Eating disorders are mental health conditions that can affect almost anyone. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (n.d.), eating disorders affect about 9% of the entire population. Moreover, about twenty percent of adults and three percent of children who have eating disorders also are diagnosed with autism (Dattaro, 2020).
As the link between autism and eating disorders are not definite, researchers are not able to suggest the cause of the overlap, or if one condition leads to the other. Eating disorders are underdiagnosed in boys(National Autistic Society, n.d.). and leaving it untreated can be dangerous. Hence, in this article, we will be looking further into the link between autism and eating disorders, examples of eating disorders, and some signs of an eating disorder.
The Link Between Autism and Eating Disorders
As mentioned, it is unclear why individuals with autism are more likely to develop eating disorders. It is common that individuals without autism develop eating disorders due to body image and weight. In contrast, individuals with autism tend to develop eating disorders from childhood due to (National Autistic Society, n.d.):
Low awareness on hunger – not being able to tell if they are hungry, or being unable to tell someone that they are hungry
Sensory issues regarding food – repulsion towards certain smells, tastes, or textures of food
Obsessions with certain aspects regarding food – for example, obsessions over counting calories to regulate anxiety
Rigidity towards routines regarding food – for example, needing to eat the same food everyday due to anxiety and difficulty around breaking routines
Different Types of Eating Disorders
Individuals can develop many different types of eating disorders. Some examples include (NHS, 2021):
o Where an individual purposely does not consume enough food or liquids in fear of weight gain or to keep their weight as low as possible
o Where an individual may go through an episode binging, where they eat large amounts of food in a short period of time and take extreme measures to counter feelings of guilt – such as purging (self-induced vomiting), taking laxatives, or overexercising
Binge Eating Disorder
o Where an individual eats a large amount of food in a short period of time until they are uncomfortably full, and often feel guilty after the binging episode
Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
o Where an individual avoids or limits consumption of certain types of food due to aversion towards the smell, taste, or texture; or a past negative association towards certain types of food
These are only a few examples of eating disorders among many. Anorexia Nervosa seems to be the least common disorder in individuals without autism, but seems to be the most common eating disorder in individuals with autism (National Autistic Society, n.d.).
Signs of an Eating Disorder
It may be more difficult to identify eating disorders in individuals with autism, as symptoms between each condition tend to overlap. However, here are some warning signs (NHS, 2021):
Drastic weight loss
Rigid routines over food/and or how they eat
Consistently consuming food at a fast pace
Avoiding eating with others or in a social setting
Pre-teens not getting their period or delayed puberty
Changes in behaviour – more irritable, more tired/exhausted, decreased awareness/alertness
If left untreated, eating disorders can be dangerous, especially for children who are unaware of the consequences. If you note any of these signs, it wouldn’t hurt to get it checked out or ask a professional for advice. Having proper and nutritious meals are important in helping a child grow and reach their full potential!
Written by Ashely.
Dattaro, L. (2020, June 04). Autism traits in childhood linked to eating disorders IN adolescence: Spectrum: Autism research news. Retrieved from https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/autism-traits-in-childhood-linked-to-eating-disorders-in-adolescence/
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (2021, March 03). Eating disorder statistics: General & diversity stats: Anad. Retrieved from https://anad.org/get-informed/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/
National Autistic Society. (n.d.). Eating disorders - a guide for autistic adults. Retrieved from https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/mental-health/eating-disorders/autistic-adults
NHS. (2021, February 12). Nhs choices. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/behaviours/eating-disorders/overview/