Thursday, 1 February 2018

Autism and Anorexia: Possible Links

by Eleanor Barber



Autism and anorexia are both stigmatised in society. When a society is quick to judge and condemn those who are different, it leads to damaging and lasting effects on both the individual and society. However, there are many people and organisations that are focused on helping people and finding more about these disorders. Interestingly, there are links between these conditions that we are missing, which could be beneficial to the wider community. Despite initial thoughts that autism and anorexia are not linked, it seems that there are specific traits in each that make suffering both almost unbearable to live with.

Many psychologists point to modern Western culture, with its high beauty standards for both genders, to explain anorexia. However, early genetic studies in the 1990s suggested that anorexia is strongly heritable and tends to run in families. There are other theories which link anorexia to personality traits like, anxiety, perfectionism and a tendency to get stuck on certain thoughts or ideas. A small  trait of autism is the inability to deal with change and being obsessive, which links with one of the personality aspects associated with anorexia.

In the early 2000s, Nancy Zucker wanted to better understand the social and cognitive difficulties of her patients with eating disorders. She noticed that, although they tended to be empathic, they found it hard to recognise the impact of their behaviour on other people. “They can be very empathic and have a great desire to be accepted by other people, but they also seem a bit impervious to how their starvation affects others” Zucker says. This is very similar to those with autism. In 2007, Zucker and her colleagues outlined potential links between autism and anorexia in a article which revealed how similar the conditions can be. The review pointed to many studies of people with anorexia who have rigid thinking and behavioural patterns, which is a trait commonly associated with autism. Neurocognitive studies have showed that people with anorexia have problems with switching between tasks, which again is commonly associated with autism.

Janet Treasure [2014] did a study that found that, while only 4% of 150 girls receiving outpatient treatment at a London clinic, 1 in 4 patients scored above the cutoff for autism on a screening questionnaire. A previous study done by Treasure in 2012, found that anorexia seems to increase the autism traits that clinicians and researchers see. Even after recovery many women continue to struggle with social issues, although less than when they were ill.

William Mandy suggests that autism could be a particular risk factor for developing a restrictive eating disorders. This is due to the mixed traits that encompass many of the same stigmas with both conditions. Most of the traits are very similar in both and allow one to be overlooked in the case of another. For girls they are more likely to get the diagnosis of an eating disorder before autism, whereas boys are more likely to get diagnosed with autism. This could be due to incorrect societal views about which is more a  feminine or manly condition to have. However this does not solve the problem as neither diagnosis will allow people to get the help they really need, as, if a person has both conditions, one cannot be solved or dealt with probably without the other.

In the past 5 to 10 years, researchers have noticed the overlap, although it is not known how many people are affected by both of these. However some researchers are still unconvinced that anorexia has a link to autism as many patients get better with social cues and other traits after recovery. However most of  these researchers understand that there is a small subgroup of  people with both autism and anorexia that could benefit greatly from further research being done in this area.

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