Lady eating grapes

Eating disorders and autism–what’s the link?

From the outside looking in, perhaps eating disorders and autism couldn’t look more different. Supposedly, people with autism aren’t attuned to their emotions, whereas people with eating disorders are highly sensitive and turn to food/eating behaviours to cope. But an eminent psychiatrist says:

Strip off the misconceptions, and the two conditions are far more similar than anyone believed.

Janet Treasure, director, eating disorders, Maudsley Hospital, London

It is therefore unsurprising that research has found that in groups of people with long standing eating disorders more than 20% had undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder.

Similarities include fixating on small details, with difficulty seeing the bigger picture and the need for rules, routines and rituals.

On a personal note, well before I was making sense of my life through the lens of autism, it was clear my eating disordered behaviours began as I struggled with changes at puberty. I couldn’t cope with hormones causing bodily and emotional changes that I didn’t understand. I remember specifically thinking I wanted to try and keep everything the same.

An autistic person may develop an eating disorder due to the following:

  • Not being able to sense hunger, this is due to impaired interception.
  • Sensory problems with food e.g. texture, smell, taste, leading to limitations in food tolerances.
  • An intense/restricted interest of counting calories or other specific food related activities – these routine and rules become very difficult to change.
  • High levels of anxiety.
  • Unintentional lying related to food intake or exercise activities.

This could be the perfect storm for developing a restrictive eating disorder (anorexia) but some autistic people could turn towards food and binging/purging behaviours in order to manage their emotions.

When compared to neurotypical counterparts research shows that weight and body shape are less important for autistic people.

Clinicians have managed patients of this kind (girls and women on the spectrum with/without a diagnosis) by increasing therapy that wasn’t working, but they’re now seeing that they have different recovery needs due to their autism:

“We always had this subset of patients who didn’t do very well in group therapy, and our response was, ‘Well, let’s put them in more groups,’ It just alienated them even more; now we know better. Providing a small range of food choices, as well as clarifying rules and expectations, also tends to help people with autism and eating disorders recover successfully.

Craig Johnson, Clinical Director, Eating Recovery Centre, Denver

I, too, have often heard clinicians make similar comments. I can understand the thought process, if patients struggle with group therapy, it can be an incredibly helpful process; noticing and understanding one’s impact on others is important and powerful in society as a whole.

However, an autistic person, struggling with an eating disorder, isn’t struggling with their relationships with others, they’re struggling with understanding internal processes, emotions and, the need for routine and the resistance to change isn’t just a preference it’s a neurotype.

It’s all too common for women to get struck in the mental health system, to be diagnosed with depression, bi-polar affective disorder, borderline personality disorder or eating disorders and only in their 20s, 30s or 40s find out that they actually have autism.

For some, when they receive a diagnosis of autism and appropriate support, their eating disorder disappears, read about Savannah’s experience here. For others, understanding that their “autistic brain [is] obsessing about numbers, patterns and sensations” helps them have a better relationship with themselves, read about Carrie’s experience here.

Therapy

For me, autism has helped me make sense of so much! My anorexia was a desperate attempt to keep things the same, it was a way to (try and) escape a very confusing world where I don’t understand how to fit in and it’s now making sense as to why it was so hard for me to recovery (every time I did, my mental wellbeing would deteriorate) and why I needed so much personal therapy from someone who threw the rule book out the window.

The sad fact is that anorexia has the highest mortality rate, 1/5 people with anorexia will die early, from suicide or malnutrition. However, there is hope, by raising awareness of autism, management of the eating disorder is possible and could set someone free. Combination of specialist therapy and medication to aid with the high levels of anxiety will most likely be required.

2 thoughts on “Eating disorders and autism–what’s the link?

  1. We kept being told with Johnathon that he was being awkward with food. He has a limited diet, but we just go with it. Now no one has ever suggested that he may struggle because of trying to work out his emotions etc. Thank you for such an insightful article

    1. People with autism aren’t being deliberately awkward, they’re often just taking longer to process sensory input and their emotions. It’s great you’re able to accept things as they are now. While I was researching this article I came across a number of page on the National Autistic Society Website, including this one I think they give some really good, simple tips; they sound like common sense but I think these may be traps that are easy to fall into when trying to manage eating difficulties over time. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

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