Do Autism and Anorexia overlap?

Girls with anorexia are more likely to exhibit autistic traits, too, researchers have found.

The study conducted at the Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre suggests that anorexia and autism share some common features.

The study
For the purpose of the study, researchers looked at 66 girls diagnosed with anorexia, aged 12 to 18 years and 1,609 females without anorexia of the same age.

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder wherein the afflicted is obsessed about calorie counting and fears intensely about gaining weight. Backed by an unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight, the condition is characterized by emaciation and lack of menstruation among girls and women.

All participants took tests to measure their Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), Systemizing Quotient (SQ) and Empathy Quotient (EQ).

Anorexic girls were five times more likely to score in the range that people with autism score in, compared to girls without anorexia, researchers highlighted.

Nearly 50 percent of the girls with anorexia showed traits of ‘broader autism phenotype’, suggesting a genetic liability for autism-related traits in families as against only 15 percent of girls without anorexia.

Furthermore, girls with anorexia had a higher SQ, and a reduced EQ, a trait commonly seen in autistic kids.

“Traditionally, anorexia has been viewed purely as an eating disorder. This is quite reasonable, since the girl’s dangerously low weight, and their risk of malnutrition or even death has to be the highest priority,”Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from the Autism Research Centre at the university, who led the research, said.

“But this new research is suggesting that underlying the surface behavior, the mind of a person with anorexia may share a lot with the mind of a person with autism. In both conditions, there is a strong interest in systems. In girls with anorexia, they have latched onto a system that concerns body weight, shape, and food intake.”

“Acknowledging that some patients with anorexia may also have a raised number of autistic traits and a love of systems gives us new possibilities for intervention and management,” study’s co-author, Dr. Tony Jaffa, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Foundation Trust marked.

The findings of the study are reported in the journal Molecular Autism.