A new study lead by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University suggests that girls with anorexia have a higher than average “number of autistic traits” (University of Cambridge, 2013). These traits include an “above average interest in systems” and a below average empathy score (ibid). Considering the rigid personality, attitudes and behaviours of anorexics and their obsessive thought patterns in relation to body weight, body image and eating patterns it is not difficult to see how they can be interpreted as typical of autism.
n the study, first published the Journal of Molecular Autism, Baron-Cohen et al. assessed 66 girls between the ages of 12 and 18 with anorexia but no history of autism for autistic traits. A control group of over 1,600 neurotypical teens in the same age group were also given the same assessments including the the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), Systemising Quotient (SQ) and the Empathy Quotient (EQ). Results showed that compared with the control group, the anorexic girls were five times more likely to score in the autistic spectrum. More than 50% of the anorexic girls fell into the “broader autism phenotype” compared with only 15% of the control (ibid). Furthermore, the anorexic girls also scored a higher SQ and lower EQ which also points towards an autistic personality.
As interesting as these results are there is indeed a practical application. Cases of autism are far more prevalent in males; however, Baron-Cohen’s findings show that perhaps autism in young girls is being overshadowed by a diagnosis of anorexia. Dr Tony Jaffa, co-leader of the study confirms that the new correlation between autistic traits and anorexia will give health professionals and researchers a new means to help those suffering from the eating disorder. He remarks:
“For example, shifting their interest away from body weight and dieting on to a different but equally systematic topic may be helpful. Recognising 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”