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Anorexia linked to ‘autistic’ thinking

anorexia A GROWING appreciation of the links between anorexia and autism spectrum disorders has uncovered new opportunities for treating the eating disorder.

Mental health professionals are now attempting to train the brains of people with anorexia to be more flexible and to see the big picture as well as fine details. In doing so, they hope patients will be less inclined to obsess about body weight and calories and be better equipped to overcome their eating disorder in the long term, as well as gaining weight more immediately.

Last month, the international Academy for Eating Disorders published a paper calling for eating disorders (EDs) such as anorexia and bulimia to receive the same degree of healthcare as other biologically based mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) (International Journal of Eating Disorders, DOI: 10.1002/eat.20589). Other groups are even calling for anorexia to be placed in the same diagnostic category as autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

The main reason for this change is a growing understanding of the biological basis of EDs. Twin studies suggest that between 50 and 83 per cent of EDs have a genetic basis. Now, evidence suggests that people with anorexia have cognitive traits associated with ASD. “Eating disorders and autism spectrum disorders are obviously not the same thing, but they do have some things in common,” says Janet Treasure of the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

Anorexia and autism are obviously not the same thing, but they have some things in common. 

Treasure had already discovered that anorexia was associated with extreme attention to detail and a rigid, inflexible style of thinking – traits also associated with ASD.

To investigate further, her team used neuropsychological tests to measure central coherence, or the ability to see the big picture as well as the finer details, in 42 women with anorexia and 42 without it. Women with anorexia had weaker central coherence, with a bias towards local, rather than global processing (International Journal of Eating Disorders, vol 41, p 143).

In a separate study, Treasure and her colleagues found that 45 per cent of people with anorexia or bulimia have problems “set-shifting”, or modifying their behaviour in response to changing goals, compared to just 10 per cent of healthy people.

This type of focused thinking can be a beneficial skill, but when thinking becomes obsessive, for example, it can be destructive, says Treasure, who presented her results at a meeting of the British Psychological Society in Brighton, earlier this month.

In another series of studies, Treasure’s team, together with Kate Tchanturia, also of the Institute of Psychiatry, assessed empathy, systemising ability, and other traits on the autistic spectrum in 22 women with anorexia and 45 without it. They found that although those with the eating disorder didn’t differ from healthy women in terms of empathising or systemising, they did show elevated scores on other autistic traits like poorer social skills, and greater attention to detail (British Journal of Clinical Psychology, DOI: 10.1348/014466507×272475).

Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, UK, is also measuring whether adolescents with anorexia score higher on autistic traits than healthy people, as he suspects that some of them may actually have undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome. “We have always known that Asperger’s syndrome was diagnosed more often in males,” he says. “The new question is whether it takes a different form in females, and can account for at least a subgroup of those who are diagnosed with anorexia.”

If it does, this could have important implications for the way that anorexia is treated. “As well as treating the ‘eating disorder’ the clinician and the patient might [also] focus on social skills,” says Baron-Cohen, although he adds that weight gain would remain a key target.

Tchanturia is already conducting a study in around 30 people with anorexia, who are having cognitive remediation therapy (CRT) to encourage flexible and bigger-picture thinking. For example, patients are given an exercise in which they have to summarise several pages of text, to practice seeing the gist rather than the details. “We’re putting the focus on how people think, rather than what people think,” says Tchanturia.

The technique has already had some success – in a pilot study of 19 patients with anorexia, 17 patients said they felt it helped them to think more flexibly – although it’s too early to say whether it will help their anorexia in the long-term. “They found the treatment helpful in reducing their perfectionist tendencies and it helped them to see things more holistically,” Tchanturia says (International Journal of Eating Disorders, DOI: 10.1002/eat.20536).


Does this explain the thinspo sites?


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0 thoughts on “Anorexia linked to ‘autistic’ thinking

  • maybe they used that picture cause they know it would outrage people and bring them to the article here? I don’t know… all i can say is i didnt have a picture when i originally posted the article…

  • @StreetChaseNManhattan@xanga – I don’t think the article was saying that Anorexia is a biological disorder or a neurological disorder but that it might be able to be treated like one..? That’s what I got out of it. Could be wrong 🙂

  • @StreetChaseNManhattan@xanga – 

    For those people saying you aren’t “born” with anorexia, there have been publishings of scientific papers stating that people may be predisposed to anorexia due to neurological/hormonal/genetic issues.

