Thursday, April 23, 2009

An Incomplete Attachment and Understanding Autistic Behaviors

What does an incomplete attachment look like? One only needs to look at any child, adolescent or adult on the autism spectrum continuum to answer this question. The behaviors one sees with such individuals seem to be confusing and do not make sense. No two individuals with autism seem similar or manifest the same behaviors. If one thinks about autism from the perspective of an incomplete attachment then the developmental delays and the children will make sense.

From this perspective, the child has not had the benefit of a completed attachment. As all infants, she is born into the unconscious ready to be brought out in relationship to the caregiver, but this does not happen. The child is in a waiting state. He or she is waiting for a completed attachment. Thus the behaviors that one sees in the autistic child are the result of not having had a completed attachment. The behaviors are what can be called “coping” and “state of existence” behaviors. Each child will cope differently to the circumstance and thus will have different behaviors as compared to another child. A key point to mention is that because of the incomplete attachment the child is left without the ability to use herself both in body (lacks self-agency) and mind (lacks theory of mind). The ability to use one’s self will vary from child to child. Some children will be more conscious of him/herself and thus have more access to use themselves in relationship to others. Thus we have a continuum of ability, which is typically known as the functioning level of the individual on the spectrum (low functioning, high functioning and Aspergers).

To explain it in a little more depth, the behaviors one sees in autistic individuals are unconscious behaviors that have been dissociated or separated within the child. It is like the child is of two minds, the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. This is true of all human beings. Within the autistic child they are more dissociated and split from their emotions than others who appear to develop “typically.” Dissociation does not give us the complete picture. From a broader perspective, one can say that the child on the autism continuum has a lack of a completed attachment, has a dissociated sense of self, has developed coping mechanisms to manage the situation, is unable to use one’s self in relationship to others, seems to lack the knowledge of their own emotions and is unable to access those dissociated emotions and finally uses indirect mechanisms to grow in relationship to others. The treatments that seem to help this population are actually helping the child to become more and more conscious and integrated as a human being. Below I have compared the developing autistic child to the developing “typical” child.

“Typical” Child
1. On a continuum – from partial sense of self to a well integrated sense of self
2. Attachment has occurred
3. Ability to use oneself to get needs met. The degree that the individual can do this will vary widely
4. Knowledge and ability to know one’s emotional feelings
5. On a continuum has access to use one’s emotions in response to the other
6. Transference occurs in the relationship in a way that is typically understood
7. Can use the relationship to grow

Autistic Child
1. Varying degrees of dissociated sense of self
2. Lack of a completed attachment
3. On a continuum - from no ability to use oneself in relationship to another to ability to use oneself on a limited basis
4. Lacks knowledge of one's emotional feelings
5. Does not have access or ability to use dissociated emotions
6. Transference expressed in ways unfamiliar to most (indirect). Transference is fragile
7. Does not directly use the relationship to grow (indirect usage)

In my next blog, I will take the behaviors of the individual on the autism spectrum and make sense of them.

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