Eating Disorders and Autism

Teen having an emotional moment

Researchers are looking into the connection between eating disorders and autism [1]. It’s important to understand how these two conditions can influence each other. This can help mental health professionals to provide the most effective treatment.

Autism is the result of atypical neurological features. This shows up as someone not having the same social skills or ways of approaching relationships that people without autism have. People with autism also have repetitive and rigid behavior or interests.

An example of this rigidity is being very particular to sensory input from their surroundings. One way this can overlap with eating disorders is that someone with autism may not be willing to eat things with certain textures or smells.

It can be difficult to tease apart what behaviors are a result of an eating disorder versus autistic traits. This is because there are some overlapping characteristics between eating disorders and autism [1].

Co-occurring Concerns with Eating Disorders

This is a common challenge in treating co-occurring disorders. Someone has co-occurring disorders when they have two conditions at the same time. Research is showing that autistic traits may influence the type of eating disorder that someone has [1].

People with autism are shown to be more likely to struggle with binge eating disorder [1]. Binge eating disorder is an eating disorder that is characterized by eating an amount of food that is larger than what most people would eat in the same amount of time. These binges then lead to someone feeling guilty, disgusted, and distressed.

Researchers believe this may be due to people with autism being afraid of vomiting [1]. This fear of vomiting may be because of the hypersensitivity to sensory things [1].

Child with childhood eating disordersAnother eating disorder that is common among people with autism is Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) [2]. In fact, 20% of people diagnosed with ARFID have autism. ARFID is an eating disorder that leads to people being malnourished because they are avoiding food.

The difference between ARFID and other eating disorders is that the restriction isn’t because they are afraid of gaining weight. People with ARFID often restrict for sensory reasons, such as not liking soft foods or foods that are green. Other reasons may be a lack of interest in eating or being afraid of vomiting, or needing to use the bathroom after eating.

Another factor in co-occurring eating disorders and autism is the rigidity in the way they think. People with eating disorders tend to use very black-and-white thinking. An example of black-and-white thinking is, “Either someone is all good or all bad.”

This is a very rigid way of thinking because there isn’t any room for the middle ground. This can be even more extreme in people with autism [1]. Researchers suggest that when treating co-occurring eating disorders and autism, it is important to help them cope with any stressors related to changing any of their eating patterns. This is important because the stress can lead to more restrictive behavior.

Just like with any co-occurring disorder, it’s important for treatment professionals to know how to treat both. This is because, without this, the disorders can feed into each other and create a barrier to recovery.


References:

[1] Numata, N., Nakagawa, A., Yoshioka, K., Isomura, K., Matsuzawa, D., Setsu, R., Nakazato, M., & Shimizu, E. (2021). Associations between autism spectrum disorder and eating disorders with and without self-induced vomiting: An empirical study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9(5), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-020-00359-4

[2] National Eating Disorders Association. (2018). Statistics and Research on Eating Disorders. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders


About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published February 19, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on February 19, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.