What is Autism?

Gaining Clues from Infant Development

Neurotypical Infant Development

Developmental scientists believe that infants are born with two powerful drives: ‘Stability-Maintaining’ and ‘Growth-Seeking’. Together, these provide the impetus for much of their behavior from birth onward. While both of these drives remain throughout our lifetime, we observe that Stability-Maintaining primarily drives behavior during the infant’s first months of life. Stability-Maintaining also temporarily comes to the forefront throughout our life during times of intense stress and crisis.

In contrast, Growth-Seeking appears to first emerge during the second half of an infant’s first year and henceforth becomes a primary driving force, especially during childhood.

Growth-Seeking Typically Emerges During Infant’s Second Half-year

At some point during the latter part of their first year, infants appear to reach a positive ‘tipping point’, where their interest and attention begins to change in significant ways. We observe infants appearing less and less interested in seeing what they have seen before and doing what they already know how to do. At this stage, infants begin to:

  • Privilege attention to novelty and incongruity
  • Conduct a greater and more productive exploration
  • Engage in practice to achieve mastery
  • Preference activities that present a moderate degree of difficulty

A new ‘mindset’ seems to be emerging, one that privileges novelty along with engaging with activities that present them with a moderate degree of difficulty.


At 6-7 months, we can observe the infant beginning to initiate experience-sharing interactions with parents. At that age, infants fluidly shift their attention between non socially-directed actions (such as exploring a new object, engaging with a toy or performing some motor action) and the facial expressions of their parents, including them in the experience and then returning to their autonomous behavior.

Growth-Seeking Foundations

Growth-Seeking does not emerge automatically. Rather it is the infant’s success during their first half year that set the stage. Among these abilities include an emerging sense of oneself as an active ‘Agent’, a sufficient capacity for mediate their emotional reactions and maintain cognitive organization in the face of potentially disorganizing situations.  In addition, activation is dependent on the infant’s perception of themselves as on the one hand as autonomous agents able to take actions that influence their world, and on the other hand as tightly integrated into a relational system with parental guides, perceived as playing a central role in their growth.

Parental Growth-Promoting

Scientists believe that parents (or anyone in a primary caregiving role) possess their own innate Stability-Maintaining and Growth-Promoting drives. which provides a complement to the inborn motivations of their infant.


The birth of an infant appears to activate a powerful Stability-Maintaining parental mindset that serves as parents’ dominant motivation during their infant’s initial months. Parenting a child during the first months of life is primarily about providing the infant with a safe, non-complex and somewhat predictable, low-stress environment so that infants can start to make sense of the noise and chaos surrounding them. Parenting also emphasizes maintaining the regulation of the infant’s body through things such as feeding, diaper changing and careful handling.                        

In the following passage, Henderson & Mundy (2012) describe some of the aspects of this strong initial parent drive that dominates the parent-infant relationship during the infant’s early months:

“During the first several months of life, the primary caregiver plays an essential role in augmenting the neonates limited capacities for establishing homeostatic balance. Early parent-infant interactions focus primarily on state regulation [homeostasis]…” “The caregiver assists the infant in establishing internal rhythms (in sleeping, waking, eating, dozing, etc.) and homeostatic balance (in affective states and arousal/activity levels) that enable the infant to adapt to the external social world.  Young infants are reliant on parents to help maintain and enhance periods of positive affect and minimize negative affect. They serve as early external regulators of infant’s states of arousal. There is an early, tight coupling of infants’ affective states with parents. Infants come to expect and actively seek out synchrony between their own and other’s actions, affect, vocalizations and attention orientation.”


At about the same time that infants activate their drive for Growth-Seeking (and partially as a consequence of infants increasing development), a parent’s primary focus and role gradually begins to change. Most noticeable is their shift from making sure that the infant perceives a regulated environment, to functioning as ‘mental guides’, facilitating their infant’s mental and self-growth.     

The emergence of this Growth-Promoting mindset should come as no surprise. From an evolutionary standpoint, it would stand to reason that parents would develop a very strong drive to promote the growth of their infant’s mental functioning. After all, our mental functioning is the unique advantage of the human species.

The Formation of a Guiding Relationship

Scientists believe that typical development provides for a synchronous motivational match between infant growth-seeking and parent growth-promoting, as the specific conditions needed for activation of both drives are met in a concurrent manner.

