Autism and Eating Disorders: A Problematic Connection

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In a previous
article
, I discussed how girls with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) often manifest eating disorders. Researchers at the Maudsley Hospital in London compared and contrasted autism and anorexia for several years and found that while patients with autism struggle to connect with people in the outside world and anorexics are obsessed with other people’s perceptions of them, there are still some compelling similarities between the two conditions. 

For example, both anorexics and individuals with autism exhibit obsessive/compulsive behavior and rigid
thinking. Tic disorders are fairly common among individuals in both populations and both have trouble dealing with change. Additionally, researchers found that some 20 percent of anorexic patients unknowingly
suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.

Dr. Tony Atwood, autism and AS expert, reports that early ritualistic behavior around food can be the precursor to eating disorders. Problematically, some girls with Asperger’s begin to treat their weight as their special interest, becoming obsessed by the science of calories as they pore over charts and tables.

Certainly, societal pressure for young women to be ultra thin is unhelpful and those with Asperger’s tend to be perfectionists, feeding into these issues of body image. 

The world of dance attracts this profile of young women and as a college dance major, I can attest that eating disorders were at an epidemic level in my department, where one could never be considered too thin.

Of course, anorexia is not exclusive to girls. For years, my son seemed to regard eating as a necessary evil and I worried that he was anorexic. It turned out that he had severe undiagnosed food allergies and subsequent gastrointestinal problems. Once changes in his diet were made, he began to enjoy food for the first time and his extreme emotional outbursts disappeared. Clearly, his aversion to food and his meltdowns had been expressions of suffering. 

Parents of young children with autism know well that eating issues arise early on since food poses such intense sensory challenges. Frequently, the child selects food for texture alone and it must be arranged in a particular way in order for them to consider it edible. Children with autism are frequently beyond picky in their eating habits. 

In trying to introduce a new food, it’s best to take it very slowly. Say you want to add carrots to your child’s diet. First, simply have carrots in the same room with your child, perhaps taking them out and washing them while he or she is in the kitchen. After they are comfortable with that, have them help you wash or otherwise handle them. Next, have some on the table. Finally, put a very small piece on their plate amongst all their other favorite foods. 

Keep doing that until they try it. Patience is key.

Eating disorders within the autism population can manifest at any time and it’s important to realize that children and adults on the spectrum are not immune to this problematic issue.