Autism, attachment, and social learning: Three challenges and a way forward

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Abstract

We explore three challenges that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) poses to our understanding of the processes underlying early attachment. First, while caregiver-infant attachment and later social-affiliative behavior share common biobehavioral mechanisms, individuals with ASD are able to form secure attachment relationships, despite reduced social-emotional reciprocity and motivation for social interaction. Therefore, disruptions in social affiliation mechanisms can co-exist with secure caregiver-infant bonding.

Second, while early attachment quality is associated with later social outcomes in typical development, interventions targeting caregiver-child interaction in ASD often show positive effects on parental responsivity and attachment quality, but not on child social behavior. Therefore, improvements in parent-child bonding do not necessarily result in improvements in social functioning in ASD.

Third, individuals with ASD show normative brain activity and selective social affiliative behaviors in response to people that they know but not to unfamiliar people.

We propose a conceptual framework to reformulate and address these three theoretical impasses posed by ASD, arguing that the dissociable pathways of child-parent bonding and social development in ASD are shaped by (1) a dissociation between externally-driven and internally-driven attachment responses and (2) atypical learning dynamics occurring during child-caregiver bonding episodes, which are governed by and influence social-affiliation motives and other operant contingencies.

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