Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behaviour. People with autism often have difficulties with sensory processing, which can affect their eating habits and food preferences. Research has shown that individuals with autism are at a higher risk of developing eating disorders, which can lead to serious health consequences if left untreated.
Understanding Autism and Eating Disorders
There are several factors that can contribute to the development of eating disorders in people with autism. One of the main factors is sensory processing difficulties. Individuals with autism may have a heightened sensitivity to certain textures, smells, and tastes, which can make them hesitant to try new foods or eat certain types of food. This can lead to a restricted diet, which can contribute to the development of eating disorders.
Another factor that can contribute to the development of eating disorders in people with autism is anxiety. People with autism often experience higher levels of anxiety than neurotypical individuals, which can lead to obsessive behaviors, including obsessive behaviors related to food and eating. This can include counting calories, obsessing over portion sizes, and avoiding certain foods altogether.
Data shows that eating disorders are more prevalent in individuals with autism than in the general population. One study found that up to 20% of individuals with autism may have an eating disorder, compared to 3% of the general population. Another study found that individuals with autism were more likely to have symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder than individuals without autism.
Seeking Help for Autism and Eating Disorders
It is essential to seek help if you or someone you know with autism is experiencing an eating disorder. Eating disorders can have serious health consequences, including malnutrition, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances. In severe cases, eating disorders can even be life-threatening.
There are several types of treatments available for eating disorders in individuals with autism. One approach is to address sensory processing difficulties through sensory integration therapy, which can help individuals become more comfortable with different textures, smells, and tastes of food. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can also be an effective treatment approach, as it can help individuals with autism learn coping strategies to manage their anxiety and obsessive behaviors related to food. Professor Kate Tchanturia has pioneered cognitive remediation therapy, cognitive and emotional processing, and developing clinical pathways for males.
In addition to therapy, it is also essential to work with a registered dietitian who has experience working with individuals with autism. A dietitian can help develop a healthy meal plan that considers any sensory issues or food aversions that may be present.
While national data estimates around one in five women who develop anorexia nervosa have autism, the National Specialist Eating Disorders Service at Maudsley Hospital found that 35% of the women they see – often women with the most challenging and long-standing eating disorders meet the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Working together with NHS patients, staff from South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, are developing accessible and tailored treatment for patients with a diagnosis of autism and an eating disorder, improving clinical outcomes and developing national guidance for NHS practice, as there are currently no guidelines for this patient group.
These videos from SLAM and Professor Kate Tchanturia, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, SLaM and IoPPN
ASD and AN Clinical Pathway (video link)
Peace Animation Final (video link)
The link between autism and eating disorders is complex and multifaceted. It is important to understand that individuals with autism may be at a higher risk of developing eating disorders and to seek help if necessary. With the right treatment and support, individuals with autism can learn to manage their eating disorders and improve their overall health and well-being.
Beyond Autism. (n.d.). Autism and Eating Disorders. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from https://www.beyondautism.org.uk/about-autism/understanding-autism/autism-and-eating/autism-and-eating-disorders/
CAMHS North Derbyshire. (n.d.). Anxiety in ASD. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from https://www.camhsnorthderbyshire.nhs.uk/anxiety-in-asd-3
Maudsley Charity. (n.d.). Supporting People with Autism Experiencing Eating Disorders. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from https://maudsleycharity.org/case-studies/supporting-people-with-autism-experiencing-eating-disorders/
Westwood, H., & Tchanturia, K. (2017). Autism Spectrum Disorder in Anorexia Nervosa: An Updated Literature Review.
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