    Here’s a study that was conducted in 2007:

    If you want to read the paper and you’re in university, you can access the E-Journal portal and read all of these journal articles. They’re out there.

  • This is really interesting, I knew about this kinda study but didn’t know it had progressed this much..

    My brother is autistic diagnosed around age 3 and I was diagnosed with Anorexia and Bulimia in my early teen. I can deffenietly see the simularitys in the two. I just hope Anorexia and Bulimia will be regognised more and accepted as an illness instead of a fase or just ignorance and a teen thing, cause it is not..

    Therefor getting better treatments cause I have been to serval myself and found them unsatisfying for the most part, also the the number of people that get “cured” are extreamly low!
    Is it because we are beeing treated for the wrong thing or just wrongly?

  • @StreetChaseNManhattan@xanga – “people are born with autism”…not proven yet. also, this article is not saying they are the same thing, there is just a possibility of similar processes in thinking, which makes it easier to understand. also, no one says medications have to be involved.

  • I remember once the doctors suggested I may have a very mild form of autism which affects my social skills and memory… I’ve also had an eating disorder in the past (it was actually around the time my ED was at its worst that autism was brought up), so the idea that there is a link between the two is very interesting indeed.

  • I’m not sure what to think of this.
    Though it may be linked in some cases, I do not think it is so for…all of them.

  • It’s great if this leads them to new therapies for anorexia; the ones we have are tragically ineffective.

    If Autism is a spectrum, it makes sense that some anorexics would have some traits; the fact that it’s a spectrum implies that you can have some traits before you cross the threshold for a diagnosis. But all these researchers are doing is speculating; they haven’t even done the genetics work to prove their conclusion.

    Also-that picture is irresponsible and in terrible taste. I’m sure many people with EDs or borderline EDs will click the link from the xanga homepage, and get slapped with that triggering image.

  • I’m not sure what my take is on this. I struggle with my eating, though I haven’t been diagnosed with anything and I’ve suffered with depression. My little brother is Autistic and my aunt dealt with an ED years ago.

    That could be all a coincidence, of course, but I’ve always been curious as to how a person gets that mindset. When I first started getting obsessed with my eating, I got scared and I tried to figure out how to stop it or whatever. I wanted to figure out how I got to be like this and I wondered if it was hereditary, like depression supposedly can be.

    It’s just another mystery, I suppose.

  • I think this is a “theory”, but it happens to be absurd. Too compare autism and anorexia–it’s sort of insulting and also not the same thing at all. People are born with autism. People are not born with anorexia, it is something that develops thanks in part to a person’s setting and exposure to today’s media and grossly misfigured and thin celebrities who flaunt their ribs with pride on magazines that are displayed on the rack at the check out line of the grocery store.

    I think this is the most–excuse the word usage–RETARDED thing I have heard. Anorexia just happens to be a backwards way of thinking. The people who have it have just convinced themself of one truth: that if they are skinny, everything will be okay. I think this is ridiculous!!! And I also take offense when people tell anorexic’s to eat a hamburger for God’s sake. It’s not like they can cure it themselves once they get started. Once the ball is rolling, it’s hard to stop. Anorexia is not like autism at all–yes, they obsess over one certain thing, but it is not the same. There is also no way that anorexia is a “biological disorder” or a “neurological disorder”. Well, to an extent, it is neurological because the person has convinced themself to put their body in danger by a certain way of thinking, but it is NOT biological. Eating disorders are created by OTHER PEOPLE. People who tear a person down psychologically and bash that person’s self esteem. So, let’s place the blame where it needs to go: WITH THE MASS MEDIA. Being thin is glamorous, they declare…any young girl can be swayed if she thinks she is not pretty. In today’s world, that’s all that’s supposed to matter. With looks, the media tells us, you can get anything you want, be anything you want. It’s a bunch of bull crap.

