Five times more girls with anorexia scored into the autism range and well over half with ‘broader autism phenotype’, meaning they have some similar traits. This was especially true on the systemising questionnaire, showing many of the AN patients had an above average interest in systems, leading the authors to suggest that eating may have become another system, concerning body weight, shape and food intake.
On the outside, however, the disorders couldn’t seem any less similar. Anorexia is an eating disorder characterised by a refusal to maintain a minimum bodyweight and an obsession with food and weight; environmental pressures, genetic predisposition, family situations and body dysmorphia are all major risk factors. However, in this research it is explained how the word Autism literally means an exclusive focus on ‘the self’, not too dissimilar from some of the characteristics of an eating disorder where an individual is very preoccupied with themselves and their body. So could anorexia in some cases be a byproduct for those with autism who have systemized their eating habits to the extreme?
Certainly both disorders share deficits in emotional intelligence, as tested with advanced Theory of Mind tests, in layman’s terms this refers to an individuals ability to infer the mental state of others and to ’empathise’. Both groups also struggle on tests of emotion recognition in faces. Whether or not this is the negative side effect of starvation for the anorexia group remains to be seem, although studies testing anorexia patients after recovery seem to dispel this theory as results remain similar.
Tony Atwood explains how concerns regarding food intake or the diagnosis of an eating disorder can be what sparks assessments for Asperger’s. Sensory issues with food seem to be the biggest problem for folk on the spectrum, but what may also play a significant role is a need for control. Food can be controlled, it can be systemised and provide routine, for an individual with Asperger’s who has become incredibly anxious and has become adept at hiding their disorder, food control may provide great comfort and is not necessarily obvious to those around them. To have an eating disorder requires an incredible amount of will power, determination and obsession, all great strengths of an Aspie! The danger is in misdiagnosing those on the spectrum as only having an eating disorder and vice versa. Clearly those with autism and eating disorders require very specialised treatment and support and may not respond as well to classic eating disorder treatment.
Fortunately for me I have a similar amount of willpower as my hyperactive West Highland Terrier, an addiction to sweet foods, and manage to gain control in other areas of my life. It is not hard to see though how easily those autistic traits could form themselves into another disorder altogether with a life of its own.