Anorexia caused by autism?

A Scottish professor says that severe cases of anorexia (are any cases mild?) in women may be caused by autism.
Autism, characterised by defects in communication and social interaction, also makes many anorexic patients unresponsive to traditional treatments and may be responsible for anorexia’s low recovery rates, according to Professor Christopher Gillberg, of the University of Strathclyde.
Although autism is thought to be a male problem, affecting up to four times more boys than girls, the disorder has been overlooked in women because their autistic traits present themselves differently, according to Prof Gillberg. An obsession with counting calories, for instance, may be an outward sign of autism.
“Our research has shown that a small but important minority of all teenage girls with anorexia nervosa in the general population meet diagnostic criteria for autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome or atypical autism. I’ve seen quite a number of cases where the anorexia has become completely entrenched because people haven’t understood that underlying the eating disorder is autism.”

Gillberg says that this would explain why traditional forms of treatment used for eating disorders, such as family therapy, doesn’t work for some women.
I’ve known many women with eating disorders, and there certainly is a good amount of obsessive compulsiveness going similar to autistic tendencies. But it’s unclear to me whether that’s the cause or an effect of the eating disorder.
Any thoughts?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted June 30, 2005 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I happen to be one of those sort of odd, “lite” cases, if you will (no pun intended!). My whole family is sort of food-obsessed (big ol’ Catholic family who literally would fight over food), so most of us have some sort of eating disorder. The interesting thing is, the disorders vary and in only one case is it health-threatening (1 extremely overweight sibling). From age 16 to 21, I starved myself a lot, and at 19 I remember losing 15 lbs in about 2 weeks and keeping them off for years, by obsessively counting calories and never going over around 800-900 calories a day.
    I still have a tinge of disorder but after 20 years of working on it, it’s not really a big issue at all. Why I call my case “lite” is because I understood exactly what my behavior was, I knew all about anorexia, and at some point I suppose I just didn’t want to be a victim of it. I didn’t get professional help at that time, I was able to slooooowly stop much of the behavior, intentional or not.
    What I have figured out from subsequent therapy is that I do suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, but again, I don’t have it nearly as severely as others (I’ve never gotten plastic surgery, a total trademark, or anything else to alter my appearance, which many do – jeeez, look at Michael Jackson! That’s as extreme a case of BDD as there can be!). I do still watch my weight but I’m not really obsessive about it, and I’m a normal, healthy weight.
    The reason I’m offering all this is to let you know that there are mild cases of anorexia, and people obviously do recover, so would that mean one can recover from autism?? I think it might be possible but I don’t know enough about it.
    I also do think my anorexic tendencies did grow out of a need for perfection, which is usually the case. A need to be perfect and in control. I wonder how that would tie in with autism.
    In any event, anorexia is such a horrible disease, and more power to the scientists that research the causes – and help develop treatment -because it’s really rampant in our society, which saddens me.
    And, yes, the treatment of women in our society helps it along in droves. Instead of being encouraged to be brilliant individuals and emphasising individuality and intelligence, girls are trying to live up to some grotesquely skewed feminine “ideal” that can only be reached by starving themselves down to a heroin chic weight.
    OK I ranted. Sorry!

  2. moon_custafer
    Posted July 1, 2005 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    That…makes a weird kind of sense, actually. Isn’t autism/aspergers thought to be linked with some digestive problems? So there could also be a connection in the person’s mind between eating/feeling sick…..

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