Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, are identified as complicated disorders to treat, typically requiring lengthy and costly interventions. While conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder and depression have long since been recognised as affecting many anorexia sufferers, more recently autism has also been identified as having commonalities.
What are Autism Spectrum Disorders?
Commonly abbreviated to ASDs, autism spectrum disorders are examples of developmental disorders which affect one’s ability to communicate effectively. Sufferers will often engage in repetitive behaviours, displaying abnormal social functioning. According to Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organisation, ASDs are complex disorders of brain development. Disorders covered in the spectrum, include autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not-otherwise specified and Asperger syndrome.
Autism Spectrum Disorders and Anorexia Nervosa
As with eating disorders, ADSs are also recognized as highly complex disorders, which are typically complicated to treat. In Eating Disorders Review, research undertaken by Janet Treasure and colleagues at King’s College, London has identified, ‘striking similarities between anorexia patients and ASD samples on test scores.’ Participants with anorexia were tested in areas such as empathy, executive function and detail focus. The results of the research showed the cognitive profile of those suffering from current anorexia nervosa resembled those of ASD. As is the case with anorexia, the earlier a person is provided with effective treatment interventions for ASD, the more likely the outcome is to be positive. However, a key difference between the two conditions relates to gender – while autism is three times more common in boys than girls, anorexia is far more common in girls and young women.
Impact on Anorexia Treatment
Clearly, the results of the research undertaken by Treasure et al. may have a significant impact upon the types of treatment which may be effective for helping those affected by anorexia nervosa. As highlighted in Eating Disorders Review, strategies to help improve social skills in autism sufferers which have had some degree of success, may also be of benefit to anorexia sufferers. In addition, the research indicates cognitive remediation therapy may help anorexia sufferers to reduce bias towards detail and improve problems associated with set-shifting. As teenage girls diagnosed with an ASD are more likely to experience eating disorder symptoms compared to healthy peers, there may be aspects of treatment currently used for eating disorders which could be adapted to help ASD sufferers.