Friday, June 14, 2013

Attachment in Autism

In the psychoanalytic view, autistic kids were considered unattached. This was presumed to be due to having a cold, distant, 'refrigerator mother', who did not present the child with the possibility of forming an attachment.

It is now known that autism is not caused by parenting, but is rather a neurobiological condition with a substantial genetic component. However, some people still think autism inherently impairs attachment. See, for example, the following comment, posted over a year ago as a response to this blog post:

"I can't speak directly to CP or other congenital anomalies but I do know for certain that children with autism fail to form appropriate attachments to their caregivers because that is one of the core features of autism - not because their parents didn't accept their autism."

So, do autistic kids attach? Moreover, do they form secure attachments? Yes, in fact, they do. But they don't always show them the same way.
I recently came across an excellent illustration of an autistic child with a secure attachment style, in this paper:

"Tommy, a 36-month-old boy with ASD and very little language, was observed together with his mother in the SSP. In the first episode of the SSP, in which only he and his mother were in the room, he seemed oblivious to his mother’s presence and to the toys in the room and was running around the room in circles, humming to himself, appearing self-absorbed and content. 

Upon receiving a cue from the observer, Tommy’s mother exited the room. Tommy immediately stopped his running around. He lay on the floor, appearing somewhat distressed and called softly, “Mama. . . .” When the stranger entered the room, she tried to soothe Tommy and engage him with toys, but he remained lying on the floor and looked at the door. 

Finally, Tommy’s mother entered the room. He immediately stood up, briefly looked at her, and resumed running around the room as he had done initially, before his mother had left."

Now, many parents might assume, if their child does not greet them or show overt pleasure at their return, that the child doesn't care for them. And indeed most neurotypical children would greet the parent. Depending on their distress level, they might run up and initiate physical contact, or they might simply smile and make a greeting gesture or sound from afar. Tommy did neither of those. The only overt social signal directed at his mother upon reunion was a brief glance, which she might easily have overlooked.

However, he is still a securely attached child, despite expressing it in a much less sociable manner. To illustrate this, you need to understand the two main functions of attachment - to support exploration and to provide comfort when distressed.

In the Strange Situation, toddlers and preschoolers are more playful when their caregiver is in the room. They are especially playful before the first separation episode. The security that the caregiver provides merely by being present gives the child the confidence to explore.
In contrast, when the caregiver leaves, the child loses that security. Play typically decreases greatly or stops altogether, and the child expresses distress. Some kids are more reactive than others, for reasons relating more to temperament than attachment. A less reactive child might just get quiet and subdued, and be relatively inactive. If they're somewhat more reactive, they might whimper or whine, or call for the caregiver if they have the language skills. And if they're highly reactive, they might burst out with a full-blown cry.
However, among securely attached kids, this distress is resolved by the caregiver's return. Their response to the caregiver varies based on how distressed they got, but they are capable of seeking out and receiving just as much comfort as they need to return to play. In contrast, some insecurely attached kids cling to the caregiver but are not comforted by this contact, or may even alternate clinging with aggression. And others seem to bottle up their feelings, refusing to seek contact even though they were clearly upset by the separation. A few seem to fall apart altogether, and can't seem to decide whether to approach the caregiver or run away, or might even show signs of dissociation.
So, compare Tommy here. He didn't play with the toys, but he engaged in his own style of play by running in circles and humming. When his mother left, he stopped this behavior and showed mild but obvious distress. And then when his mother returned, her presence comforted him enough for him to resume his previous behavior.
That's secure attachment. Even though he didn't greet her or initiate interaction with her, Tommy clearly needs his mother and derives an emotional benefit from her presence.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Apparently They Can't Handle Simple Disagreement

I got this reply regarding the issue of me linking to my blog on a Creatures forum:

"Hi Ettina,

I just wanted to let you know that the messages that you've been receiving from [name] were on behalf of the entire moderation team here at [forum]. I also don't appreciate your latest blog post which essentially speaks negatively of [name] and only shows select parts of the actual situation.

Please either keep your Creatures-related news in Ettina's Creatures separated from all of your other content, post it directly to [forum] or don't share the news at all. If you have any further issues please contact me directly via private message or e-mail. [email]

Thank you for your co-operation.

The [forum] Staff"

This was accompanied by a notice that I've been 'gagged' for seven days.

I can assure you all that I did not intentionally misrepresent the situation here. If my post only shows 'select parts of the situation', then the other parts are things I am not aware of. I attempted to phrase my post respectfully, and avoid naming any names.

