of attachment. Figuring out consistent ways to communicate with your nonverbal (or “non-speaking”) kiddo can help you create a secure bond. Consistent ways to communicate can include sign language, pictures, “codewords”, hand gestures, and more.

 

9. Temperament of the child

Each child has what is called a “temperament,” beginning in infancy. Temperament has to do with emotions, socialness, and self-control. Some babies may cry a lot, be more sensitive, or be more “fussy” than others. Some babies may be more easygoing. Temperament has an effect on attachment, but it can’t predict it. For example, “easy” babies tend to form attachment easily, probably because they’re easier for caregivers to care for.

 

The child and parent may be at risk of not forming a secure attachment when life’s stresses or circumstances make it difficult for the parent to adapt and meet the child’s needs.13 Parenting style may also affect temperament.14 Some parents’ temperament doesn’t match their child’s or doesn’t fit well with their child’s (this is called “goodness of fit”). For example, if you’re really easygoing and like alone time, but your child is very demanding, needs a lot of attention, and won’t allow anyone else to hold them, it can become very draining very quickly. This could cause you to feel disconnected and make forming a bond hard. When we’re tired and emotionally drained, it’s hard to be present and connected.

 

But temperament differences don’t have to stand in the way of secure attachment. What’s important is that parents adapt to the child’s needs, whatever their temperament may be. Don’t feel ashamed to seek out help and support, so you can show up your best for your child.

 

Conclusion

There are many things that affect how or if a child attaches to a parent or caregiver. While the goal is secure attachment, we may not always get there, despite our best efforts. However, don’t be discouraged. If you struggle with any of these factors, you can still work on creating a secure attachment with your child and enjoy a loving, healthy relationship with them.

Article References

  1. Cossette-Côté F, Bussières EL, Dubois-Comtois K. The association between maternal sensitivity/availability and attachment in children with autism Spectrum disorder: A systematic review and Meta-analysis. Curr Psychol. 2022;41(11):8236-8248. doi:10.1007/s12144-021-02227-z
  2. Palmer M, Paris Perez J, Tarver J, et al. Development of the Observation Schedule for Children with Autism-Anxiety, Behaviour and Parenting (OSCA-ABP): A New Measure of Child and Parenting Behavior for Use with Young Autistic Children. J Autism Dev Disord. 2021;51(1):1-14. doi:10.1007/s10803-020-04506-3
  3. Divecha, D. What is a Secure Attachment? And Why Doesn’t “Attachment Parenting” Get You There? — Developmental Science. Developmental Science. Published April 3, 2017. https://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2017/3/31/what-is-a-secure-attachmentand-why-doesnt-attachment-parenting-get-you-there
  4. Seskin L, Feliciano E, Tippy G, Yedloutschnig R, Sossin KM, Yasik A. Attachment and autism: parental attachment representations and relational behaviors in the parent-child dyad. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2010;38(7):949-960. doi:10.1007/s10802-010-9417-y
  5. Rutgers AH, van IJzendoorn MH, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, et al. Autism, Attachment and Parenting: A Comparison of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Mental Retardation, Language Disorder, and Non-clinical Children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 2007;35(5):859-870. doi:10.1007/s10802-007-9139-y
  6. Fardoulys C, Coyne J. Circle of Security Intervention for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. 2016;37(4):572-584. doi:10.1002/anzf.1193
  7. Koren-Karie N, Oppenheim D, Dolev S, Yirmiya N. Mothers of securely attached children with autism spectrum disorder are more sensitive than mothers of insecurely attached children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2009;50(5):643-650. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2008.02043.x
  8. Gentles SJ, Nicholas DB, Jack SM, McKibbon KA, Szatmari P. Coming to understand the child has autism: A process illustrating parents' evolving readiness for engaging in care. Autism. 2020;24(2):470-483. doi:10.1177/1362361319874647
  9. Wheeler M. Getting Started: Introducing Your Child to His or Her Diagnosis of Autism: Learn About Autism: Indiana Resource Center for Autism: Indiana University Bloomington. Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Published 2020. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/learn-about-autism/getting-started-introducing-your-child-to-his-or-her-diagnosis-of-autism.html
  10. Cooper K, Smith LGE, Russell A. Social identity, self-esteem, and mental health in autism. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2017;47(7):844-854. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2297
  11. Oppenheim D, Koren-Karie N, Dolev S, Yirmiya N. Maternal sensitivity mediates the link between maternal insightfulness/resolution and child–mother attachment: the case of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Attachment & Human Development. 2012;14(6):567-584. doi:10.1080/14616734.2012.727256
  12. Rozga A, Hesse E, Main M, Duschinsky R, Beckwith L, Sigman M. A short-term longitudinal study of correlates and sequelae of attachment security in autism. Attachment & Human Development. 2017;20(2):160-180. doi:10.1080/14616734.2017.1383489
  13. Hong YR, Park JS. Impact of attachment, temperament and parenting on human development. Korean J Pediatr. 2012;55(12):449-454. doi:10.3345/kjp.2012.55.12.449
  14. Lee H. For children with developmental disabilities, parenting style matters. News. Published November 7, 2012. https://news.byu.edu/news/children-developmental-disabilities-parenting-style-matters