provide a normalized social-emotional experience that would set development in this domain on a more typical path, in the hope that once righted, it would flourish.
Attachment constructs, first influenced by psychoanalytic principles, offer an orientation to the nature and treatment of social difficulties in autism that conceptualizes attachment relations as the most important social-emotional accomplishment of infancy and early childhood. Attachment theory grew out of the integrative work of John Bowlby (1969), who drew from early cross-species work and theory on infant-maternal relations to propose that the attachment relationship was a biological-behavioral control system. This control system, present in both caregivers and infants across the mammalian species, served to maintain proximity between infants and caregivers and thus to assure infant protection and care. Bowlby’s theoretical work was carried forward in empirical studies begun by Mary Ainsworth and colleagues, and it represents one of the most thoroughly studied areas of infant development at the present time. For our purposes, two of the most important findings for autism from the body of attachment literature have to do with the role of parental sensitivity and responsivity to child cues in fostering secure attachments and the association between early attachment to parents and later peer relations in typically developing children.
For a long period of time, it was assumed that autism represented a failure of the attachment process, and this view continues to pervade many people’s understanding of autism. However, a series of laboratory studies of attachment behavior in autism in the 1980s and early 1990s yielded the very surprising finding that children with autism met standard criteria for secure attachment patterns with their caretakers (Capps et al., 1994; Rogers et al., 1991, 1993; Shapiro et al., 1987). Furthermore, in comparison with children with other kinds of developmental delays of similar age and cognitive levels, children with autism did not demonstrate greater insecurity or lack of attachment relations in these settings. Two separate studies demonstrated that maternal sensitivity and responsivity affect attachment security in autism, as they do in typical development (Capps et al., 1994; Wehner et al., 1998). However, several researchers have questioned the validity of the attachment construct in autism: more general measures of social reciprocity (Lord and Pickles, 1996; Tanguay et al., 1998; Kasari et al., 1990) indicate that some children with autism differ from other populations in many aspects of relationships with their parents and others, even though their performance on specific attachment measures may not differ.