Eating Disorders and Autism: Has Research Identified a Connection?

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Special Projects Coordinator at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

With research investigating the many complex factors associated with eating disorders, scientists have been able to uncover possible links between anorexia nervosa and autism spectrum disorders.

Autism spectrum disorders are associated with certain behaviors that may overlap with anorexia, such as repetitive behaviors, abnormal social functioning, and complications with communication.

Autism and Sensitivity to Foods and Textures

In addition, individuals with autism spectrum disorders may display unusual feeding behaviors, such as a heightened sensitivity to smells, tastes, and textures of foods, which may lead to a refusal of consuming certain foods that are considered offensive.

Research has demonstrated that teenage girls who have a diagnosis with an autism spectrum disorder are at increased risk of experiencing eating disorder symptoms, compared to their peers without an autism spectrum disorder1. Also from research findings, 27 percent of girls with autism have reported symptoms that are parallel with eating disorder behaviors1.

How Sensory Difficulties Can Affect Nutrition

Pediatrics. Puppy toy with medical equipmentBecause of the many sensory difficulties that an individual with autism may experience, feeding and eating problems can be common occurrences. Children and adolescents with autism may also be an increased risk of digestive system abnormalities, including inflammatory bowel disease, esophagitis, gastritis, and enterocolitis, all which can contribute to related eating and feeding issues and difficulties1.

Because of the cognitive, behavioral, sensory, and biological challenges that an individual with autism may experience, eating can become a much more difficult feat. A person with autism may develop maladaptive eating behaviors in response to the challenges they are facing as an inadvertent way of coping with the many complications experienced.

These behaviors can develop into a more severe eating disorder if not appropriately addressed and treated.

Receiving Care for the Source of the Problem

Receiving care from a multi-disciplinary team can be invaluable in the care of an individual who is struggling with autism and eating disorders. This should include a physician, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, dietitian, and psychologist to address the many different factors that may be involved. Working through the many challenges that may be encountered with autism is possible with professional guidance of a specialized team.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What has been your experience with autism and an eating disorder? What evidenced based treatments have you seen be effective in addressing both autism and eating disorders?


 
References:

  1. “A Connection Between Anorexia Nervosa and Autism Spectrum Disorders?”, http://eatingdisordersreview.com/nl/nl_edr_23_2_6.html
  2. “Mealtime and Children on the Autism Spectrum: Beyond Picky, Fussy, and Fads”, http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Mealtime-and-Children-on-the-Autism-Spectrum-Beyond-Picky-Fussy-and-Fads

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 22nd, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

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