Eating Disorders And Autism: The Surprising Connection

Today you’ll learn how eating disorders affect those with autism.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
December 5, 2023
min read

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder also called an ED is a mental condition capable of occurring in everyone.

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where a person uses the control of food to cope with negative feelings and difficult situations.

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where a person uses the control of food to cope with negative feelings and difficult situations.

They can have a huge impact on the mental and physical health of the people with them, regardless of whether a diagnosis is made.

Studies reveal that people with autism are more at risk of having eating disorders than the population at large. However, with good enough support, most are capable of making a full recovery.

People with eating disorders can see them go away when attempting to make a recovery effort that doesn't involve themselves only. When this takes place, more healthy eating habits will emerge and the ability to manage the issues that caused it in the first place.

What are the Effects of an Eating Disorder?

The effects of eating disorders range from becoming overweight, malnourished, muscular atrophy, various vitamin deficiencies, anorexia, and even death.

Eating disorders are described by healthcare professionals as someone having a poor attitude toward most foods in general, to the point of it taking over one's life and potentially resulting in serious illness.

Treatments are available to people with eating disorders, however. Not everyone with them can get themselves the help they need.

Here are some of the most common eating disorders:

  • Binge eating disorder, or BED - This is when someone eats a large amount of food in a short period until they become full to the point of serious discomfort.
  • Anorexia nervosa - Characterized by a lack of eating, getting enough exercise, or a combination of both. The results of anorexia can be devastating and cause severe damage to nearly all areas of the body.
  • Bulimia - Bulimia occurs when one excessively eats food at a rate that causes sickness or the need to take medication because of it. Getting too much exercise to stave off weight gain can also cause bulimia.
  • Other eating disorders - The symptoms for this are numerous but won't fall under the category of more common eating disorders.
  • Avoidant and restrictive food intake disorder - Occurs when one has a diet that's limited in food volume and diversity. This can be common among autistic persons since it most often stems from differences in the senses.

Some people are more at risk of developing eating disorders than others.

Anyone that has a family history of eating disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, or depression is also more likely to have eating disorders in some form. People that have suffered from abuse are included. Things like bullying and abuse of a sexual nature are well-known factors that may lead to eating disorders also.

People that are heavily criticized for the way that they look, the shape of their body, or their weight may suffer from depression that ends with them taking in a lack of food or more than what they did initially, sometimes as a coping mechanism.

How Common Are Eating Disorders in autistic People?

The effects of an eating disorder can change from person to person since there's more than one type of eating disorder. However, some primary symptoms between them all could be as follows:

  • A rapid reduction in weight
  • A general feeling of weakness or becoming cold
  • Lacking the ability to concentrate on things that previously weren't a problem to focus on
  • For women, periods may come more irregularly than normal
  • A general feeling of dizziness and nausea
  • Hair may come out more than usual, especially in people with eating disorders that involve less food being taken in than normal
  • Cracking nails that turn yellowing in hue
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat, along with heart palpitations
  • Depression and anxiety that causes poor hygiene and unhealthy living standards, such as hoarding
As eating disorders are very serious conditions, they may end with hospitalization and permanent injuries.

They're often incredibly hard for someone with them to manage on their own and cope alone. The people with them may have feelings of guilt, and shame. Broken relationships on the issue are common.

Why Might Autistic People Develop an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders can develop in people with autism from sensory overload. Some researchers believe that 4% to 23% of all eating disorders come from autistic people. Other studies indicate that anorexia is the primary eating disorder found in people on the spectrum.

Food and Emotional Regulation

For people that don't have autism, problems with the way one appears in size and shape can cause eating disorders. But for ASD, the reasons are known to be entirely different. Here are some of them:

  • Sensory differences - This will involve the food that's given to them. However, it may also relate to an autistic person not being able to fully recognize when they're full or hungry. This is commonly known as interception.
  • Obsession with food-related specifics - Things such as counting calories, exercising in a very specific way, or having an intense interest in something food-related may lead to feelings of anxiety or eating.
  • Overly strict eating rituals - These rules and routines involving exercise or food can be incredibly hard to change, even with long-term therapy.
  • Needing to be in charge - This includes eating that's restricted, where food is used as a way for one to cope. As people with autism sometimes have difficulty understanding their emotions, it's a common problem among those diagnosed.
  • Not feeling accepted - Such may occur when someone with autism feels left out or unaccepted by their peers that don't have the disorder. The result can be finding something for them to focus on, like their weight, as a tool to get rid of anxiety in social settings.

Although those who are autistic have diets that are restricted, It wouldn't be of concern unless it begins to interfere with their life, school, work, relationships, and health.

Restricted Foods for Autistic People

One of the characteristics of autism is problems regarding emotional regulation. Those with the disorder have a higher chance of experiencing mental health problems, along with depression and anxiety.

They might go on to develop eating disorders to help them cope with anxious or depressing feelings. It's often done as a way to combat a lack of emotional communication and expression.

Fatty foods and those high in sugar content can agitate neurotransmitters in the brain that make one feel a level of calmness.

Some with autism are put into circumstances that are hard for them to bear, whereby food is a way they can attempt to handle overwhelming feelings. Too much exercise and food are also the primary ways that autistic people may seek to control themselves.

Obsessing Over Food

Kids with autism sometimes exhibit patterns in eating that may prolong their adult life.

Such kids have higher rates of food allergies than people at large do. Nevertheless, sensory issues involving food are shared, where certain textures and tastes cause comfort or severe discomfort.

For example, someone with autism could have difficulty eating foods with specific colors, or even foods that rest on the same plate.

Sitting down for a meal could be incredibly hard and produce anxiety feelings. When this happens, meltdowns are likely to ensue, especially when something of a color that's disliked is placed in a plant directly in front.

Foods with opposing textures might be off-limits to an autistic child. These rituals can carry into adulthood, more so when no therapy is provided to help them become better eaters.

Routines and Rigid Thinking

People that are autistic could have issues with executive function or cognitive flexibility.

Although some might show great talent at taking on an idea or goal, they might exhibit incredible difficulty in changing or shifting the way something is done. When someone with autism is placed on a certain path, like eating in a more disciplined way, it can end in them sticking to what they know better.

If this is forcefully changed or someone encourages it to change, an eating disorder can develop. Although this can apply to numerous autistic characteristics, that which ends in an eating disorder is more often found in situations where an autistic person is eating, such as at a dinner table.

Treatment And Recovery For Autistic People With Eating Disorders

Anyone with autism that has an eating disorder can be helped with food therapy.

Food therapy is when occupational therapy or equivalent provides therapy that teaches better eating habits. The therapy may see results quickly or after some time passes.

Parents can also implement techniques done by occupational therapists when their autistic child has trouble eating. If it becomes severe, checkups with a doctor and additional therapy are suggested.

Additional Advice And Tips

Here's what parents, loved ones, and friends of people on the spectrum can do when an eating disorder is suspected, or prevent it together:

  • Getting help from medical professionals
  • Using hobbies as a way to keep them distracted instead of it leading to a refusal of food, or being eating
  • Patience in recovery time
  • Health routines during mealtimes, along with exercise



steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

Table of Contents