    So excuse me if I think you’re “theory” is a bunch of crap. ALSO—-this study is retarded because have you noticed how many things you can possibly be diagnosed of in today’s world of psychology?!?! If you take their stupid little tests, sometimes you can come down as having three or four social/behavioral disorders. And then, they say you should line up at Walgreen’s and get yourself some drugs. It’s all just a way for them to make money off of us and I think it’s dumb.

  • “they… show elevated scores on other autistic traits like poorer social skills, and greater attention to detail “

    i think this is absolutely silly. they’ve just spend a huge amount of money on research and produced a conclusion that everyone already knows.

    people with EDs are slightly ‘austistic’ because once their ED gets more serious they gradually start to avoid social gatherings (which often times is centered around FOOD) to avoid possible encounters with food and/or people finding out about their ED. and when other people do find out about their ED they will try to fix the “victim’s” problem, which the “victim” does not want because they do not want to gain weight; wants to continue losing weight; does not realize he/she has an ED. so to avoid all this they distance themselves from family and friends and become more anti-social.

    and of course they are greater attention on detail; people with EDs spend their whole day calculating intakes and outtakes, every morsel they’ve eaten and every stepped they worked off.

    you dont need a Ph.D to know this =.= however as someone who is very familiar with EDs, it’s true that i unconsciously, gradually socialized with people less and less the longer i had my ED (even when i’ve stopped) so mayyybe they’re getting on to something.

  • i am high funtioning on the autistic spectrum, the reason i wasnt diagnosed aspergers was because i had a speach delay as a child. i

     have also suffered from binge eating and bulima from a very young age.

    this reasearch makes me wonder if my bulima is caused by my autism? i never put the two together. i was bulimic 4 years before i was diagnosed autistic.

    its interesting, but my mum tells me to stop believing everything i read, so i should probably forget the whole thing.

    i think articals like this are unfair because it isnt a proven link, and part of my autism, i am very gullible. if mum wasnt here to set me strait i would not have realised….

    all articals with “new links” between all behavours (wether they be animal, vegitable or mineral) should come with a discloser stating that nothing is prooven, that if you were to use the information in a essay while studying to become a doctor, then not only would you be laughed at, you would fail. the disclamer should state that its for entertainment not for knowledge.

    i am not trying to sound like a bitch, its that because people will look at this and beleave it, when its not prooven. it is just something to think about.

  • That’s interesting. As someone on the autistic spectrum disorder, I must be the opposite or something. My brain doesn’t communicate with my stomach, my brain never tells my stomach when I’m full so I’m always hungry, which means I’m always trying to satisfy that hunger, which means I overeat and am overweight. But that is food for thought…..

    I can see how that would be possible though. Autistics are set around patterns, traditions and routines that are seldom broken. And irrational fears (irrational to others, perfectly normal to an autistic).

  • i think the research is quite interesting. but what confuses me… is that EDs are somewhat an inherited trait, pardon my ignorance, are ASDs genetic as well?

    basically, people with AN, could’ve actually been an undiagnosed ASD that just so happened that the interest they are obsessing over is their body image..right?

    it’s so cool.. i mean the research. it’d make sense, i wish the research can be fast-forwarded 😀

    @AndRelyingOnACalendar@xanga –  haha now that you mention it, she has big boobs for someone with no butt

  • Anonymous

    Anyone else notice the obvious photshopping of that reiculous picture? Incredible that girl still has fairly large breasts considering her backside, huh?

    Sensationalism like this photo, and the essentially useless information of this article often make me wonder if these stories don’t do more harm than good. I suppose at least they sell magazines.

  • @PixelDOT@xanga –  I was thinking something very similar!

    It seems that, on the thinspo sites, anorexia is glamorous.  Sites will claim that it is a lifestyle decision.  This is [very] helpful information that could possibly explain AN, for decisions on furture research and possible treatment.  However, the way it may be helpful to pro-ana sites is that, as pixelDOT said, it may deter girls from them — they probably wouldn’t want to be viewed as autistic. 
    I definitely believe that EDs are neurological disorders, having a biological reason.  Sometimes, I just think of many of the girls using and creating thinpo sites as having disordered eating habits, but maybe not an eating disorder.

