What is Autism?

Disruption of Parent-Child Relationship

It Takes Two for Growth

Developmental scientists have long noted that if infants do not contribute sufficient energy to their relationship, parents are unable to compensate and the relationship cannot develop in a normal manner. Even highly motivated or proficient parents cannot overcome this obstacle.

The success of parental efforts at guiding their child’s mental development is dependent on their child’s providing the primary ‘energy’ for growth. With ASD, parents are not able to function in a responsive, elaborative manner, because they are presented with nothing productive to respond to. Parents are not provided with the types of child actions they can support and elaborate.

Additionally, parents of future ASD infants are cut off from obtaining any type of regulatory feedback that parents of typically developing infants rely upon to adjust their actions to be optimal for their child. Similarly, there is no way for parents to determine what would be ‘one step ahead’ for their child.

Parents of typically developing infants are able to focus their energy to act as mental ‘guides’, looking for opportunities to expand and extend their child’s competence. Parents of ASD infants must struggle just to obtain their child’s attention and maintain their engagement.

Expert Quotes: The Dilemma Faced by Parents of Future ASD Infants                                          

  • Baker, Messinger, Lyons & Grantz concluded that the early social impairments of ASD infants, interfere with sensitive parental caregiving, resulting in significant consequences for development by making it difficult for parents to provide effective guidance.  Baker, Messinger, Lyons & Grantz (2010)
  • Gliga and colleagues concluded that the ASD infant’s limited responsiveness, impairs parent responsiveness, specifically their efforts to offer the right amount & quality of input. Gliga et al. (2014)
  • Hudry and colleagues concluded that, because ASD infants provide their parents with few leads to follow and provide weak and poorly timed signals that are easily missed, their parents are placed in a position where they must attempt to, “… engage a relatively passive child by directing his/her behavior and compensating for his/her limited contributions.” Hudry et al. (2014)
  • Shizawa & co-workers describe the dilemma faced by mothers of future ASD infants in the following way, “… mothers of infants with ASD are forced to spend considerable energy just obtaining their child’s attention, compared to mothers of [typically-developing] infants who, assured of the infant’s self-regulated interest, can focus on enhancing their joint engagements.” Shizawa et al. (2013)
  • Watson and colleagues concluded that, “ASD infants offer their parents, who are in need of both responses and prompts from their infants, fewer opportunities for interaction.” Watson et al. (2013

Parents Become Directive, Infants Disengage

While the relationship between parents and typically developing growth-seeking infants continues to evolve in a positive direction leading to the formation of a Guiding Relationship, that between ASD children and their parents becomes increasingly problematic.                 

By the close of their second year, almost all future ASD infants have moved from passivity to more active avoidance and emotional disengagement. Zwaigenbaum, Bryson & Garon (2013) make the dramatic point that, “In the second year, poorer social interest and reactivity change into aversion and avoidance.”

Parents Become More Directive

Researchers have found that parents of ASD children must employ more ‘high-intensity’ and directive methods, such as increased physical contact, as well as providing more cues and prompts than do parents of TD children.

Future ASD Infants Become Progressively Disengaged

By the close of their second year, almost all future ASD infants have moved from passivity to more active avoidance and emotional disengagement. ASD infants are found to show much less shared enjoyment, direct much less attention and use considerably less non-verbal emotional communication in response. Zwaigenbaum, Bryson & Garon (2013), describe how, “In the second year, poorer social interest and reactivity change into aversion and avoidance.

A negative mutual influence process

Researchers have recently begun studying ASD infants’ divergence as a process occurring within a parent-infant system, in which the ASD infant’s passivity and later active disengagement triggers a “negative mutual influence cycle” in which both parents and infants are unwittingly propelled to respond to one another in increasingly abnormal ways that dramatically impact their subsequent relationship. For example, Elsabbagh and colleagues (Elsabbagh et al. 2015) posited that ASD infants and parents enter into a negative mutual influence cycle whereby, “… early disruptions in the child’s social functioning impact their parent’s pattern of response, which in turn leads to an increasingly atypical developmental trajectory.”                                                                

Consequences of Relationship Disruption: Expert conclusions

“ASD children are not able to take advantage of their parents support to learn how to engage with others.” Bottema-Beutel et al. (2014)

“Early deficits of ASD infants’ set the stage for the loss of parent-infant social learning experiences that are fundamental for the child’s development.” Henderson & Mundy (2012)

“Children with ASD wind up learning from a world dominated by physical rather than social events, and this experience is likely to bring about increasing divergence in processes having an impact on brain development.” Jones & Klin (2009)

Without adequate early social input, the neurological & behavioral development of the ASD child may be deflected further and further from the normal path.” Mundy & Thorpe (2007)

“While, for typically developing infants, their capacity to enter into early communicative interactions allows them to learn from and through others about their environment, this developmental route is not available to future ASD infants.” Rozga et al. (2010)

“Lack of opportunities for infants to engage in meaning-making engagement with parents, lead to altered brain development and stunted mental growth.” Tronick & Beeghly (2011)

“Whatever the primary causes of ASD infant’s disrupted interaction, it is likely to drastically reduce their future learning opportunities.” Wan et al. (2012)

Parents and Children Lose Access to a Guiding Relationship

The major consequence of the ASD infant-parent relationship disruption is the child’s lifelong loss of access to a Guiding Relationship. ASD children are unable to obtain the critical benefits gained from mediating their experience of themselves engaging with their environment, through the minds of their parents and significant others.           

ASD infants never begin their journey on this essential pathway.  From infancy on they lose access to the essential developmental opportunities only available through day-to-day participation in the thousands of day-to-day shared activities, conversations & other opportunities afforded to their typically developing peers.

The result can be seen as an escalating series of lost opportunities to build essential foundations for future mental and self development.  Unfortunately, this gap continues to widen over the years as the guiding relationship between parents and typically developing children continues to expand and evolve, adding increasingly sophisticated functions and means.

Children with ASD are deprived of critical opportunities for mental & self-development

The consequences of losing access to a Guiding Relationship can be seen as an escalating series of lost opportunities to build essential foundations for future mental and self-development.  Unfortunately, this gap continues to widen over the years as the guiding relationship between parents and typically developing children continues to expand and evolve, adding increasingly sophisticated functions and means.

  • Deprived of parental guides who are uniquely able to provide growth-promoting opportunities, tailored to their child’s unique vulnerabilities, strengths & developmental readiness and who carefully expose their child in a gradual ‘one-step-ahead’ manner, to increasing degrees of the complexity, unpredictability & stress found in real-world environments.
  • Deprived of the countless hours of guided practice with parents, that typically-developing toddlers & young children require, to prepare them to be successful peer partners.
  • Deprived of the hundreds of conversations with parents, through which typically-developing children learn to meaningfully represent their experiences, form self-knowledge, develop a dynamically evolving personal identity and come to understand & value their internal mental world, as well as others thoughts, feelings & perspectives.
  • Deprived of the many opportunities to observe and participate with parents & later other persons, in joint activities where the child as ‘mental apprentice’ acquires the values, habits, mindsets & thought processes of their more experienced guides.
  • Deprived of a relationship whose functions become increasingly internalized, so that children, engaging in their own internal dialogues, can autonomously pursue mental & self-growth throughout their waking hours.

Next: Early Intervention

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