Scientists studying girls with anorexia have found they show
a mild echo of the characteristics of autism, a finding that could point to new ways of
helping anorexics overcome their illness.
A study by autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge
University's Autism Research Centre found that compared to typical girls, those
with anorexia have an above average number of autistic traits.
They were also found to have an above average interest in
systems and order, and below average scores in empathy, a profile similar but
less pronounced to that seen in people with autism, suggesting the two
disorders may have common underlying features, Baron-Cohen
said. Traditionally, anorexia has been viewed purely as an eating
"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 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 .People with autism have varying levels of impairment
across three main areas, social interaction and empathy or understanding,
repetitive behaviour and interests, and language and communication.
Cohen noted that autism and anorexia share certain features,
such as rigid attitudes and behaviours, a tendency to be very self-focused, and
a fascination with detail. Both disorders also share similar differences in the
structure and function of brain regions involved in social perception.
As many as one in 50 school age children in the
United States are diagnosed with autism. In Europe, experts say the rate is
around one in 100 children. Most cases are diagnosed in boys. But Bonnie
Auyeung, who worked with Baron-Cohen on this latest research, said its findings
suggested a proportion of females with autism might be overlooked or
misdiagnosed because doctors see them first with anorexia.
The study, published in the BioMed Central journal Molecular
Autism, tested how 66 girls aged 12 to 18 with anorexia, but without autism,
scored on tests to measure autistic traits.
The researchers compared them to more than 1 600 typical
teenagers in the same age range, measuring their autistic traits using a score
called the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), their "systemising" using
the Systemising Quotient (SQ), and their empathy using the Empathy Quotient
(EQ). Compared to typical girls on the AQ, five times more girls with anorexia
scored in the range where people with autism score. On tests of empathy and
systemising, girls with anorexia had a higher SQ, and a reduced EQ, a profile
the researchers said parallels that seen in autism.
Tony Jaffa, who co-led the study, said acknowledging that
some anorexic patients may also have a higher than normal number of autistic
traits and a love of systems, offer 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) 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."