According to a recent study published in Molecular Autism, girls with anorexia nervosa exhibit characteristics of autism. The study found lower empathy and an increased interest in systems among women who exhibit the symptoms of anorexia, drawing parallels with certain personality characteristics common in those with autism.
At first glance, anorexia and autism seem very different, but they both share certain features, such as rigid attitudes and behaviours, a tendency to be very self-focussed, and a fascination with detail. Both conditions also share similar alterations in structure and function of brain regions involved in social perception.
The team, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, tested how 66 adolescent girls (aged 12-18) with anorexia but without autism scored on tests to measure traits related to autism. They compared them to over 1,600 typical teenagers in the same age range, and measured their autistic traits using the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), their 'systemizing' using the Systemising Quotient (SQ), and their empathy using the Empathy Quotient (EQ) (BioMed Central Limited, 2013)
Five times more anorexic girls scored in a range associated with autism on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) relative to non-anorexic girls. Anorexic girls had a lower Empathy Quotient (EQ) as well as a higher Systemising Quotient (SQ), once again exhibiting parallels to the personality characteristics we see in autism. The researcheres summarized the potential significance of the data:
Traditionally, anorexia has been viewed purely as an eating disorder. This is quite reasonable, since the girl's dangerously low weight, and their risk of malnutrition or even death has to be the highest priority. But this new research is suggesting that underlying the surface behaviour, the mind of a person with anorexia may share a lot with the mind of a person with autism. In both conditions, there is a strong interest in systems. In girls with anorexia, they have latched onto a system that concerns body weight, shape, and food intake."
Dr Bonnie Auyeung, a member of the research team, added: "Autism is diagnosed more often in males. This new research suggests that a proportion of females with autism may be being overlooked or misdiagnosed, because they present to clinics with anorexia."
Dr Tony Jaffa, who co-led the study, said: "Acknowledging that some patients with anorexia may also have a raised number of autistic traits and a love of systems gives us new possibilities for intervention and management. For example, shifting their 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" (BioMed Central Limited, 2013)
BioMed Central Limited. (2013, August 5). Girls with anorexia have elevated autistic traits. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 13, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130805223140.htm