Previous studies have found that autism and eating disorders can occur together, because 20-30% of adults with eating disorders have autism, and 3-10% of children and adolescents with eating disorders.
However, it is unclear whether autistic nature the result of eating disruption or overtake them. This new longitudinal study, published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, found that autism in childhood comes before the characteristic behavior of eating disorders, and so can be a risk factor for developing eating disorders.
Primary author Dr. Francesca Solmi (UCL Psychiatry) said: “We have found the young man children with autistic nature at the age of seven are more likely than their peers to eventually develop Eating disorders symptoms in adolescents.
“Most other studies look at snapshots in time, rather than tracking people over several years, so it’s not clear whether autism increase the risk of eating disorders, or if the symptoms of eating disorders sometimes mimic the nature of autism. “
The study involved 5,381 adolescents who had participated in longitudinal research from birth as part of a University of Bristol’s Children of the 90s cohort study. The researchers considered whether they had autistic social characteristics at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16, and eating disorders (fasting, cleansing, long diets, or overeating) at age 14.
The researchers investigated the autistic traits reported by the mother, rather than a diagnosis of autism, which meant that the research findings would involve children who did not need to have autism, but would also include children with autism who might not be diagnosed.
In the study group, 11.2% of girls reported at least one irregular eating behavior in the previous year (7.3% experienced it every month and 3.9% every week), compared with 3.6% of boys (2 , 3% monthly and 1.3% every week).
Adolescents with eating disorders show a higher level of autism at the age of seven, suggesting that autism precedes irregular eating habits (because eating disorders are very rare at age seven), and therefore can pose risk factors for eating disorders. Children who exhibit higher autism at age seven are 24% more likely to have irregular eating behavior every week at 14 years of age. Further analysis confirmed that eating disorders at the age of 14 did not seem to improve the nature of autism at the age of 16 years.
While the research does not investigate the reasons behind the relationship, the researchers suggest that children with autism may experience difficulties with social communication and develop friendships, which can contribute to higher levels of depression and anxiety at a young age. Eating disorders can be caused by methods that do not work to overcome this emotional difficulty.
Other features of autism, although not included in the specific measure of the social characteristics of autism used, can also be associated with eating disorders, such as rigidity in thinking, inflexible behavior, unusual sensory processing, and tendencies for repetitive behavior.
Fellow writer Dr. William Mandy (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) said: “The next step is to learn more about why those with autism have a higher risk of eating disorders so that we can then design interventions to prevent eating disorders.
“About one-fifth of women suffering from anorexia nervosa have high levels of autism – and there is some evidence that these women benefit the least from current eating disorder care models. People with autism and eating disorders may need different approaches to treatment.”
Senior author Professor Glyn Lewis (UCL Psychiatry) said: “Parents and caregivers of autistic children must be aware that there is increased risk develop eating disorders. Be aware of irregular eating behavior and seek help early on can help. “
Tom Quinn, director of Beat’s external eating disorder, commented: “We welcome this important research that identifies a greater risk of eating disorders among those with autism. Early intervention is very important in treating eating disorders and we hope this research will help parents and doctors see early signs of eating disorders more quickly and make sure those at risk of eating disorders get the help they need.We encourage researchers to examine the results of this study and develop it, including by seeing what support can be provided for those with autism to reduce the possibility of developing eating disorders. ”
Francesca Solmi et al, Trajectories of the social nature of autism in childhood and adolescence and irregular eating behavior at the age of 14 years: A cohort study of the UK general population, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2020). DOI: 10.1111 / jcpp.13255
University College London
Children with autism face a higher risk of eating disorders (2020, May 13)
taken May 13, 2020
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