What is it?
An eating disorder is a type of mental illness that involves disordered behaviour around eating. These behaviours can include: limiting the amount of food being eaten; finding ways to get rid of calories/food already eaten through induced vomiting, excessive exercise, taking laxatives etc.; or binging on large quantities of food.
Why might autistic people develop eating disorders?
While the research into this area is still relatively new, there is reason to think autistic people are more prone to developing eating disorders than non-autistic people.
There are several possible reasons for this.
Autistic people process sensory information differently to non-autistic people, which often means certain foods are either intolerable due to their texture or incredibly pleasing due to their texture. If this is taken to an extreme it can lead to either a very limited diet or overeating of certain foods for the sensory experience.
Often, eating disorders are not actually about food at all. Sometimes deciding what goes into your body can feel like the only thing you have control over. In times of stress this can spiral into restricting food intake. Skipping meals also has an impact on the chemicals and hormones your body releases and some people recognise this (either consciously or subconsciously) and use it to regulate their emotions (something some autistic people can struggle with).
Sometimes an eating disorder can develop from a special interest taken too far. Special interests in the environment, animal welfare, calories, food preparation, food technology, healthy-eating, home baking, exercise etc. can all potentially slip into an eating disorder if taken to extremes.
Some autistic people have problems fitting in socially and an eating disorder might ensure they are slim (or might seem to offer that option), which is often seen as desirable and perceived as something that can make someone more popular. We might also focus in on one specific thing we dislike about ourselves and struggle to view the ‘whole’, which can lead to body dysmorphia.
It is also possible that an eating disorder can be triggered by abuse, which is sadly more likely to affect autistic people. Someone who has been sexually abused might try to avoid anyone being sexually attracted to them again by using food to change their body shape.
Sometimes routines and rules around food and eating can get out of hand and when they go too far, this can also lead to an eating disorder.
What can I do if I think I have an eating disorder?
t is important to tell someone if you think you have an eating disorder. While eating disorders can absolutely be treated, anorexia is the mental health condition with the highest mortality rate out of all mental health conditions so getting help is paramount.
You can tell your GP, who should be able to advise you on the best next steps. The GP might refer you to a therapist or other professional.
Eating disorders tend to be treated with group therapy, though other options are available. Unfortunately, group therapy often does not work so well for autistic people so it can be a good idea to mention this fact to your GP or any professional to whom you are referred.
What can I do myself?
It is recommended to get professional help if you have a severe eating disorder. However, if you feel like you are perhaps slipping into disordered eating habits or you need some ways to cope while you build up the courage to tell someone there are some things to consider.
Try to manage your sensory needs as best you can. For autistic people, sometimes an eating disorder can be triggered by certain sensory needs. You can:
- Make sure your environment is comfortable for you in terms of the temperature, how bright the lights are, noise levels, comfortable seating etc. You may require addition supports to achieve this (like headphones and/or ear defenders or sunglasses).
- Make sure you have seen to any interoceptive needs you might not notice like thirst, going to the toilet, whether you’re too hot or cold.
- Make sure you are wearing comfortable clothing and have any stim toys you might want to access.
Perhaps, make sure you have any snacks you like in an easily accessible place. Sometimes when autistic people are overwhelmed or going through autistic burnout we don’t have the executive functioning to prepare meals. At least if you have some options that require little effort, you can easily grab something if you do suddenly realise you are hungry.
Finding peer support you can turn to at any time is invaluable. You do not need to tell them about your eating habits but having general support in place means you are less likely to struggle with a whole range of things, which can have a positive knock-on effect. It is worth seeing what there is in your area (try looking on notice boards in community centres, GP surgeries, town halls and libraries and at your council’s website) but if there is nothing available or you are unable to attend there are many online support groups.
For more information on eating disorders, you could check out the Beat website: www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk