Contributor: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, President of Eating Disorder Hope
It is clear that autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and anorexia nervosa (AN) have some similarities. Both groups demonstrate a lower capacity for empathy, difficulty set shifting and rigid attitudes. These traits often come across to most of us as “uptight” or “tightly wound” and “cold” or “impersonal”.
It is commonplace in our society to blame eating disorders on media hype worshipping “thinness” and environmental trauma, but underlying biological issues are not as frequently considered. What if the underweight, picky eater who gags when faced with certain foods has more going on than meets the eye?
What if she restricts her eating because she cannot tolerate ingesting many foods due to underlying autism spectrum disorder traits and not because of weight concerns or trauma?
The Array of Genetic and Environmental Factors
Most of us would agree that it is important to consider the wide array of both genetic and environmental factors that contribute to disordered eating. After all, we want to continue to develop increasingly effective empirically supported treatments to help anorexia sufferers find recovery and healing.
So, the exploration of the autism and anorexia correlation is both profoundly important and promising.
Alienation Coupled with Sensitivity
It is interesting to note that two common environmental factors impacting the development of anorexia are (1) a sense of alienation coupled with (2) sensitivity to social pecking orders or popularity. This difficulty reading and gauging social cues is also typical in autism spectrum disorders.
It makes sense that these difficulties would probably cause a person struggling with anorexia to become a bit hypersensitive to how they fit in with others.
Additionally, some studies have indicated that individuals with anorexia nervosa and autism both benefit from administration of oxytocin. Researchers found that these individuals become better able to read social cues and socialize more effectively.
The Role of Oxytocin in Treatment
What is Oxytocin? It is the hormone and neurotransmitter made famous for its role in the feeling of “being in love”. It is a brain chemical made in the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. Let me assure you, this is one feel good brain chemical that is about as close to bliss as you will find!
So, perhaps a deficit in oxytocin is a significant contributing factor to anorexia in some individuals? And if so, how should our protocol for anorexia treatment change for these individuals?
Important questions and discussion on this topic are occurring among researchers and we have much hope that greater understanding of the neurobiology of anorexia, will result in more effective and sustained recovery from anorexia nervosa.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
Do you think you or someone you love suffers from a combination of autism and anorexia? What do you feel can be done to increase awareness and research of this issue?
- Szalavitz, M. (2014, March 12). A Medication to Treat Anorexia? Time.
- Oldershaw, A., Treasure, J., Hambrook, D., Tchanturia, K. and Schmidt, U. (2011), Is anorexia nervosa a version of autism spectrum disorders?. Eur. Eat. Disorders Rev., 19: 462–474. doi: 10.1002/erv.1069
- Baron-Cohen, S., Jaffa, T., Davies, S., Auyeung, B., Allison, C., & Wheelwright, S. (2013, January 1). Do girls with anorexia nervosa have elevated autistic traits? Molecular Autism, 24-24.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 21st, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com