A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2020 | Number 2, Volume 34

Infants’ differences in “attachment security” may be early ASD indicator

Abnormalities in a behavior called attachment security may be an early clue that a child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a new study. 

Katherine Martin and colleagues studied 15-month-old infants at high risk for ASD because they had a sibling with the condition. Sixteen of the infants in the group later developed ASD, compared to 40 who did not. The study also included a control group of 39 low-risk infants, none of whom later developed ASD. 

The researchers used a test called the Strange Situation Procedure to evaluate behaviors related to attachment. In this test, infants are briefly separated from a parent on two occasions. 

Many babies cry or are otherwise distressed when a parent leaves and they are left with a stranger. However, secure babies are soothed when the parent returns, while babies classified as “insecure-resistant” are not. Study coauthor Daniel Messinger says that these babies “not only cry when the parent leaves, but they never really settle down when the parent returns, which indicates that the infants are not confident in their ability to be calmed.” Also, secure babies tend to explore their surroundings while their parents are present, while insecure-resistant babies explore their environment less. 

The researchers found that high-risk infants categorized as insecure-resistant were more than nine times more likely to receive an ASD diagnosis by the time they were three years of age than high-risk infants with secure attachments. Messinger says, “There are a lot of questions about when early indications of autism emerge, and this is a pretty strong risk signal at 15 months among infants who have an older sibling with ASD. And while we can’t stop future ASD diagnoses, this suggests we should… consider attachment-related interventions for high-risk infants who show insecurity. We don’t do that at all right now.”


“Attachment security differs by later autism spectrum disorder: a prospective study,” Katherine B. Martin, John D. Haltigan, Naomi Ekas, Emily B. Prince, and Daniel S. Messinger, Developmental Science, February 20, 2020 (epub prior to print publication). Address: Daniel S. Messinger, Department of Psychology, University of Miami, P.O. Box 248185, Coral Gables, FL 33124, [email protected]


“Researchers find an early behavioral marker for autism,” news release, University of Miami, March 13, 2020.