Neurodiversity and attachment are two aspects of human development that have a big impact on how we experience ourselves, the world, and relationships. But does neurodiversity affect attachment? And, if so, how?
Identifying how the unique neurological profiles of people with conditions such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia link to attachment can help us unlock insights into the social and emotional needs of neurodivergent individuals. In turn, these insights can help caregivers and professionals in supporting roles understand how to best support these individuals in developing secure attachments–and aid neurodivergent people in meeting their own needs.
To answer any questions you may have on the link between neurodiversity and attachment, this article will cover:
When we use the term “neurodiversity,” we mean the natural variations we see in brain development and functioning between humans. These slight differences bring about variations in our:
Many conditions fall under the umbrella term of “neurodiversity.” Some of the most common are:
On a note, there has been much debate over the years around which conditions classify as “neurodivergent,” and this is likely due to how the experience of neurodivergence is unique to each individual. Therefore, with respect to these distinctive circumstances and traits, it’s important to recognize the perspectives of each neurodivergent person.
The term “neurodiversity” is typically applied to people with developmental disorders, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, etc., but it is sometimes also used to refer to those with mental health disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. However, just like with the conditions that fall under “neurodiversity,” there is also a level of debate about whether we should use the term “neurodiversity” to describe treatable mental health issues.
In most cases, the signs of neurodiversity are present from early childhood. Yet, in some cases, neurodiversity can occur due to physical or emotional trauma. In other words, the causes of neurodiversity can be both genetic and environmental–so, the signs of neurodiversity present with a high degree of variability.
What’s more, it’s important to recognize that there are cultural differences in what is considered “neurodivergent.” Meaning what’s considered “normal” in one context could be considered “divergent” in another.
Having said as much, the most common signs of neurodivergence include:
Challenges related to learning, such as language, reading, executive functioning, focus, and math.
Speech and language difficulties
Inflexibility regarding routines or interests
Social communication issues
Atypical physical actions such as stimming (repetitive movements), vocal outbursts, and tics.
Oversensitivity or insensitivity to sensory stimuli such as light, touch, temperature, crowds, etc.
Additionally, an important consideration on the signs and severity of neurodivergent conditions is someone’s childhood environment. Thus, much research has been devoted to the possible connection between attachment and neurodivergence.
Attachment refers to the emotional bond that develops between an infant and their caregiver(s). It’s a crucial aspect of early childhood development that can provide a sense of security, safety, and comfort for a child.
A secure attachment provides the foundation for healthy social and emotional relationships, while insecure attachment can lead to difficulties in forming close relationships, as well as emotional and behavioral problems.
You can find out more about attachment styles in our article, Attachment Styles & Their Role in Relationships.
Moreover, if you would like to find out what attachment style you have, you can take the free quiz on our website for your attachment report.
The concepts of neurodiversity and attachment are becoming increasingly intertwined as researchers explore the impact of neurodivergent conditions on social and emotional development.
Bear in mind that while we report some of the most recent findings below, there is still much to discover about the relationship between neurodiversity and attachment.
Neurodivergence can, in some instances, make insecure attachment more likely. However, this largely depends on the neurodivergent condition and its impact on social communication and emotion regulation.
It’s important to note that no two situations are the same and that neurodivergence may only be one piece of the complex puzzle of insecure attachment. It’s also possible and extremely common for neurodiverse children to have a secure attachment style, which is vital to keep in mind.
Rupture and repair is a concept commonly used in psychology to describe the process of healing after a challenging experience. We most commonly refer to this in the context of caregiver/child and therapist/client relationships, but rupture and repair can happen in any relationship.
“Rupture” is the experience of an often temporary breakdown in trust in a relationship due to an event that caused distress. Alongside a loss of trust, rupture can also cause feelings of betrayal and a breakdown in communication.
“Repair” usually comes after a rupture. It’s the process of healing and rebuilding the relationship after a fracture. Repair involves acknowledging the pain and hurt caused by the rupture and taking steps to address it, such as communicating and doing activities together to rebuild trust.
Ruptures in the relationship between caregiver and child can cause attachment trauma over time if the rupture repeatedly isn’t followed by repair. Additionally, neurodivergence can increase the risk of ruptures and make it more difficult to rebuild trust afterward.
Misattunement in these situations is typically not purposeful. Attunement often doesn’t link to effort – caregivers can try their hardest to meet their childrens’ needs but still get it wrong, and other factors can frequently get in the way. Regardless, as a result of misattunement, a child may form an insecure attachment style.
As previously mentioned, children with neurodivergence may be more susceptible to insecure attachment, but this isn’t always due to environmental factors as there’s a genetic component to certain neurodivergent traits. For example, children with an ASD caregiver or sibling are reportedly nine times more likely to have autism than children without any nuclear family members with autism.
Similarly, research shows that individuals with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) have a 28% chance of having a first-degree relative with ADHD, compared to a 5% chance for those without. Moreover, children with caregivers with ADHD are also seven times more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than children with non-affected caregivers.
While there is limited evidence in this field, some research suggests that neurodivergence may increase the risk of insecure attachment because it potentially increases the likelihood of depression. In other words, neurodivergent caregivers may be more likely to have insecurely attached children if they experience depression related to their condition.
However, the brighter side of the coin suggests that neurodivergence within a family can also lead to secure attachment. When both caregiver and child are neurodivergent, this can be highly beneficial for the relationship as it may lead to greater levels of attunement and understanding. For example, one caregiver with ASD reported;
“Being autistic has meant my autistic children have grown up without the usual pressure and stresses that neurotypical parents can unknowingly subject their children to.”
Another mother reports that her own ASD diagnosis made her “more intentional and more aware” as a caregiver. Such accounts demonstrate that a caregiver’s neurodivergence can often help them form a healthy, secure bond with their neurodiverse child.
The link between neurodiversity and attachment isn’t straightforward. Research points toward a link between neurodivergence and insecure attachment formation, but this is by no means a damning conclusion. Forming secure attachments when either the child or caregiver has neurodiversity is entirely possible and common – perhaps especially when the caregiver and child share a diagnosis.
By understanding the relationship between neurodiversity and attachment, we can gain valuable insights into what life is like for people with neurodivergent conditions and the needs they may require support with. Furthermore, if you are neurodiverse, recognizing the potential interplay between your neurodivergence and attachment style may help you better understand yourself and your relationships.
“By being yourself you put something wonderful in the world that was not there before.”
– Edwin Elliott
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