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PACEs in Early Childhood

ASD as a Risk Factor for Disrupted Attachment


When people hear ACES, or, adverse childhood experiences, it is likely that their mind goes to the more obvious types of adverse experiences such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, loss of a parent, or being removed from the home. But what about the less obvious adverse experiences? Those that are small, yet have a cumulative impact on a child’s sense of safety and security. Those that interfere with the essential bonding between child and caregiver. Those that risk or contribute to disrupted attachment. Experiences such as not having an attuned caregiver or, having a caregiver who struggles to understand and meet the child’s emotional and biological needs. Being on the Autism Spectrum can place a child at increased risk for such experiences.

Being on the spectrum comes with unique neurobiology that can present relational and developmental challenges, both of which impact experiences of co-regulation. Co-regulation is a fundamental component of a secure attachment, in which the caregiver supports the child in regulating emotional and biological needs. Co-regulation is achieved through a delicate dance between the child and caregiver, during which the child expresses a need, the caregiver attunes to the child, and then works with the child to meet the need in order to return to a calm and regulated state. As this process is repeated, the child learns that the world is responsive and safe. However, for a child on the spectrum and her caregiver, the dance of co-regulation can be exceptionally challenging. 

Depending on the child’s neurobiological differences there may be breakdowns at one or more stages of the co-regulation process. The child may have difficulty expressing his needs in a way that can be understood by others, and/or the caregiver may struggle to help the child regulate in a way that works with the child’s neurobiological differences. For example, a child may cry due to difficulty falling asleep and, in response, a caregiver may rock the child. However, if the child has an over or under sensitive vestibular system, the caregivers rocking may either be ineffective or exacerbate the child’s discomfort.

Each time the caregiver and child are unable to co-regulate a mini-attachment trauma occurs and, without a repair (such as successful co-regulation in other moments) these mini-traumas can accumulate to create a disrupted attachment. 

However, despite these challenges, co-regulation is absolutely possible. All that is needed is the knowledge and tools to get there. The most important knowledge for the caregiver to have is an understanding of his child’s unique neurobiology. Armed with this information, the caregiver can better attune and respond to his child and then, they are on their way to increased co-regulation and a more secure attachment. 

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