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Does my autistic child have an eating disorder?

Home » Medical » Does my autistic child have an eating disorder?

Child with disgust looking at saladDo you have a child or family member on the autistic spectrum who struggles with eating challenges? Are you concerned they may have an ‘eating disorder’?

I often get contacted for advice by parents who are concerned about their children suffering the physical effects of food avoidance and food anxieties (often sensory based), so here is some information which I passed on to a parent this morning which may be helpful:

“.You may or may not be aware that researchers are now looking at the link between anorexia and autism, as many of the (state dependent) features of anorexia are strikingly similar to those on the autistic spectrum.

You are also most likely aware that food issues/anxieties are very common on the autistic spectrum.

You are right to be concerned as restricting food will most certainly exacerbate her anxiety on a physiological level due to adrenal exhaustion and low blood sugars, however it may be something as simple as her appetite being suppressed by the physical symptoms of anxiety which is also very common.

Please rest assured that all of these food anxieties that you described are a very common feature of the autistic spectrum (and often sensory based) and we would NOT consider this to fall into the eating disorder spectrum. One of the main features of anorexia is a drive to achieve and maintain a very low body weight and an extreme and phobic fear of weight gain and body fat.

Unless your child is displaying a particular preoccupation with her weight and body image then I think you can rest assured.

I work with a LOT of parents who have children on the spectrum and am very familiar with the symptoms which dominate many of our family get together’s!

If you understand the physiological cycle of stress in the body it all becomes much clearer….during a fight or flight response the body quickly re-diverts resources into the arms and legs, while shutting down non-essential functions in order to conserve energy. One of these functions is digestion (we use up a LOT of energy digesting food!) and can often evacuate food in the stomach (either vomiting or diarrhoea) in order to complete this function (hence IBS etc)

SO…the cycle for someone on the spectrum with food anxieties goes like this:

1) A general and enduring feeling of low level anxiety increasing rapidly depending on exposure to certain stimulus…most children on the spectrum are in a constant state of hyper-arousal.

2) Anxiety increases rapidly around food/food anxieties.

3) Goes into fight or flight response.

4) Appetite suppressed due to physiological response and suppression of digestive system and other non- essential functions during fight or flight response.

5) Negative associations build up and become constantly reinforced around eating events, which becomes hardwired into the brain with repetition.

6) Entrenched patterns start forming with stimulus avoiding behaviours becoming more reinforced, including the general avoidance of anxiety on top of existing anxieties which impact both parent/carer and child.

EFT is an amazing therapy and perfect for these issues. It is becoming highly evidence based, and a clinically proven to be a safe and effective technique for managing anxieties of any description, particularly for children.
We developed and ran a workshop last year for parents and carers of children with dyslexia and ADHD, where we demonstrated the simplicity of using these techniques.

Best thing is they are so easy for the children to use as a self-soothing resource, particularly when out dealing with the immense anxieties and challenges of the outside world.”

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