  • this was amazingly interesting.  i’ve had an eating disorder for almost 12 years and this way of approaching it was never used with me.  i do have a huge problem with only paying attention to detail and not the whole picture.  i’ve never met a person with autism nor do i know really anything about the disorder but i would love to read more research on this topic.  i’ve been on an anti-depressant that can also be used for OCD and it has helped a bit with the anorexia, so perhaps there is hope for an actual medical treatment for anorexia itself, not just the side effects.  

  • @LadyLibellule@xanga – I don’t advocate self destructive behaviors as being what neurodiversity is all about.  Some behaviors could be results of brain function, but I am loathe to quantify anything into a generalized box until we know much much more.

    @PixelDOT@xanga – You’d be surprised at the fakers out there.  Since it’s become uber cool to be part of a geek squad, as it were, and especially since shows like The Big Bang Theory are becoming bigger than expected hits, yes, there are people out there ‘trying’ to be ASD.  Yes, it is fashionable now.

  • I’m probably going to negative feedback for this comment, but…

    This research being made more public will probably discourage “social anorexia” (as I call it, the girls who are not clinically anorexic but influenced into anorexic-like behavior from the general pro-ana attitude in the beauty industry), as anorexia is trendy, it’s fashionable and will earn praise (don’t believe me? Look at any of the thousands of anorexia journals on xanga).

    But autism isn’t fashionable, people don’t fake autism to be more hip or trendy. If there is suddenly a public association between autism and anorexia, then it will become less fashionable to starve yourself.

  • If eating disorders get put on the autism spectrum, does that mean they have to be celebrated as a form of neurodiversity?

    I don’t know about the thinspo sites.  I don’t think that has to do with whether or not EDs and ASD are linked.  They’re just another manifestation of the illness.

  • This is such a great theory! I understand that with autism, the individual is prone to picking a set interest and getting incredibly involved with it. Anorexia and Bulimia are the epitome of this “theology.” They “pick” weight to be obsessed with (just as autistic people “pick” their interests) and then they think about what they eat, when they’ll exercise, how fat they think they are, etc, constantly.

  • I think it could shine the light on a few possibilities, but I don’t think it’s an answer for all thinspo issues.

  • I was not surprised when I ran into this research last year.  I have such a lack of self awareness that my psychologist has told me my Asperger’s probably saved me from the clinical depression that runs in my family, but both my sisters were anorectic in high school, and both got pretty thin for some time.  I myself have bouts of medical anorexia due to severe digestive difficulties, and I’m finding out this may also be partly related to Asperger’s.  I babysat a 7 year old nonverbal autistic girl some years ago, impossible to get her to eat much at all because she couldn’t connect cause and effect and didn’t respond much to social interaction, certainly didn’t identify eating with anything pleasurable, and I can imagine she was so starved that eating didn’t really feel good.  I’ve known a few women who were so obsessed with the numbers involved with calories, and it can get pretty technical, pretty much mimics the detailing aspies do with other obsessive interests.  I love statistics, other aspies keep detailed track of things they like.  So I think that overall, given the wide behavioral spectrum, anorexia might be a major link to girls having Asperger’s.  They keep saying more boys have Asperger’s than girls.  I’ve never believed that.  I don’t think it’s sex linked.  Other than this, I have nothing else to go on, just my own speculations.  Thanx for sharing the research!

  • I don’t know if it does or not, but I do know that when I look at certain pictures that I wanted to look like before I recovered, there were so many details about them that I didn’t notice before.  I only focused on the parts I wanted to see.   Is she thinner than I am?  Are her legs thinner than mine? (or is she sufficiently gross enough).  Some women on the sites I visited noticed every detail.

    I think there are more traits that people with AN (anorexia nervosa) have in common with people on the ADS (social problems, anxiety, etc).    Admiring pictures of thin (or reverse thinspo looking at pictures of overweight women) may or may not be one of them.  I am leaning toward it not being one of the traits in common.


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