Autism, aspergers, and anorexia

Hot topic in the ED world: how symptoms associated with autism may related to anorexia.

In the UK at the Maudsley, and in the US at Duke, researchers are exploring characteristics that may cause, exacerbate, or maintain anorexia nervosa.

Perhaps most interesting is that, as usual, the UK reports emphasize innate personality features like "inability to change rules," "perfectionism," and a "tendency to fixate on details." In the US, the emphasis is on learning and interpersonal skills: difficulty reading the emotions of others, anxiety in social situations.

Autism from two angles. Eating disorders from two angles.

This line of thought is upsetting some, fascinating me. I've heard offense taken in some circles, as if even discussing a link crosses some boundary. As if the pie of public interest is too small to share.

This is an interesting intersection of an illness once thought to be caused/chosen and one with many advocates eager to hold on to that conception. The parallels in terms of how parents, in particular, have been treated, are striking. And parents of kids with EDs, I believe, could learn a lot from autism advocates.


  1. Wow how interesting? You know I recently read a startling statistic on the funding that goes into research around eating disorders….

    “Research dollars spent on eating disorders averaged $1.20 per affected individual, compared to $159 per affected individual for schizophrenia”

    I think that needs to change…I think it relates to your post because maybe through research the deeper factors that contribute or cause the illness would be discovered.

  2. I've said it before, but that's not going to stop me is it ;-). In this small corner of the UK, autism doesn't get much of a look in in terms of support for parents or sufferers (particularly adult ones) either. The prejudice against parents of asperger's sufferers is just as real as that against those with eating disorders and their carers. That's not to say the vast majority of people think that parents CAUSE either Autism or ED's, but down on the ground in day to day life, many many people both professional and lay, are still of the opinion that better parents would control the symptoms of both.

  3. You bring up an important perspective, M. I am very US-centric sometimes and need to know these things!

  4. S.B., what an appalling statistic. There is SO MUCH work to be done!

  5. The Eating Disorders Coalition website has a fairly new discussion of efforts to increase federal funding for ED research. EDC believes one problem is that grant applications for ED research are often reviewed by reviewers who don't have experience with EDs. So it's harder to get the grants. EDC is trying to change that.

  6. Hi Laura: This is my first post in your blog but this topic is fascinating to me. As the mother of an Aspie son and an AN daughter I am in a unique situation. I have found so much more effort, research, emphasis on early intervention, available therapies in the schools, help so that the child will adjust in the world, etc. in the realm of PDD than in the world of EDs. I was the learner in the PDD world with the experts giving me pretty confident answers that made sense and were helpful. In the ED world, people throw their hands up and stand by helplessly or worse give you dangerous advice. I had to take a crash course in ED and become the expert to take charge in the fight to save our daughter. What an abysmal difference! I hope that this study helps to bring attention to the fact that EDs are also biologically based illnesses. Once illnesses (previously thought of as mental/emotional)get clasified as such they seem to gain credibility among the medical community. Maybe at that point the Medical Doctors will be completely involved in the treatment of a child with an ED as opposed to shoving them to the Psychologist and forgetting about their disorder.


  7. But how do you explain the recovery from anorexia, while people with asperger never get better?

  8. Let me take that in both directions. One, people with Aspergers do get treatment - there are therapies, skills, lifestyle changes and adjunct drugs that improve lives and maximize the special qualities of the spectrum. Many people with aspergers are not diagnosed, finding niches in life that work for their unique skills and interests.

    With anorexia, keep in mind that only 50% of patients do recover. 10% die. If autistic traits are in play in some or all, the opportunities to improve lives and be better understood are enormous.

    And with anorexia, we know that ANY level of malnourishment exacerbates these traits and thought patterns. Since we generally leave it up to the patient whether they EVER reach or stay at an optimal nutritional level we may very well be leaving a lot of people stuck in dysfunctional brain patterns that would be improved and in many cases ERASED by proper nutrition.

    A young person who grows up and has brain patterns wired in malnourishment (and perhaps autism spectrum patterns) is missing out on "normal" development and communication.

    Learning more about possible intersections between anorexia and autism may lead to better understanding of both.

    1. I am a recovery example of an ED, but there is not a day that goes by that im not tempted by my worst anorexia habits. I feel its a part of me, a disease I fight every day. Just like a high functioning autistic, I do very well for myself, but this research has opened my eyes to the fact that this disorder is beyond my mental control. It is apart of me. It's how I react to the world for better or for worse. I am enthused at the fact that anorexia is getting more attention than a vain disorder. Its a serious affliction that deserves research

  9. Laura, you mention the interesting similarities in personality between people with anorexia and people with autism. Researchers are still examining this connection, and now scientists are examining the possibility of a genetic predisposition that people with the two diseases share. TIME magazine recently published a fascinating article on the topic, highlighting some striking statistics, including that, according to research, 15-20% of people suffering from anorexia also suffer from Aspberger’s syndrome.
    The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt just wrote a blog entry on the possible links between anorexia and autism in response to the TIME article. We’d love for you to check it out at Let us know what you think!

  10. I had been arguing with my close friend on this issue for quite a while, base on your ideas prove that I am right, let me show him your webpage then I am sure it must make him buy me a drink, lol, thanks.

    - Kris

  11. My daughter has aspergers though most people just think she is shy, and she is anorexic - sigh.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts