Scientists at Cambridge University have found that girls with anorexia possess traits that echo characteristics of autism; their findings may helpfully impact the way we discuss, diagnose, and treat the disorder.
Anorexia is often viewed purely as an eating disorder because of its obvious link with food consumption and body image. The study's lead researcher, autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen argues that this logic — while completely reasonable — tends to be a bit reductive. According to Cohen, people with autism are impaired in the areas of social interaction, empathy, and communication. They also tend to engage in repetitive behavior and have rigid interests.
Cohen argues that those with anorexia share some of these features; however, the repetitive behavior and rigid interest in anorexics just manifests as an obsessive focus on food intake, weight, and body shape. Other similarities include a tendency to be self-focused and detail-oriented, as well as having matching differences in the structure and function of certain brain regions.
The study examined how girls with anorexia scored on tests to measure autistic traits using a score called the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), their "systemizing" tendencies using the Systemizing Quotient, and their empathy using the Empathy Quotient (EQ). It found that girls with anorexia are five times more likely to have an AQ score in the range typically associated with autism. They're also more likely to display a higher SQ and EQ, both of which are consistent with being on the autism spectrum — although the traits were less pronounced.
Shifting the way we view the eating disorder is really useful. According to Tony Jaffa, who co-led the study, recognizing the parallels between anorexia and autism can yield more fruitful treatment methods:
Shifting [anorexic patients'] interest away from body weight and dieting on to a different but equally systematic topic may be helpful. Recognizing that some patients with anorexia may also need help with social skills and communication, and with adapting to change, also gives us a new treatment angle.
It sounds like a good start; hopefully it can be implemented successfully in treatment facilities.
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