Can the effects of social deprivation be mistaken for autism?

Can the impact of social deprivation can affect child development in a way that looks like autism? This question has always interested me. 

Many years ago, I was presenting housing cases to a mental health panel, so that we could assess the needs of each individual or family. Referring to one child with developmental difficulties, I asked whether the effects of social deprivation could mimic autism.  By social deprivation I don’t mean, say, living in poverty or poor housing conditions. It refers to the family or caring environment in which the child’s emotional development takes place. For example, if parents or care-givers are not emotionally attuned to the child, the child may be less able to learn to relate to others emotionally and socially [1].  This is also a feature of autism. Judging by the eye-rolling of one psychiatrist, I might as well have asked whether a blood transfusion could fix a broken leg.

Years later, as a psychotherapist, I often work with people whose childhoods have impacted heavily on how their adult lives. So, it is important for me to understand, as best I can, how a particular client’s difficulties may have developed. 

The origins of autism

Back then, I did not realise that theory on the origins of autism was so contentious.  Or that the profession had only recently debunked the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory. This is the idea that disruption of the mother-child relationship because she is cold or distant or neglectful causes autism.  The psychiatrist’s eye-roll may have been impatience at my seeming to revisit a discredited idea. Either way, this question still holds some validity in my mind and has intrigued me ever since.

Non-genetic factors in the development of autism

Unsurprisingly Mandy and Lai’s paper on the role of non-genetic factors in the development of autism[2] caught my eye.  Research has suggested that autism is one of the developmental conditions most rooted in genetic causes. However, the pendulum seems to have swung somewhat the other way. The paper cites genetic factors as accounting for a little more than half.  Not only that, but environmental interventions can potentially reduce susceptibility to autism, reduce symptoms and modify the course of its development.

The paper does not focus on my question, namely whether the impact social of deprivation can mimic autism. Nonetheless, it provides some pointers on this issue. 

Research on the role of non-genetic factors in autism

Mandy and Lai summarise existing research on the role of non-genetic factors. This suggests that very severe deprivation in the first year of life may lead to autistic-like difficulties. This conclusion derives from studies of children adopted in the UK and Netherlands who experienced severe deprivation whilst living in Romanian orphanages.

In the UK study, 11% of the children, aged six, showed features which closely resembled autism. Such difficulties were more common in the children who had suffered the worst, meaning very little reciprocated social and emotional contact with adults.  The Netherlands study found comparable features in 16% of children aged 8. And in another study of such children, aged 10, they also had difficulties with social communication.

Critically, the condition of the six year olds was labelled ‘quasi-autism’ as many of them showed features that were not classically autistic. Moreover, their condition did not follow the trajectory normally found in autism. Also, the equal male-female ratio was different from the male predominance found in autism.

In other studies, children who lacked reciprocal social experience due to congenital blindness (rather than poor care) sometimes met the criteria for autism but were not quite typical of it. They also fared much better in later life than those with autism and were not regarded as autistic on reaching adolescence. A study of nurses with high autisic traits found they were more likely to have experienced abuse in childhood. 

What can we learn from this?

The paper suggests that the autistic-like difficulties arising from social deprivation do not generally lead to a syndrome identical to unexplained autism or fulfil the autism diagnosis. It seems there are observable differences. So, given sufficient time, the developmental impact of social deprivation on a child can be distinguished from autism.  

However, my original question stemmed from wondering whether someone might be mistakenly diagnosed as autistic when their difficulties were in fact caused by social deprivation.  The answer seems to be: ‘potentially yes’.  Social deprivation at the more severe end of the scale can produce autistic-like difficulties in young children. This includes includes increased difficulties with social communication and flexibility that persist in later life. This was true for the nurses, for example, though this was a correlation and not causally linked.

I am not clear from this paper  how easily or how early in a child’s development a psychologist or paediatrician would be able to distinguish between the two. It does seem likely, however, that it would need a specialist to do so.

Final thoughts as a psychotherapist

The increased public awareness of autism affects how my psychotherapy clients think about their difficulties. This is partly because some autism-related terminology has firmly entered the popular vocabulary. Clients, especially younger ones,  are now much more likely to tell me that they think they are ‘on the spectrum’ or ‘neuro-atypical’, or ask me whether I think they are. Research on autism and related conditions continues apace and I am always glad to hear of further research in this field.  

Further reading

[1] For an example of social deprivation at home and also later in institutions, have a read of

[2] Mandy, W. & Lai, M-C. (2016). Annual research review: the role of the environment in the developmental psychopathology of autism spectrum condition. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 57:3, 271-292

[3] More on counselling for abuse and neglect in childhood