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Eating Disorders And Autism: What’s The Link?

Eating Disorders And Autism: What’s The Link?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition that creates social and behavioral challenges. Children who receive treatment from an early age can grow into functional individuals even though there is no cure for Autism itself. Often, Autism presents along with other conditions such as eating disorders, which can exacerbate the symptoms of Autism, and affect the child’s bodily and mental health, if not addressed. Here, we discuss what eating disorders may look like in a child with Autism and how you can address it

Understanding Autism

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) refers to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders that affect social, behavioral, and communicative abilities. Children with Autism often have trouble with following instructions and participating adequately in social situations. Treatment for Autism involves a combination of Occupational, Behavioral, and Social Skills Therapy that help children to better adjust to the environment they are in and effectively interact with peers and adults.

Types of eating disorders in children with Autism

It is often observed that children with Autism display mental health and behavioral disorders. In particular, researchers have discovered a fairly high occurrence of eating disorders in children who have Autism. An eating disorder is a behavioral condition that involves persistent, severe trouble with eating behavior and food choices. Some of the ways in which this might manifest for an autistic child include:

  • Refusing to eat certain types of food
  • Overeating certain types of food and/or insisting on eating only one or two favorite foods
  • Eating too quickly or too slowly
  • Disruptive mealtime behavior
  • Sensory processing issues for certain food textures or tastes
  • Unusual eating behaviors such as pica (a craving for non-food items like chalk or sand)
  • Abnormal eating habits such as eating one strand of spaghetti at a time
  • Reacting negatively to changes in meal components, timing, or quantity

Challenges faced in case of eating disorders

The link between Autism and eating disorders is a complex one. At present, it is estimated that about 20% of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder also have Anorexia. While it is not conclusively proven that Autism directly contributes to eating disorders, the combination of the two can create multiple challenges for the child. Some of the potential ill-effects of an eating disorder include:

  • Delayed diagnosis, as the symptoms of an eating disorder often overlap with the repetitive, restrictive behaviors in Autism
  • Difficulty adjusting to social situations involving food and mealtimes
  • Risk of being bullied at school owing to poor eating habits
  • Decline in physical health owing to overnutrition/undernutrition
  • Increase in Autism-related behaviors such as trouble with processing emotions owing to starvation of the brain
  • Insecurity due to poor body image
  • Greater feeling of being isolated and shunned owing to social stigma around eating disorders and Autism

Treatment for eating disorders

Just as with Autism itself, treating children with Autism who have eating disorders requires a tailored approach. Thus, parents should choose a therapist who has experience with both, Autism and eating disorders. Given that resistance to change is one of the characteristic traits of children with Autism, guiding them out of poor eating habits will take time and patience. Some of the activities the therapist may cover, include:

  • Guided exercises on table manners and how to eat various foods correctly
  • Chewing and swallowing exercises for proper digestion
  • Gradual introduction of new tastes and textures to help with sensory acclimatizing
  • Guided practice of eating in a group
  • Guidance on knowing when one feels full and stopping the meal
  • Use of cue cards or other communication devices to convey any changes in meal timing or composition

An eating disorder can be harmful for your child, physically and mentally. If your child that has Autism, is displaying disruptive or unhealthy eating habits, take them to a therapist for appropriate intervention, as soon as possible. This will help your child enjoy a healthy relationship with food and mingle better with their peers.


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