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What Is the Relationship Between Autism and Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are on the rise in the United States, and with one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness, professionals strive to learn all they can about its impact. Educating on the importance of healthy relationships with food starts by understanding the relationship between eating disorders and other mental health conditions that contribute to their existence.

Autism is one of the more well-known developmental disabilities, but knowledge isn’t as widespread about its relationship with eating disorders. Understanding the two can help people with eating disorders and autism get the help they need when, where, and how they need it.

What Is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder caused by brain development differences. Many people with autism struggle to communicate effectively and require different ways of learning simple or complex topics. People with autism tend to have varying interests and hobbies and ways they behave while engaging in these activities. They may also struggle with any of the following:

  • Cognitive learning skills
  • Hyperactivity or inattentive behavior
  • Epilepsy or seizures
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Lack of fear or increased fear of certain activities

Autism can challenge performing everyday tasks, which extends into getting adequate nutrition. Many of these factors make it more likely that autistic people struggle with binge-eating disorder or anorexia nervosa. By understanding this in detail, we can help address deficient eating behaviors that some autistic people might partake in.

Are Eating Disorders Common in People With Autism?

People with autism are a group highly affected by eating disorders, especially because eating disorders in autistic people aren’t well understood. As a result, it’s far too common to find autistic people with restricted eating behaviors or insufficient eating habits that are high-risk autism factors.

Anywhere from 4% to 23% of people with eating disorders are autistic, although the exact correlation isn’t well understood. Many studies have also shown that children with difficulties socially between the ages of 7 and 11 are more likely to partake in restricted or repetitive eating behaviors. While the causes vary (some factors, such as anxiety and depression, can cause behavioral changes that mimic autism), it’s clear that eating disorders and autism have a strong correlation.

The Relationship Between Food and Autism

Dieting is one of the major concerns that lead to autistic people with eating disorders. Some people more genetically predisposed to eating disorders can often kick-start the process with a limited diet. As for people with autism, studies show they aren’t more likely than anyone else to come down with an eating disorder, but their attention to detail and fixation on certain interests make them more likely to stick with a rigid routine.

Additionally, because people with autism naturally find it difficult to eat because of constipation, sensitivity to taste, and a desire for sameness makes it more likely they’ll already have a more limited diet. Unlike neurotypical people who typically fall into inadequate eating habits due to body image, autistic people with eating disorders seem to be set back by the societal and bodily restrictions the condition places on them.

Do Emotions Play a Role?

One factor that may contribute emotionally to the development of eating disorders in people with autism is a condition called alexithymia, or the inability to discern and identify emotions. This condition can range from minor to more severe, and someone with autism and alexithymia can find it hard to determine their feelings and what they mean. Research is still ongoing, but alexithymia can make it difficult for people with autism to combat eating disorder symptoms, discern when it’s a good idea to eat food (or when their body wants it) and make it difficult to control eating desires. Preliminary research has yet to identify the true correlation, but most researchers believe that alexithymia plays a role in the development and prevalence of eating disorders in people with autism.

Finding the Right Treatment for Eating Disorders — Regardless of What Causes Them

Autism treatment for eating disorders tends to be more complex due to the nature of coping with multiple conditions and the fact that many treatments are not designed for people with autism. Suffice it to say finding a growing and adaptable eating disorder treatment center is the best way to get the perfect treatment for eating difficulties, no matter the cause.

Toledo Center for Eating Disorders is a fast-growing treatment center for adults and adolescents, with offerings such as residential care for eating disorders and so many more ways to help individuals with troubled relationships with food. Finding the right treatment center isn’t easy, but Toledo Center has plenty of effective treatment processes for various eating disorders and related conditions. Be sure to contact us today or give us a call at 419-885-8800 to learn more about why our treatment programs are right for you.



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