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Eating disorders and Neurodiversity

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Therapists are asking for more awareness to be raised around the link between eating disorders and neurodiversity. They have been noticing a rise in cases of undiagnosed patients, many who have reached adulthood without knowing they are neurodiverse. This is especially apparent in women, partly because girls are better at masking certain behaviours and copying or role-playing social skills.

It is thought that about 1 in 5 people in the UK are neurodivergent, meaning their brain functions, learns and processes differently to others. Neurodivergence includes dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, and other neurological conditions.

Children with autism often have issues with food or eating. They may be highly sensitive to textures, the appearance of food, the smell, and the sound of food. Along side this the social aspect of eating can be challenging due to noise or bright lights. Physical problems can also present, such as difficulty chewing or swallowing, and gastrointestinal issues can also diminish the pleasure of eating for them.

Many of the symptoms and behaviours overlap with those experienced by eating disorder patients, highlighting the need for more research into the connection. The most common types of eating disorders seen in neurodiverse people are anorexia and ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder).

In autistic patients the restrictive eating behaviours are less frequently driven by body image concerns but instead used as a coping tool to mask emotions and anxiety. They also have a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviours e.g calories counting or excessive exercising, which can be a precursor anorexia.

ARFID, which involves avoiding certain foods is often thought to be the most appropriate diagnosis for some neurodivergent people who are underweight or struggling to eat, especially when their reasons for avoiding food are not driven by weight or body image concerns.

There is a disparity between the growing awareness of the need for specialist help in this area and the availability of it. It is vitally important that patients are also assessed for neurodiversity as part of their initial assessment process, so that a care plan can be specifically tailored to the individual and their needs. Also, additional support in the form of help with broadening food choices, for neurodiverse children with food related issues, to decrease the risk of them developing food avoidance in adulthood.

Research into the connection between eating disorders and neurodiversity will continue to grow, enabling further understanding of the link between the two, allowing specialists to continue improving the care their patients receive. This will further enable more patients to gain access to the most appropriate treatment for them as an individual.

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