Autism And Anorexia: What’s The Relationship?
    By Laura Collins | September 6th 2009 07:02 AM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Until recently, I admired the autism parent community from afar. Like the parents who awakened and changed the schizophrenia treatment world, parents of autistic children have moved both treatment and public opinion about the disorder almost 180 degrees from where it had been.

    They did it fairly quickly, too: bringing autism from an obscure and stigmatized issue to a topic discussed openly in less than a generation.

    I’ve watched with wonder as the autism world has developed and changed. While public knowledge, research funding, and public services aren’t adequate, they’ve come so far.

    Along with increased visibility and power, however, conflict and controversy have followed. Passionate disagreement and painful divisions persist even as scientific progress is made. Those who should be allies remain at odds over issues like vaccination and whether autism is a disability or a ‘neurodifference.” The search for cause, effective intervention, and acceptance of people with autism and autism spectrum disorders have divided and splintered the advocates working so hard for the same purpose: improved lives.

    I’m a parent advocate for what would seem to be an unrelated issue: eating disorders. So it has been with particular interest that I see the main drivers of the autism movement have been parents – just as it was with schizophrenia. 

    As has been recently reported, most notably in a recent article in Time Magazine, it may turn out that the autism world and the eating disorder world have more in common than both having once been blamed on parents. The symptoms of anorexia could very well be an alternate manifestation of autism: rigidity of focus – in this case on aspects of diet and body image, - difficulty interpreting the emotions of others, and becoming easily overwhelmed by emotions.

    Although I see the potential for cross pollination – we may learn more about both autism and anorexia as we examine the relationship – I also see the potential for increased divisions. The eating disorder world is often resistant to biological “determinism,” and the autism world may not welcome bedfellows from another controversial and internally divided constituency.

    Parent advocates from both autism and eating disorders may not care to take on the burdens of each other’s stigmatized positions – but I have confidence we eating disorder advocates have a great deal to learn from the autism world about advocacy, fierce parenting, and controversy.


    I'm the parent of a child with autism--one of those fierce, tenacious, and, when absolutely necessary, litigious parents-- and have often wondered how we are viewed by other parent advocates of children with different conditions and disorders. It's true, that today, we do seem to be a force to be reckoned with, but until the creation of Autism Speaks, and the repeated media coverage particularly from the New York Times and later, NBC, we were extremely dispersed, with no political muscle and deeply entrenched in highly localized efforts for a very long period of time. Unfortunately, what catapulted us to the forefront was a frightening statistic from the CDC: 1 in 150 has autism. Where i live, in NJ, it is one in 94. It means almost everyone knows someone, either by first or second degree, with autism. I think when any condition reaches pandemic proportions, it would experience the same notoriety. Strength in numbers. But really, who wants that?

    I found your blog very interesting and the parallels between autism and anorexia to be compelling. Have you considered what the potential affects of applied behavior analysis (the most common treatment for effecting lasting behavioral change in autism) might have on those with anorexia? I can see how some of the methods and tools could potentially have a significant impact on those with anorexia and their families.

    Laura Collins
    This is SUCH a good question, and one that illustrates the kind of cross-pollination that may be helpful to BOTH conditions (or, if they are forms of one another, then "this brain disorder")

    I don't know whether this has been explored yet, though some of the newer approaches to anorexia seem to be parallel: like Cognitive Remediation and CBT and DBT techniques.

    There is a great deal we could and I believe should be exploring that will draw from the autism world. I hope, in turn, that this work will feed back to help the autism world as well.
    Laura Collins
    This really a good question and we have think about it.I don't know whether this has been explored yet, though some of the newer approaches to anorexia seem to be parallel: like Cognitive Remediation and CBT and DBT techniques.
    It should be noted that "food issues" are widespread in people with autism -- from overeating, to highly limited food selection, to significant aversions. Some children will not eat solid foods and others nothing soft. Some will eat certain foods at home but not out. If foods do not look or taste identical in different places, good chance it will be refused. Trying foods can set the occasion for major tantrums at any age. It took three years for my son to accept eating a sandwich. It is not uncommon for a person with autism, when introduced to a new food, to gag or vomit at the sight of it. It does make one wonder about the parallels.

    the big connection, l think, is the feeling of deep anxiety, and emotional pain within the stomach - l grew up thinking everyone felt this, but it seems they don't. When food is added it can become an almost unbareable feeling as though life is out of control - the stomach is central to the l guess can feel central to life itself...

    I have a son with autism and a daughter with anorexia. The connection between the two makes perfect sense to me, and it answers a lot of questions.