Bound Together: Research shows children with Autism are attached to their parents

| April 24, 2013

A common view of autistic children is that they are unable to form emotional attachment. Nancy Sadka from the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre shows that they indeed do exhibit a secure attachment towards their caregiver.

I was sitting at the doctor’s office waiting for my appointment when a mother walked in with her three year old girl. She had curly hair, rosy cheeks, and wore a fluffy pink dress with white laces. She caught my eye as she was moving away from her mum towards the toy box. I winked at her with a smile and a little wave. She stopped, looked at me with a puzzled face, moved back slowly towards her mother and hid her face in her mum’s lap. She waited a few seconds more then attempted her adventure again. She moved quickly towards the toys, pulled out a raggedy doll from the box, ran and grabbed her mother’s jacket. She glanced at me with a cheeky grin then looked at her mother with a sense of achievement saying: “It’s a baby!”

This little girl’s typical behavior is descriptive of what is known as “the secure emotional attachment theory” where a young child displays proximity seeking behavior towards her caregiver in the presence of a stranger. She is using her parent as a safety anchor to explore the world and to rely on her mother’s presence for safety and protection. Researchers have questioned whether this theory exists in the world of an autistic child. After all, the very definition of the word autism and I quote “a pervasive developmental disorder of children, characterised by impaired communication, excessive rigidity, and emotional detachment…” (

Attachment in autistic children

Looking at the available literature and research on the subject of attachment and autism, one can find that there is some confusion about the interpretation of social skills and the definition of “emotional attachment”. There is a lack of differentiation between the behavior in social skills such as smiling, pointing, sharing a toy with an adult, and the behavior in attachment such as clinging, fretting and proximity seeking to the caregiver.

In the early nineties Dr Dissanayake developed an interest in the subject and did not find any empirical data proving the existence of attachment in autistic children or the lack of it thereof. Using the “Ainsworth Strange Situation” approach to record modified behavior, she created a scenario in the lab to maximise the observation of the behavior of 16 autistic children aged 3-6 and their interaction with their caregiver. She observed each child with his parent alone, the child with the parent and a stranger who walked into the room, the child with the stranger while the parent walked out of the room, and the child’ reunion with the parent upon her return.

Dr Dissanayake discovered that compared to their typical developing peers, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) did chose to be selective in their behavior to demonstrate a secure form of emotional attachment. The fretting, clinging, vocalising, and moving towards the parent were all behaviors exhibited by children with ASD but varied from one child to the other in frequency and intensity depending on their developmental level. She was able to provide strong evidence that children with autism did clearly show a preference towards their caregiver as well as awareness of strangers.

In recent years?

Dr Dissanayake took her research a step further to investigate if children with autism continue to develop their security of caregiver attachment during the middle childhood phase. A typical child between the age of eight and twelve is cognitively able to internalise his relationship with his parent. He can anticipate and interpret his parent’s response or behavior and act upon it. A sample of 17 typical children from that age group and 21 peers with high functioning autism were asked to complete the Kerns Security Scale (KSS) questionnaire to measure their perception of attachment security in the caregiver. The questions on the KSS are designed to measure the degree to which children believe a caregiver is available and responsive and how easy it is to talk to her.

Dr Dissanayake concluded that the analysis of the results showed no marked differences among the two groups. Children with high functioning autism were capable of knowing that when they are struggling with social and emotional issues they trust that their parents will be available and responsive to their concerns.

“It’s a baby! Look mummy!” the little girl at the doctor’s office climbed up and sat on her mum’s lap. The mother cuddled her and they exchanged smiles and a lengthy conversation about the doll. If this girl’s attachment continues to be nurtured she will grow up with confidence and positive self-esteem. However if that is taken away from her, she will develop an insecure-ambivalent attachment which will impact further relationships and may lead to behavioral problems and self unworthiness. Since Dr Dissanayake’s research findings, which have been duplicated by other researchers, has shown that autistic children do exhibit a secure attachment towards their caregiver, she infers that nurturing “the secure attachment relationship may represent a protective factor for these children.”

Dr Dissanayake’s work has impacted the views and perspectives of parents and clinicians.  In a recent discussion with her she said:

”It is important for parents to understand attachment and know that their child is emotionally attached to them. It is not about looking for the social interactions and saying my child needs me but does not want me. It is about how your child behaves when you leave him and how he greets you when you come back.”

The child with ASD does not perceive the caregiver as an object that is interchangeable but as a secure emotional anchor in a relationship that needs nurturing. Consequently it is that relationship that can become the focus and the catalyst for social interaction and joint attention.

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  1. ccollin6

    September 22, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Bound Together

    That is a marvelous article. One of my best friends has an autistic child who is 34 years old. He is non verbal but he communicates his love and affection for Father and Mother enthusiastically. I was uneducated and unaware with regard to the definition and emotional detachment that theoretically characterizes children with autism. From my personal experience I concur that the secure emotional attachment is real.