Attachment Disorder vs. Autism: An Overview and My Personal Experience

I am currently reading the book A Guide to Mental Health Issues in Girls and Young Women on the Autism Spectrum by Judy Eaton. I’m only halfway through the second chapter and it’s so incredibly validating. The book talks about misdiagnosis and co-occurring diagnosis of many psychiatric conditions in autistic girls and young women. I can relate to so much of it.

One concept that I found resonated particularly with me was “secondary misdiagnosis”. This refers to a situation where, while a woman was diagnosed as autistic initially, somewhere along the way, her diagnostic records “disappear” and she is rediagnosed as something else. Yes, that’s me! The book has a UK-based focus and I have been told quite often that, in the NHS, your records automatically move where you go. This is not the case here in the Netherlands: you have to transfer them yourself. Apparently though, in the UK, records can disappear too.

In the second chapter, the author discusses misdiagnosis of autistic girls as having an attachment disorder, disruptive behavior disorder or (emerging) personality disorder. Today, I will talk about attachment disorders.

In August of 2016, I demanded an independent second opinion on my autism diagnosis, which my psychologst had removed, for the first time. My psychologist told me she’d set things in motion, but would have to consult with the brain injury unit’s psychiatrist first. After all, my having sustained a brain injury shortly after birth was her primary reason for removing my autism diagnosis. As she returned, the weirdest diagnostic process I’ve ever seen, emerged: she started negotiating diagnoses with me. She said she was willing to diagnose brain injury-related personality change instead of the personality disorder she’d initially diagnosed me with, generalized anxiety disorder and an attachment disorder. I took time to think and eventualy ignored the attahment disorder thing, while reluctantly agreeing to the rest. We still used DSM-IV, after all, where you have to have endured “pathogenic care” to be diagnosed with attachment disorder.

In DSM-5 and the newest edition of the ICD, which was published in 2016, your early childhood still has to have been less than ideal, but the criteria leave room for milder forms of less than optimal care, such as your parents not having been very nurturing. I guess in my case, even with perfect parents (which I don’t have), my premature birth and three months in the hospital would suffice for the current “inadequate or inconsistent care” criterion for reactive attachment disorder.

However, the criteria for RAD say that the child cannot be diagnosed with it if they have an autism spectrum disorder. I understand this doesn’t mean autistic children and adults do not have attachment issues, since I for one do. However, when someone is diagnosable with autism, they cannot be diagnosed with RAD too. In other words, my psychologist ought to have ruled out autism – which she did a pretty poor job of doing – before trying to label me with RAD.

There are several features of attachment disorder that overlap with autism and particularly with pathological demand avoidance. For example, children with attacchment disorder as well as those with PDA can be superficially charming (in order to get what they want), indiscriminately affectionate with unfamiliar adults and inaffectionate with primary caregivers. Both are often defiant or manipulative. They also both can be controlling or bossy. Children with RAD are however more likely to be cruel to animals or other people or destructive towards property. They often show a preoccupation with such things as fire, blood, death or gore. Autistic children as well as those with RAD may avoid eye contact, but RAD children do make eye contact particularly when lying.

Judy Eaton outlines several distinguishing features between autism and attachment disorder. In the ICD-10, the following are mentioned:


  • Children who have a reactive attachment disorder will have the underlying ability to react and respond socially.

  • When abnormal social reciprocity is noted in children with reactive attachment disorder, it will tend to improve significantly when the child is placed in a more nurturing environment.

  • Children with reactive attachment disorder do not display the types of unusual communication seen in children with autism.

  • Children with reactive attachment disorder do not have the unusual cognitive profile often observed in children with autism.

  • Children with reactive attachment disorder do not display the types of restricted interests or repetitive behaviours seen in children with autism.

I definitely see how I have attachment issues. I am usually more open to strangers than to my own parents. Particularly as a teen, I’d also direct most of my aggression towards my mother. I could also be quite defiant. I however also definitely have communication oddities, repetitive behaviors and restricted interests and an unusual cognitive profile. I never “recovered”, though that could be blamed on the fact that I lived with my apparently inadequate parents till I was nineteen. Or it could be that I’m autistic.

2 thoughts on “Attachment Disorder vs. Autism: An Overview and My Personal Experience

  1. Hi Astrid:

    Two questions about Eaton.

    1. Does she talk about sensory modulation when it comes to attachment and autism as a distinguishing feature?

    2. And the Romanian Adoption Project [I know at least some Romanian orphans came to the Netherlands]. I read in that project/research about how 70% had secure attachment behaviours/profile. And 30% had the other attachment profiles like anxious; ambivalent; avoidant and disorganised.

    There is one person loosely connected with the Romanian Adoption Project who has talked about brain injury and how it affects understanding of family life.

    “Children with RAD are however more likely to be cruel to animals or other people or destructive towards property. They often show a preoccupation with such things as fire, blood, death or gore. Autistic children as well as those with RAD may avoid eye contact, but RAD children do make eye contact particularly when lying.”

    This is part of the fringe science – people like Elizabeth Randolph wrote it up in the early 1990s when attachment disorder was popularised as a diagnosis. It has never been part of the research. There is a separate phenomenon known as Adopted Child Syndrome which uses these things -> Change of Heart [Elvis film from 1969 – Robert Zaslow was consultant {!!!!}] -> Child of Rage in 1989/1992. [true story/movie]

    Especially the bit about making eye contact when lying. There is a lot of bad science about lying and eye contact, anyway. Or rather pop science.

    Fire and gore – this is more to do with incipient antisocial personality disorder? [or if we were pushing it; schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder]. It might be more usually a strong fear of any of the four.

    A obsession with death might be similar but different.

    And destruction of property – the reasons would be a distinguishing feature.

    That paragraph is a lot of demonising of children and young people. I had thought Eaton would know this and try not to do it. Or is it from another source?

    Yes – autistic people do have attachment issues.

    And the diagnosis of attachment has become much more subtle between 1994 and 2013 – at least in the American texts. Back in the 1990s we had a very blunt instrument. And it would hit children a lot.

    One thing that has changed is the “developmental age of nine months”.

    Will be very interested to see how Eaton deals with disruptive behaviour disorders and personality disorders.

    Like

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