Anorexia And Autism: Are They Related?

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder which is usually characterized by a disrupted ability to interact socially. This might mean that a person with autism has a restricted ability to understand verbal communication, such as speech and the intonation used in speaking to convey meaning. An autistic person might also fail to understand a lot of the nonverbal communication that humans use, such as facial expression and gestures.

Autism is characterized by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior. A person with autism might like to do the same thing in patterns each day, and get very distressed when their daily schedule is disrupted. Some researchers have noticed that the characteristics of autism are similar to the traits that some people display when they are suffering from certain eating disorders such as anorexia.

What is Anorexia?

When a person has anorexia, their behavior around food often becomes incredibly restricted. Other behaviors, such as work patterns and exercise regimen may also become regimented. Many people with anorexia hate to change their daily routine even slightly and will avoid doing so even if they understand that they are acting irrationally.

Food intake often becomes very restricted and a point of obsessive fixation. Many people with anorexia do not eat very much at all, but if they do eat, they like to eat the same foods every day. These are the foods that they consider to be ‘safe’ and may be very limited in variability. If left to themselves, many people with anorexia will eat the same set of foods for months. Introduction of any other food can be incredibly stressful, even if it is one that is nutritionally similar to one of their accepted “safe” foods.

Similarities Between Autism and Anorexia

Similarities between anorexia nervosa and autism spectrum conditions were first considered by Christopher Gillberg in the 1980s. He later proposed that anorexia should be thought of as an empathy disorder, meaning that sufferers have problems understanding the thoughts and feelings of other people. He also suggested that anorexia be placed on the same spectrum as autism.

According to researcher Simon Baron-Cohen who directs the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, patients with anorexia and patients with autism spectrum disorder both share a very narrow focus of attention; they are also often resistant to change in routine and notice details acutely.

A heightened sensitivity is characteristic of autism, especially when it comes to sound. Some researchers have been known to call this the “Jingle-Jangle” problem. Autistic people often get very stressed about certain sounds.

Some people with anorexia also display sensitivity to sounds, especially to the sounds of eating. Chewing, cutlery on plates etc. can be considered very distressing noises to some people that suffer from anorexia. Many researchers have observed these correlations and have been led to wonder if anorexia is a subject specific form of autism.

For the population of people with anorexia who restrict their food intake not because they want to be thin, but instead because they are obsessed with the routine nature of doing so, it may make sense to ask a psychologist about a diagnostic test for autism. The same is true for people with anorexia who are not afraid of gaining weight, but do have fear of some of the sensory aspects to eating.

It has been estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of people with anorexia may also have what used to be referred to a Asperger’s syndrome, but is now called an autism-spectrum disorder. More boys are diagnosed with autism than girls are, and this might be because anorexia is the way that autism more commonly presents itself in girls.

It has also been observed that the worse a sufferer’s degree of starvation becomes, the more autistic the behaviors observed. As he or she suffers a higher degree of malnutrition, the more rigid that their behaviors become and any mention of change creates an even greater degree of stress.

Research is currently being done to see if autism and anorexia can be traced to similar regions in the brain. A better understanding of these processes might lead towards improvements in treatment options for those who suffer from these disorders.

Return To Anorexia Nervosa

Return To Home Page

Written by Tabitha Farrar – 2014


A Genetic Link Between Anorexia and Autism?

Molecular Autism

Is Anorexia Nervosa a Version of Autism Spectrum Disorders?