A study at UCL predicted the high likeliness of autistic children to form an eating dysfunction, in comparison to their peers. Previous research on the topic had concluded the mutual occurrence of autism and eating disorders. This was after 20-30% of adults with eating disorders were autistic. Additionally, 3-10% of children and teenagers with eating disorders were autistic.
However, whether autism is a result of eating disorders or whether autism leads to it, is ambiguous. A study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, that concluded the existence of autism in childhood prior to eating disorders, and ruled it out as a potential risk factor.
The lead author. Dr. Francesca Solmi commented that the study concluded a higher likelihood of development of eating disorders in children with autistic features at the age of 7, in comparison to their peers.
Dr. Francesca Solmi continued that many previous pieces of research did not attempt to track the individuals over a period of a few years. Hence, this raised the ambiguity of whether autism increased the risks of eating disorders. Moreover, the possibility of similarity in the symptoms of the two conditions was raised.
There were 5,381 participants in the study, all at their adolescence. They had been a part of the research from their birth, while also being involved in the University of Bristol’s Children of the 90s cohort study. The researchers tracked autistic characteristics at years 7, 11, 14, and 16, and eating disorders at years 14.
The researchers looked into any autistic traits that the mothers reported, rather than clinical diagnosis. This implied that the research could also involve participants who were not autistic, but also autistic participants who were not clinically diagnosed.
Within a time span of the previous year,
- 11.2% of females reported a minimum of 1 behavioral characteristic of an eating disorder. The results showed 7.3% experienced such characteristics monthly, while 3.9% experienced them weekly.
- 3.6% of males reported a minimum of 1 behavioral characteristic of an eating disorder. 2.3% experienced them monthly and 1.3% weekly.
Children with eating disorders showed autistic features by age 7 which suggested that autistic traits appeared before eating disorders. Hence, autism could be a potential risk factor.
Children displaying autistic features at age 7 held a 24% more likelihood of developing disordered eating behaviors weekly in the next 7 years. Further research concluded, that these behaviors did not build autistic traits by age 16.
The next steps
However, the study did not focus on the reasons leading up to the relationship between the two. However, many researchers concluded that the social challenges that come with autism may lead to depression and anxiety in teenagers. Eventually, this could result in unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with these emotional struggles.
Co-author Dr. William Mandy concluded that the next step would be to study the relationship between the two with reasoning to design the prevention of these eating disorders.
Dr. Willia Mandy further explained that almost a fifth of anorexic women had increased levels of autistic traits. Senior author Professor Glyn Lewis cautions parents and guardians of autistic children, to be careful and alert regarding any eating disorders or related behaviors and seek help at an early stage.
Eating disorder charity Beat’s director of external affairs, Tom Quinn talked about the research. He explained that they welcome this research and its findings and hope for further implementation of helpful precautions. Quinn encouraged further research on this. He hoped for this to be the foundation to determine the concrete causation of the disorder and the relationship between the two.
A number of prestigious organizations supported this research. This included the NHIR Biomedical Research Centres at UCL, the Unversity of Bristol, and the Medical Research Council. Researchers hope for this study to aid the guardians of autistic children to look out for potential risks that may develop in the child’s later years.