As parents and infants provide one another with actions and communication that serves to spur on their mutual effort, they develop strong, shared, positive emotional memories, representing the basic congruence between one another’s needs, desires and intentions. A parent’s growth-promoting drive is fueled by the infant’s enthusiasm and persistent growth-seeking efforts. Perceiving parental efforts as being congruent with their own desires, infants are highly appreciative of parents growth-promoting actions and provide a great deal of positive feedback. For example, parents of neurotypically-developing infants take it for granted that their children will work hard to get and maintain their attention.

The Guiding Relationship is formed through the joint parallel contributions of parents and infants

Expert Quotes

  • Ayoub and colleagues describe the process as a ‘two-way street’ in which the success of parent actions is dependent upon “dynamic transactions within the relationship.” Ayoub, Bartlett & Swartz (2014)
  • Bornstein and associates concluded that a functional Guiding Relationship depends upon parents, “… provision of necessary experiences,  the infant’s capacity to respond and the emotional tone of their interactions” Bornstein et al. (2012)
  • Cohen and colleagues point out that, “It is not the child’s existing set of competencies alone, nor the adult’s sensitive framing & scaffolding, but the dynamic interaction of these elements that creates the potential for development.” Cohen et al. (2013)
  • Fantasia and colleagues argue that the success of parent-infant Guiding depends upon “..  the infant’s desire to be social and the parent’s capacity to be attuned.” Fantasia, De Jaegher & Fasulo (2014).
  • Goldberg argued that Infants participate in their own socialization by co-creating interactions with their caregivers using the behaviors under their control – such as crying, making eye contact, and smiling – to capture their parents’ attention. He described the ‘socially competent infant’ as “… one whose behaviors are readable and who can reinforce the adult’s sense of competence by responding contingently to the adults’ behaviors.”Goldberg (1977)                         
  • Hammond and colleagues emphasize the importance of the child’s willing participation, “… although parents may be generally emotionally supportive, if they are unable to recruit their child to engage with the task at hand, then scaffolding fails to emerge.” Hammond et al. (2012)
  • Messinger and colleagues concluded that in a successful guiding relationship, each person’s actions & emotional reactions, “… serve to trigger the actions & emotional reactions of the other in a continuous manner, inexorably moving towards developing the child’s mental functioning.” Messinger et al. (2013)
  • Neitzel and Stright stressed the importance of, ‘… the interactive coupling between children and their caregivers.” Neitzel and Stright (2003)
  • Barbara Rogoff has emphasized the way in which, “Infants provide important cues to guide caregivers’ actions. Caregivers rely on these cues to guide their actions in the timing and nature of infant vocalizations, varying cries, postural and gaze changes, facial expressions, hand and foot movements and body tension.”Rogoff (1991)

Parents & Infants Provide the Complementary Resources Needed to Construct a Guiding Relationship

The parent-infant guiding relationship is akin to the interplay between different components of a guided rocket. The success of parent efforts at promoting the growth of their infants mental and self-development is dependent on the child’s providing the primary ‘thrust’ for growth, while parents primarily serve as the ‘guidance system,’ directing that energy in a productive direction.                             

Just as infant growth-seeking is dependent on the availability of adult guides, the success of parents’ growth-promoting is dependent on their infants providing them with the variety and frequency of growth-seeking actions that provide the impetus for their guidance.

The majority of parent growth-promoting efforts do not involve initiating a new activity or directing their infants. Rather, parents of growth-seeking infants are offered many opportunities to be productively responsive.                                           

Parents respond to their infant’s growth-seeking by acting and communicating in ways that elaborate and ‘scaffold’ the infants’ efforts, for example, providing affordances so that the infant’s goals are attainable and not dangerous.

When parents do act as initiators, they continue to function in a responsive manner, carefully assessing their child’s readiness and attempting to provide their infants with opportunities to experience their world in a ‘one-step-ahead’ manner that while not exactly fitting the infant’s prior understanding or perspective, is only one small step ahead of or varying from the infant’s prior understanding or level of competence.

When infants initially fail to make sense of or master a new challenge, as is frequently the case, parental guides provide ’soft landings’, modifying tasks to make them more attainable and encourage their infants to try again, leading to eventual successes. This results in positive experiences that build infant’s resilience, as well as their trust in the relationship.

Next: How Autism Affects Development

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