Autism and Disordered Eating

The relationship between autism and disordered eating is one worth exploring. The connection between the sensory experience of eating and the sensitive sensory experiences of those with Autism frequently intersects, and according to the recent research, there are strong links between autism and eating disorders.

Likelihood of Autism and Disordered Eating

In a review of eight different studies concerning the association between autism and disordered eating, researchers in a 2013 publication of European Eating Disorders Review found that individuals with eating disorders are more likely than those without an eating disorder are to be diagnosed with autism.1 While this does not mean that every person struggling with an eating disorder has autism, the study does suggest that autism is more prevalent among patients with eating disorders when compared to the general population.

Common Characteristics of Autism and Disordered Eating

There are some traits that appear to be shared between autism and disordered eating. According to the results of a 2017 study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, participants with anorexia nervosa scored similarly to those with a diagnosis of autism on an assessment measuring obsessive-compulsive traits, as well as on a test of the ability to recognize emotions in others.2 A second study, published in 2014 in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia, and Obesity, found that individuals who scored higher on an assessment of autism spectrum disorder also scored higher on a scale measuring eating disorder symptoms.3 This indicates that people who demonstrate behaviors more characteristic of autism also demonstrate more traits associated with disordered eating.

Treatment Outcomes for Clients with Autism and Disordered Eating

While there is a link between autism and disordered eating, this does not suggest that treatment is impossible for clients diagnosed with both disorders. In fact, a 2014 study in European Eating Disorders Review found that among clients in treatment for anorexia nervosa, those who demonstrated higher levels of autism symptomology were more likely to complete treatment when compared to clients who displayed lower levels of characteristics related to autism.4

Treatment is a viable option for patients experiencing both autism and disordered eating. Based on the research, there are clear links between autism and disordered eating, with some similar traits seen in both autism and eating disorders. Perhaps this link can be partially explained by obsessive tendencies; individuals with autism may tend to display this trait, which in turn could lead to fixations on weight and body image. Future research will provide additional clarity.


References

  1. Autism Spectrum Disorders in Eating Disorder Populations: A Systematic Review
  2. Investigation of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Autistic Traits in an Adolescent Sample with Anorexia Nervosa
  3. Assessing the relationship between eating disorder psychopathology and autistic traits in a non-clinical adult population
  4. The Clinical Implications of High Levels of Autism Spectrum Disorder Features in Anorexia Nervosa: A Pilot Study

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