Autism and Eating Disorders: What You Need to Know

Part of the minefield of navigating through autism – either your own, or that of your child – is the realization that when autism affects someone, it is rarely the only condition to do so. Many parents will know that autism is frequently accompanied by ADHD, anxiety and certain gastrointestinal conditions. And you may also have read that there is a common comorbidity between autism and eating disorders, specifically anorexia.

Naturally, this is a concerning thing for any parent to learn, so it is important to look into the facts about autism and disordered eating. We all know how common scaremongering can be in the world of autism and its understanding, so the following information is designed to be non-emotive, factual and assistive.

What is the link between autism and eating disorders?

Experts tend to agree that around 20% of people with anorexia are autistic. That’s in comparison with 1% of the general public, so it is evident that people with autism are more prone to anorexia. What isn’t as confidently known is whether people experience anorexia because they are autistic, or vice versa. However, it is suspected that the tendency towards restricted and repetitive behavior that is a hallmark of autism may be responsible.

autism and eating disorders
Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay

Does this mean my child is more likely to experience anorexia?

Statistically, any child with autism is theoretically more prone to anorexia, but it is not hard-wired. Anorexia is often present in autistic people before they are diagnosed, so it is more likely to occur when the symptoms of autism are not understood or managed. If your child has been diagnosed, then coping strategies make it less likely. It’s worth seeking out easy snacks for kids so you can model the need to snack at regular intervals. Some cases of hyperstimulation can be worsened by hunger, as we know that being uncomfortable makes symptoms worse. So if you can manage the autistic symptoms, you lessen the likelihood of an eating disorder.

My child has odd eating patterns – are they a sign of a disorder?

Selective eating habits are common in kids with autism – and in adults, too. Some people just feel more comfortable with a certain food. It’s advisable that you encourage your child to eat a more varied diet, but restrictive eating is not in and of itself a sign of anorexia. The fact that your child is eating at all is really more important. Modeling varied eating habits, with the buy-in of the rest of your family, is the best thing you can do to overcome this selective eating. Of course, like any parent, you should make sure that your child is eating enough, but the mere fact of being autistic is not a sign that they are at serious risk of anorexia or any eating disorder.

It is true that eating disorders are more prevalent among people with autism than among the population at large. But if you are dealing with autism in one of your kids, you’ve already broached the most important hurdle. There’s no need to become concerned about the risks any more than any other parent should.

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