Autism and Attachment

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Autism and Infant Attachment: A Review of the Literature

Anna Rooney

Psychology 340 Professor Pederson November 28, 2005

VERGE 3 A Review of the Literature

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Even when Stephen Bohay was just a few months old, his parents knew there was something odd about him. Instead of developing the normal one consonant/one vowel sounds characteristic of three to eight month infants, Stephen remained silent and, according to his mother, never cuddled, never wanted to be picked up, and “never looked at [her]—ever” (Holloway, 1981). Finally, when he was three years old, a psychiatrist diagnosed Stephen with autism. At that age he “wouldn’t show any affection or love” and it “seemed to annoy him when [his mother] spoke to him” (Holloway, 1981). Then suddenly Stephen went through what his mother called a second baby-hood at six years. He started being very loving and affectionate: holding his arms out to her to be held, sitting on her lap, and wanting to be cuddled. It was only then Mrs. Bohay could say, “I really felt he loved me” (Holloway, 1981). Since its discovery in 1943 by Leo Kanner, autism has puzzled neurologists and psychologists alike. While there have been strides in the early detection and biological understanding of the disorder, the inner and social worlds of autistic individuals remain a mystery due to the large range of cognitive, verbal, and social skills in the autistic population. However, as Kanner stated, the one common denominator is social withdrawal (Holloway, 1981). Because this withdrawal is so characteristic, as is the lack of affect described in the case of Stephen, one question that arises is whether autistic infants are able to form the attachments to their caregivers John Bowlby described as so critical for healthy social development (Bowlby, 1988). Does the nature of the disorder prevent such a reciprocal relationship from building or at least postpone it, as seems to be the case with Stephen and his mother? The following paper will present the information thus far known about the symptoms and neurological aspects of

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autism that may hinder attachment and actual attachment patterns in autism as well as take a critical look at applying the Ainsworth categorization of attachment to these infants. An Introduction to Autism Although autism is commonly believed to be rare, actual estimated rates in children in the United States alone range from 7.8 to 40.5 per 10,000 (Goode, 2004), making it more common than both Down Syndrome and childhood cancer. In the past decades, the rate of diagnosis has increased dramatically which some experts attribute to an actual increase in cases due to environmental factors but other experts attribute to better public awareness and means of diagnosis and a wider definition of autistic disorders (Goode, 2004). Doctors can now detect the signs of autism earlier in a child’s life and parents often alert their doctors quickly when they observe slower than normal development. As infants, autistic children refuse physical contact and to sit on their parents’ laps, pull away from being held, are stiff when held, avoid eye contact, fail to respond to their parents’ voices, demonstrate undifferentiated smiling, lack social and emotional reciprocity, and often show developmental delays in verbal skills (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994; Hamblin, Buckholdt, Ferritor, Kozloff, & Blackwell, 1971, p. 217-218). However, it should be noted that these symptoms may be lacking in infancy. An infant or toddler may develop normally for up to two years and suddenly loose social and language skills they have thus far achieved (APA, 1994). As the autistic child continues to grow, he or she continues to display the above symptoms as the disorder manifests itself in new ways. He or she fails to develop appropriate peer relationships, does not display spontaneous interest in things by bringing them to his or her parents or...
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