Eating disorders & the autism spectrum | Eating Disorders Victoria
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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that affects the way individuals interact and communicate with others. People on the autism spectrum have repetitive or restricted behaviours or interests, and often have sensory sensitivities. The word “spectrum” reflects that there are differing degrees by which people are affected. Some may require ongoing support and care, whereas others are able to live independent lives.

Eating difficulties are common in people on the autism spectrum. They may have highly selective eating requirements or be particularly sensitive to the textures, look, smell or sound of foods. In some cases, people with ASD eat or chew non-food items such as paper, soap or pebbles - this is known as pica. The social aspects of eating (such as sitting at a table with others, waiting until others are finished) can also be challenging. There may also be physical difficulties such as oral problems (difficulties chewing or swallowing) or gastrointestinal problems, which make eating a non-pleasurable experience. Some studies have shown that people with ASD may have a lower body weight than expected due to factors such as eating difficulties and general hyperactivity.

Several behavioural patterns and personality traits appear to be common to people with both anorexia and ASD. A 2013 study by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen found that the girls with ASD had lower empathy and a greater tendency to systemise (create and follow rules) than other people, as did the girls with anorexia. Both groups showed:

  • A strong interest in details and systems
  • A tendency to focus on themself
  • Inflexible behaviours and attitudes

The majority of people diagnosed with ASD are male, while the majority of people diagnosed with anorexia are female. It has been suggested in fact that some girls with ASD are being misdiagnosed or overlooked because they present to their doctors the symptoms of anorexia.

"Traditionally, anorexia has been viewed purely as an eating disorder. This is quite reasonable, since the girl's dangerously low weight, and their risk of malnutrition or even death has to be the highest priority. But this new research is suggesting that underlying the surface behaviour, the mind of a person with anorexia may share a lot with the mind of a person with autism. In both conditions, there is a strong interest in systems. In girls with anorexia, they have latched onto a system that concerns body weight, shape, and food intake." Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.

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