Dying to be Thin, But Living on the Autistic Edge—Autism & Anorexia

Inside the closet, surrounded by collages of clippings from popular magazines and a sea of oversized clothes stands a tween girl.  Her skeletal shoulder blades move like broken wings along her skin. Rules of measure order her life.

One ounce of water, one cube of cheese, a hundred calories gone here. A pinch of fat gripped by bony fingers. She is confined by self-focus, attention to detail, and rigidity.

In her desire to be thin, the tween may have gotten more than she bargained for: autistic traits.

New research in the journal Molecular Autism shows that “girls with anorexia have an above average number of autistic traits, an above average interest in systems, and a below average in empathy.”

Girls with anorexia display the same structural and functional changes in the social perception region of the brain.  Control is their friend; food is their enemy.

Both adversary and ally join forces to isolate them from everyone.

Anorexic girls also order everything around systems.  Their weight, body mass, their food must be under their control.  They interpret comments from loved ones and friends through a distorted system of reality.

Autistic children take in information through their own systems, tend to be socially isolated, and favor rigidity and systems, too.  According to a study conducted by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the Autism Research Centre atCambridge, this new information can assist them in developing interventions for both conditions.

Dr. Baron-Cohen’s team administered three instruments that measure autistic traits:  an Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), a Systemising Quotient (SQ), and an Empathy Quotient.

They revealed the following results:


Five times more girls with anorexia scored in the range that people with autism score in, compared to the typical girls.  In addition, on the AQ, over half of the girls with anorexia showed the ‘broader autism phenotype.’ Compared to just 15% of typical girls.  On the tests of empathy and systemizing (how strong an interest the person has in repeating patterns and predictable rule-based systems), girls with anorexia had a higher SQ, and a reduced EQ, a profile that parallels that seen in autism.


This study gives new insight into changing the mindsets of anorexic girls.  By using systems, they can learn how to shift their sense of control to an order that is less unhealthy for them.

Thanks to this new research, there is one more thing that girls with anorexia and children with autism share:  the need to accept their differences as a part of their individuality and ignore what society thinks.


*”Girls With Anorexia Have Elevated Autistic Traits.”  Science News.  August 5, 2013.  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130805223140.htm


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