The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Anorexia & Autism


In our previous blog, The Science of Eating Disorders, we discussed the importance of ongoing research regarding the genetic origins of eating disorders.  This focus has many implications for improving prevention, identification and treatment efforts.  One example of this topic was highlighted in a recent Time Magazine article focusing on new research that uncovered possible genetic links between anorexia and autism.  Autism is a brain development disorder that develops prior to age three and affects boys at a much higher rate than girls.  In comparison, anorexia nervosa (AN) affects females at a higher rate than males, and the average age of onset is between 14 and 18.  While on the surface these two disorders may seem like unlikely partners, recent research and clinical observations may prove differently.  In fact, according to the article, research suggests that approximately 15% to 20% of patients with AN may also have Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the Autism Spectrum.  The Time Magazine article addresses possible explanations for the underlying similarities between autism and AN and elaborates on further connections between the two disorders.  Several of these main points are summarized and excerpted below:  

  • Emotion regulation is a common trait among individuals with autism and in those with AN.
  • “There is evidence that the ‘repetitive thoughts and behaviors, rigid routines and rituals and perfectionism’ that characterize both autism and AN may be traced to the same regions in the brain.”
  • It’s possible that the development of autism and the development of AN actually rely on the same genetic predisposition but it may manifest differently depending on an individual’s gender.
  •  “Starvation itself intensifies autistic characteristics like rigidity and obsession.”
  • Underweight individuals with AN performed poorly on a test of interpreting other people’s emotions.  The test was originally developed to study impaired social interactions in people with autism-spectrum disorders.
  • “The theory is that hunger focuses the brain so sharply on the task of getting food that it shuts down higher cognitive functions, like reading other people’s emotions.”

To find out more about this topic, read the full length article, A Genetic Link Between Anorexia and Autism? and post your comments about this topic on our discussion board.

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