The research, led by autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., at Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, showed that compared to typical girls, those with anorexia have an above-average interest in systems and order, and below-average scores in empathy.
This is similar — to a lesser degree — to traits found in autism. This finding suggests that the two disorders may have common underlying features, said Baron-Cohen.
“Traditionally, anorexia has been viewed purely as an eating disorder. This is quite reasonable, since the girls’ dangerously low weight and their risk of malnutrition or even death has to be the highest priority,” he said.
“But this new research is suggesting that underlying the surface behavior, 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.”
People with autism have varying levels of dysfunction in three main areas: social interaction and empathy or understanding, repetitive behavior and interests, and language and communication.
Autism and anorexia share certain features, said Baron-Cohen, such as rigid attitudes and behaviors, a tendency to be very self-focused, and an attraction toward details. Both conditions also feature similar differences in the structure and function of brain regions involved in social perception.
Bonnie Auyeung, Ph.D., who also participated in the research, said these findings may suggest a proportion of females with autism may be getting overlooked or misdiagnosed because doctors see them first with anorexia.
For the study, researchers tested 66 girls, aged 12 to 18, with anorexia but without autism to see how they scored on tests designed to measure autistic traits.
The researchers compared the participants’ scores to over 1,600 typical teenagers in the same age range, measuring their autistic traits using a score called the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), their “systemizing” using the Systemising Quotient (SQ), and their empathy using the Empathy Quotient (EQ).
The findings revealed that, compared to typical girls on the AQ, five times more girls with anorexia scored in the same range as people with autism. On tests of empathy and systemizing, girls with anorexia had a higher SQ, and a reduced EQ, a profile the researchers said parallels that seen in autism.
Dr. Tony Jaffa, who co-led the study, said understanding that some anorexic patients may also have a higher than normal number of autistic traits and a love of systems offers specialists new ideas for ways to treat people with the eating disorder.
“Shifting their interest away from body weight and dieting on to a different but equally systematic topic may be helpful,” he said. “(And) 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.”
Source: Molecular Autism