Science News

What links Anorexia and Autism?

Thu, 8th Aug 2013

Hannah Critchlow

Part of the show Mapping out the Milky Way

Hannah - So, this is a study that's been published by a group of Cambridge Size Tagsresearchers based at the Autism Research Centre. So, Simon Baron-Cohen whos Director and Professor of that unit has been looking at anorexia which actually affects 1 in 10 people in the UK. Its the food disorder where people might starve themselves and it can actually in 30% of cases, lead to death because of clinical conditions that may, for example cause organ failure.

Very little is known about the biological basis of anorexia, but Simon was interested in some of the facets of anorexia. So, this compulsion to control what you're eating and also, to really kind of control and regime different aspects of your life. He thought that might be similar to autism which is a typically very male syndrome. So, he analysed 66 adolescent girls aged between 12 and 18 who had been diagnosed with anorexia, but without a diagnosis of autism and he looked at different aspects of their behaviour using different paradigms called the autism spectrum quotient and also the systemising quotient and their empathy quotient. So, this is basically just asking them to report on different aspects of their behaviour. So for example, how much they systemise different aspects of their life and also, how much they feel and respond to other people in their environment. So, its quite a subjective analysis.

He found that there was huge similarities between girls with anorexia and people that have been diagnosed with autism. Now, this is really interesting because the majority of people that are typically diagnosed with autism are male. So possibly, the people with anorexia have a certain degree of autism and this could affect the way that they're being treated in terms of therapy.

Dominic - Now, autism is a spectrum of conditions going right from quite mild cases to really severe cases where children can't even speak. Is Baron-Cohen talking here about severe autism or mild cases?

Hannah - So yeah, as you mention, autism can involve a triad of impairments.  So, that's problems with social interaction, communication, and also, imagination. There's a big spectrum of severity that these triad of impairments can actually take in a person with autism, but Simon Baron-Cohen is really looking at the mild end of autism and comparing them with people with anorexia.

Something that people commonly associate with autism is this systemising, so kind of controlling play. So for example, playing with train tracks and putting things in a particular order and that's something that you also see with anorexia kind of controlling the meals, the food that they eat. So, there's a commonality there between the two disorders and realising that and understanding that may lead to new treatments for girls and males with anorexia.

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