Is Anorexia The “Female Asperger’s”?

CC BY-NC by LuieRRe

CC BY-NC by LuieRRe

In August, Autism Daily Newscast ran an article covering a recent study linking the characteristics of autism and anorexia nervosa. In our recent series on females with autism, we also covered the differences in the way symptoms of autism present in girls, leading to later diagnosis, and leading to the question – is autism in girls under-diagnosed?

Now, researchers are following up on the link between autism and anorexia, and taking it a step further, wondering, is anorexia actually undiagnosed autism?

Janet Treasure, Professor of Psychiatry at King’s College, London, and head of the Eating Disorders Unit at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, believes it may be. She cites personality traits that tend to overlap between the two disorders. These include perfectionism, anxiety, extreme rule-making, and preoccupation with and rigid adherence to these rules. Her theory also flies against the common belief that eating disorders are caused by outside triggers – namely, a media that glorifies a slim female body.

Other studies have also noted similarities between the two disorders. These findings suggest that current treatment models for eating disorders are missing the mark. Professor Christopher Gillberg of the University of Strathclyde believes that this link to undetected autism may be the reason for anorexia’s low recovery rates. Currently 5% of anorexic patients die from complications due to their disorder, and only 40% make a full recovery. Professor Gillberg believes that the current treatment model of psychotherapy and family therapy is ineffective because patients are unable to understand the full ramifications of what is being said. He believes that a more concrete, one-on-one intervention model would be more effective.

Judith Gould, director of the National Autistic Society’s Diagnostic Centre, believes that autism in girls is often misdiagnosed because their symptoms present differently than those in boys. She agrees that anorexia, which is predominately diagnosed in girls, could be linked to an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder.

Scientists are starting to take note of the similarities, and are seeking genetic and biochemical causes for eating disorders, using DNA sequencers and PET scanners to find biological differences in the brains of patients with anorexia.

Not all experts agree, however. Dr. Richard Pomerance, Phd., has treated a number of Asperger’s patients in his private practice in Boston. He says, “Just because it looks like a duck doesn’t make anorexia an Asperger’s duck.” He also points out that there are several symptoms of Asperger’s that do not always present in patients with anorexia, such as difficulty interpreting facial expressions and social cues.

Is it possible that a number of patients with eating disorders are actually have an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder? And is it also possible that by improving early detection of autism spectrum disorders in girls, we could reduce the number of girls who will eventually develop eating disorders such as anorexia?

More research is necessary to determine whether this is the case, but the links between autism and eating disorders could point the way.