I did not intend to speak negatively of the moderator who contacted me, only of the situation itself. I never assumed that she was speaking only of her own opinion - I did not know either way, and therefore didn't touch on that. I merely discussed the issue that had been raised and provided a reasoned and logical argument for my point of view. This blog's primary purpose is to discuss issues of importance to me, and this issue is very important to me.

Ironically, when I logged in just before reading this, I had made a decision to drop the issue and just continue enjoying this forum as best I could despite this particular rule. But now, their heavy-handed discipline has destroyed that option. Even after I'm no longer 'gagged', there is no way I will ever feel welcome on this forum again.

I don't know of any other reasonably active Creatures forums, but I'd better start looking.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Just Hearing The Words

Recently, I got told off for linking to my blog on a Creatures forum, because my blog has 'mature content'. I, naturally, assumed the problem was one of my recent posts, which was indeed fairly explicit. So I reverted that post to draft and asked again.

That post wasn't the problem. The problem was the 'about me' section. Or specifically, two words:

'Sexually abused'

The moderator went on to explain that they have 'children under 10' frequenting this forum, and she doesn't consider it appropriate for them to see those two words.

Well, firstly, it seems pretty ridiculous to think that merely saying those two words in the presence of a child will damage them in any way - or indeed have any impact at all for most of them. I'm pretty sure if a child went from my posts to the Creatures forums to look at my blog, they would be looking at the Creatures content, not the about me section. And even if they did - either the child already knows what those words mean, and nothing's changed for them, or they don't and they'll most likely just gloss over them because they didn't understand.

Furthermore, even if I had explained what happened to me, in terms a child would understand, would that be inappropriate? I don't think so.

An estimated 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 7 boys are sexually abused, many of them before the age of ten. The majority of these kids, when the abuse is going on, they don't know it's abuse, and they don't know it's wrong. They just know that they feel uncomfortable and bad, but they've been taught to do what adults want, and this adult is (usually) someone they like and care about. Those kids could be helped immeasurably by hearing an explanation of what sexual abuse is. Indeed, they have been helped by education programs such as Red Cross's 'Be Safe' Program, or the Kids on the Block Program. Indeed, when a representative of Kids on The Block presented at my Women and Gender Studies class, she told me that after a presentation to kids, when they get an opportunity to speak privately to the presenters, in virtually every class at least one kid discloses sexual abuse to the presenter. Some of the time, the abuse is already known about and being addressed, but it's not at all uncommon for them to hear about ongoing abuse that no one knew was happening. They have a specific set of actions that all presenters are required to do in such a case.

Other kids have not been abused, but might end up in a risky situation in the future. It's unknown how many kids fall into this category. But it is known that many abusers will back off if a child is assertive about their boundaries. And those who don't, the child can tell on and have only one instance of abuse instead of hundreds. These are the kids that the sexual abuse education programs are primarily aimed at, and we have no way of knowing in advance who they are.

Then there are the kids who won't ever live through sexual abuse, or be in danger of sexual abuse. But I can guarantee that they will know someone who was abused. Maybe a friend, who needs their support. Maybe, once they're grown up, they will be babysitting or teaching a child who discloses abuse to them. They may even have their own child disclose abuse to them. And this early education might mean the difference between them ignoring or denying the abuse and them providing a supportive and helpful response.

And lastly, there are the kids who might be abusers themselves, or might grow up to be abusers someday. Many of these kids will also be victims of sexual abuse, and being taught that what happened to them was wrong could prevent them from doing it to someone else. Some may not have realized, otherwise, that what they were doing was abusive. And some may be deterred by the awareness that people are watching for this kind of behavior, and they could get in serious trouble for it.

So, no - don't protect kids from the words. Protect them from the actions instead.

And with that said, a message to any child reading this post:

It's your body. You have the right to tell someone that you aren't comfortable with how they're touching you, and they should listen (unless they need to do it for your health, like a doctor checking your breathing. If you aren't sure about a situation, ask a trusted adult if it was OK touch). It's OK to touch many other areas, but if an adult touches you in the areas that a bathing suit covers, you need to tell a trusted adult.

Who can you tell? If it's not your parents doing it, you might be able to tell them. You could also tell a teacher, or a coach, or any adult that you trust. Or if you can't think of anyone to tell, go to the phone book and look for the numbers on the inside of the front page. Most phone books have various help lines there. Look for one that mentions kids or sexual abuse, and call them.