5 Possible Eating Disorders of Autistic People

5 Possible Eating Disorders of Autistic People

Anyone can develop eating disorders after a long period of having an unhealthy relationship with food.

However, autistic people are more vulnerable to developing certain eating disorders due to sensory issues, obsession with calorie counting, strict routines, or difficulty controlling emotions.

The effects of the eating disorders of autistic people can be detrimental to their physical and mental health.

One of the eating disorders an autistic person may develop is anorexia nervosa.

Certain reasons, including picky eating habits, social difficulties, and difficulty recognizing physical sensations, make an autistic person more susceptible to anorexia nervosa than other non-autistic people.

Similarly, unpredictable mealtimes, food obsession, and sensory sensitivities can expose autistic individuals to binge-eating disorders.

Consuming a large amount of food over time will lead to weight gain and physical health issues and may affect the mental health of the affected individual.

In addition, autistic children have a tendency to develop Pica.

At a young age, children might mistake non-food items for food or eat inedible items for sensory satisfaction.

You can support your autistic child diagnosed with pica by monitoring their food intake, educating them on food and non-food items, and making their environment pica-proof.

Read on to gain a deeper understanding of the five possible eating disorders of autistic people: 

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Anorexia Nervosa

Research shows the likelihood of autistic people developing anorexia is five times higher than non-autistic people.

Those diagnosed with anorexia often endeavor to restrict their food intake due to an intense fear of weight gain or in hopes of changing their body weight or shape.

Why, then, is anorexia one of the common eating disorder of autistic people?

For one, autistic people experience social difficulties, which makes them susceptible to developing anorexia.

To look a certain way to fit in, an autistic person may take extreme measures to lose body weight and become obsessed with the result.

Similarly, many children with autism are extremely picky eaters and may unintentionally develop anorexia.

They may choose to avoid certain foods if it doesn't taste, smell, look or feel a certain way, making them develop restrictive food intake disorder, a building block to anorexia nervosa.

In addition, the inability of many autistic people to identify emotions and physical sensations, including hunger, may cause anorexia.

Unlike non-autistic people, people with autism might mistake hunger cues for discomfort or may be too focused on other things to answer their hunger cues.

Bulimia

Bulimia is one of the psychological eating disorders of autistic people characterized by a cycle of periods of uncontrollable binge eating and compensating behaviors.

The compensation behaviors could include excessive exercise, purging, and fasting to get rid of excess calories and mask the effect of binge eating.

Although an autistic person dealing with bulimia may not experience noticeable changes in body appearance, bulimia can become potentially life-threatening over time.

As time goes on, bulimia may lead to complications, including dental decay, sore throat, heartburn, diarrhea, esophageal tears, and gastric rupture.

It is, therefore, essential to look out for signs your autistic loved one might have bulimia.

The signs may include obsessive exercise, strict dieting, negative body image, and constant worry or anxiety about gaining weight.

When you notice these signs, have an honest discussion with them and share your concerns. Ensure to show support and encourage them to seek professional help. 

Pica

Pica is one of the eating disorders of autistic people that results from sensory-seeking behaviors.

It is characterized by the desire to eat inedible items such as pebbles, thread, soap, and pieces of clothes.

Over time, the repeated ingestion of non-edible items can cause severe health problems.

One of the reasons autistic people develop pica is due to the pleasurable sensory feedback they experience.

People diagnosed with pica eat non-food items simply for the enjoyable feeling or smell.

While eating, they focus more on sensory satisfaction than the inedible taste of the items.

Also, people with autism may develop pica due to difficulty separating edible food from non-edible items.

This occurs especially in autistic children when they mistake a piece of paper or other non-food items for food.

When dealing with an autistic individual with pica, you can support them by making their environment safe.

If your autistic child tends to eat everything in sight, you can teach them to differentiate food from non-food and then an extra step to make their environment "pica proof." 

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake

Many autistic children grow to be extremely picky eaters.

They may enjoy the taste and feel of certain foods more and choose to reject other foods because of color, smell, texture, etc.

Coupled with an extremely picky eating habit, they may develop anxiety about vomiting, constipation, choking, or having an allergic reaction to certain foods.

This behavior gives rise to one of the eating disorders of autistic people - Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake (AFRID).

One important thing to note about AFRID is that autistic individuals are susceptible to being diagnosed with this disorder due to sensory problems.

Unlike non-autistic people that may restrict their food intake due to fear of being fat, autistic people are more likely to consume a limited variety of food to avoid aversive sensory experiences.

How can you tell if an autistic child is a picky eater or has developed AFRID?

If the child experiences significant weight loss, significant nutrition deficiencies, arrested growth, needs nutritional supplements or is afraid of eating in front of others, you might want to seek professional help.

Due to the potential for significant weight loss, autistic children and adults with AFRID are at risk of developing significant health issues and may require hospitalization. 

Binge Eating 

Among the eating disorders of autistic people is binge eating disorder.

Binge eating is an eating disorder characterized by the consumption of a large amount of food regularly.

Many autistic children and teenagers develop overeating habits due to various reasons.

One of those reasons includes obsessions with food.

Often, autistic children develop special interests and obsessions with participating in certain activities that bring them satisfaction.

Unfortunately, an autistic child can also get obsessed with a particular food, making it difficult to control their food intake.

Also, unpredictable mealtimes can cause a child to develop overeating habits.

Children with autism function better with routines, and having no set snack or meal time will promote a binge eating disorder,

Similarly, autistic children are vulnerable to binge eating problems due to sensory sensitivities.

If a child like eating crunchy foods, they might regularly seek out foods with a satisfying crunch and binge on them.

Conclusion

Co-occurring conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and an eating disorder can worsen the symptoms of both disorders and complicate treatment procedures.

An autistic person experiencing an eating disorder must visit a medical and mental health professional to manage the comorbid condition.

Treatment may include behavioral or group therapy for autism and eating disorders.

Eating disorders of autistic people you should be aware of may include binge eating disorder, pica, anorexia, avoidant/restrictive food intake, and bulimia.

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November 30th, 2022