New Study Linking Autism & Anorexia Could Make All the Difference for Teens With Eating Disorders

woman on weight scaleAs someone who struggled with anorexia for my entire adolescence and a large part of my childhood, I've always felt that the way in which the condition is treated generally misses the mark. Sure, society's unrealistic expectations for women's bodies and the fashion industry's glorification of emaciated teenagers aggravate symptoms, but anorexia is first and foremost a disease, not the byproduct of a beauty-obsessed culture. Which is why I was interested to learn about a recent study that could change the way doctors and therapists view anorexia entirely: Researchers at Cambridge University have found that girls with anorexia "possess traits that echo characteristics of autism."

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Prior to now, anorexia was considered an eating disorder, primarily. And while the study's lead researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen (hmm, any relation to Sacha Baron Cohen?), calls this a "reasonable" approach because of anorexia's obvious food/body image associations, there's a lot more going on ...

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Apparently, traits shared by both anorexics and those with autism include difficulties in the areas of social interaction, empathy, and communication, plus tendencies towards repetitive behavior and rigid interests. The difference, according to Baron-Cohen, is that in anorexics, these tendencies manifest "as an obsessive focus on food intake, weight, and body shape."

What this means for treatment going forward isn't yet clear, but I'm hopeful this finding is a step in the right direction. The "obsessive focus" really strikes a chord ... I know that when I was at my worst, I felt, more than anything, like I was trapped in some sort of obsessive-compulsive hell: I was less concerned with my actual appearance than I was with the precise location of the needle on the scale or if the skin on the apple I was about to eat was sufficiently uniform in color or whether one day's calorie count came to the exact amount as the day before. 

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I learned to manage my symptoms years ago, but one of my worst fears is that my now 12-year-old daughter will someday fall prey to the same disease that overshadowed everything else about my growing-up experience. Hopefully she'll never go through what I went through, but for the sake of all the girls who will, I pray this new information leads to a breakthrough of some kind.

Are you surprised to hear about the link between anorexia and autism?


Image via Sedlacek/shutterstock

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