Researchers have found that babies who are deemed to have an “insecure attachment” to their parents and have an older sibling with autism could have a higher chance of having autism themselves.
An early autism diagnosis can be hugely beneficial to those on the spectrum because it allows for early intervention — and that can often lead to better outcomes like improved communication and social-emotional skills. An accurate autism diagnosis can given when a child is as young as 14 months old but it’s often given when the child is two or older.
Children who have older siblings with autism are at an increased risk of having autism themselves.
Daniel Messinger is a psychology professor who has been studying the infant siblings of older children diagnosed with ASD for 15 years. In a previous study, he and his team found that roughly 1 in 5 babies who had older siblings with autism would get diagnosed with autism themselves. These younger siblings are considered high-risk for the disorder.
For this study, Messinger looked at attachment behaviors of infants who were high-risk and those who were low-risk to assess their odds of having autism.
What is attachment theory?
Attachment theory is based on the bond and interactions between an infant and their primary caregiver (most research has been done on the mother-child relationship). The theory posits that the strength of the child’s attachment — especially during a stressful or new experience — indicates the child’s trust in their parent’s availability and care.
“Attachment is a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver,” explained Alan Sroufe, a developmental psychologist who was not involved in this study.
A secure attachment offers three basic things: a sense of safety and security, a secure base from which to explore, and the ability to regulate emotions. Insecure attachments are often linked to aggression and anxiety.
Developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth designed the Strange Situation Paradigm in 1963 in order to determine what type of attachment a child has. She observed how infants reacted in a new and unfamiliar environment when they were faced with situations like being separated from their primary caregiver, left with a stranger, left alone, and reunited with the caregiver.
Infants with a secure attachment are typically upset when separated from their caregivers, relieved when they return, and calm down when reunited. In contrast, an infant with an insecure attachment is typically upset to the point where they can’t be comforted or will avoid their caregiver when they return.
“Attachment security is important because in typical kids it’s associated with slightly more optimal outcomes,” said Messinger.
The study was published in the journal Developmental Science and led by Messinger and other researchers at the University of Miami.
They looked at 95 infants who were 15 months old, 56 of whom were considered high-risk because they had an older sibling with autism. All of the infants took part in the Strange Situation method, and independent researchers specifically trained to do so rated their attachment. The babies were put in one of four different attachment classifications: secure, insecure, insecure‐resistant, or avoidant.
When each child was three years old, they were evaluated independently for autism. Then the researchers analyzed the results to see if there was a link between attachment style and an autism diagnosis (or lack of one).
Of the 95 children, 16 of them were eventually given an autism diagnosis. All 16 were high-risk, meaning that they had older siblings with autism. That meant 40 infants were high-risk but did not develop ASD and 39 were low-risk and also did not develop ASD.
These 16 high-risk infants with ASD were disproportionately more likely to be classified as insecure (versus secure) and more likely to be classified as insecure-resistant (versus secure or avoidant) than the other infants in the study.
Researchers concluded that the high-risk infants with an insecure attachment were seven times more likely to be diagnosed with autism compared to high-risk infants who had a secure attachment. They also found that over 50% of infants with autism had insecure attachments, while only 20% of infants without autism had insecure attachments.
It’s important to underscore that these findings do not imply that a certain type of attachment causes autism — instead, it’s an indication that an infant may have the disorder. Likewise, discovering a child has an insecure-resistant attachment early on won’t prevent them from developing autism.
However, it could help lead to specific interventions to help the child form more secure relationships.
“There are a lot of questions about when early indications of autism emerge, and this is a pretty strong risk signal at 15 months among infants who have an older sibling with ASD,” said Messinger. “And while we can’t stop future ASD diagnoses, this suggests we should also consider attachment-related interventions for high-risk infants who show insecurity. We don’t do that at all right now.”
Messinger also noted that the study was small and more research needs to be done.
C. Dixon likes to read, sing, eat, drink, write, and other verbs. She enjoys cavorting around the country to visit loved ones and experience new places, but especially likes to be at home with her husband, son, and dog.