There is a common perception that children with autism have difficulty forming social attachments. This belief can shape a child's medical treatment, education and social interactions. Recent studies have shed new light on the phenomenon, suggesting that children with autism may not have as much difficulty with attachment behaviors as previously believed, and that the child's early relationships, particularly the maternal relationship, has a strong impact on whether or not the child will form secure attachments later in life.
The third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric association, described autism as "failure to develop normal attachment behavior." Although that definition has been changed in later editions of the manual, it indicates how widespread the belief was that autism meant poor social attachment. Studies done in the 1980s and later started to present a different picture of autism, demonstrating that children with the disorder formed attachments, often secure attachments, with their caregivers.
Attachment behavior theory states that babies become attached to their caregivers during the first year. This attachment provides security in their world, and the child becomes upset if the bond is threatened by separation or other factors. Attachment behavior occurs regardless of the quality of the baby's care; neglected or abused children still feel attached to their caregivers. Children who receive care that meets their needs form secure attachments. Children who receive poor quality care form insecure attachments.
A study published in "Zero to Three," the publication of a national early intervention charity, looked at observational studies on attachment behavior in children with autism done over the previous twenty years. Early research showed that, contrary to what was believed, children with autism did form attachments with their caregivers. Later research focused on the strength of the attachments and discovered that approximately half of children with autism form secure attachments with caregivers, as compared with two-thirds of typical children. Although the secure attachment rate is lower than the average it is still far higher than what was previously assumed.
Several key factors affect attachment in children with autism. One study cited by the "Zero to Three" article focused on maternal insightfulness, the ability for a mother to appreciate the world through her child's eyes, and showed it had a strong effect on forming secure attachments in children with autism. Another study published in the "Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry" found that the difference in secure attachment rates disappeared when looking only at children with higher cognitive development.