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Attachment and Social Withdrawal in Autism: Hypotheses and Findings

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Autism is characterized by an impaired development in social interaction and communication and a markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests. This paper summarizes the research into the social abnormalities in autism, and reviews the empirical support for two behavioural hypotheses on autism, i.e. that autism results from impaired attachment, or from intense and prolonged approach-avoidance conflicts. The core social impairment of autistic subjects seems to be a deficit in attunement and timing of actions and reactions rather than a difference in frequencies of behaviours. Attachment behaviour of most, if not all autistic children tends to be disorganized; nevertheless, they do form attachment relationships in terms of preferential proximity seeking or reunion behaviour in the Strange Situation Test. Attachment studies performed sofar however have methodological limitations ; particularly the study of maternal-infant attunement and reciprocity has been neglected. Empirical evidence fails to support the presence of approach-avoidance conflicts in autistic subjects, and is further at variance with the predicted consequences of such conflicts. Insufficient attention has hitherto been paid to the clinical heterogeneity of autism in behavioural studies. A promising approach to deepen our understanding of the development of the autistic symptomatology is the early detection and subsequent behavioural study of 1-2 year old children at high-risk for autism. Finally, behaviour observation studies in autistic subjects are likely to benefit from the concurrent assessment of physiological indices of arousal, and from the integrated measurement of social-cognitive processes.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Child Psychiatry, University of Utrecht, P.O. Box 85500, 3508 GA Utrecht, the Netherlands


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