New study links autism traits and eating disorders in moms of autistic children

September 30, 2020

A July 2020 study in the journal Autism Research found that mothers with eating disorders and a child with autism showed more autistic traits than mothers without an eating disorder, leading researchers to suggest that overlap between disordered eating and autism could contribute to underdiagnosis of autism in females. 

Analyzing data from questionnaires that measure certain traits common in autism – including social aloofness, rigid personalities and pragmatic abnormalities – researchers found 2. 2 percent of moms of children with autism also had an eating disorder, compared with less than 1 percent of fathers and siblings.  

In addition, 23 percent of mothers with eating disorders had elevated scores on the Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire (BAP-Q), compared with 9 percent of mothers without a history of eating disorders. 

“This study explores an understudied link between disordered eating behaviors and common autistic traits like rigidity,” said Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Thomas W. Frazier, Ph.D. “With better understanding of how these behaviors may affect other areas of health, like mental health and nutrition, we can look for ways to improve quality of life for autistic people and their families.” 

Of the traits linked to history of eating disorder, the study found the strongest link with rigidity, followed by aloofness and pragmatic behaviors. 

The rate of eating disorders among the mothers studied is lower than the rate of eating disorders in the general population, which is estimated to be about 6 to 15 percent.  

Study participants were first-degree relatives (parents and siblings) of people with autism who participated in the Simons Simplex Collection (SSC) study, one of the largest autism genetic studies in the U.S. Participants in the SSC are from families with only one child diagnosed with autism, known as a “simplex” family. As part of the study, each family contributed data for multiple family members from questionnaires related to autism symptoms and other health information. 

This new data analysis, funded in part by Autism Speaks, suggests that the chronic underdiagnosis of autism in women could be due to a lack of recognition of autistic behaviors that are gender-linked, given the higher rates of eating disorders in women versus men. The results suggest that women may be expressing autism through certain restrictive behaviors, such as disordered eating and intense focus on exercise, that overlap with other psychiatric conditions like eating disorders that are more common in women. 

Previous smaller studies have found an increased prevalence of autism in women with eating disorders. 

“This may suggest that clinicians should consider disordered eating patterns in women and girls when screening for autism, and look more closely at social communication differences that are similarly subtle in order to accurately diagnose autism when it’s appropriate,” said Dr. Frazier. 

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