3 "ED Behaviors" that are ACTUALLY Autistic Traits
It’s my birthday! And to celebrate my 23rd year of life, I wanted to share this special birthday post in which I’ll be sharing 3 “ED behaviors” that were actually my autistic traits. If you’ve read any of my previous posts and as you’ll read in my upcoming book, you know I’m a firm believer in the idea that my eating disorder was a manifestation of my undiagnosed autism.
My eating disorder masked my being autistic for almost a decade, and I believe it was the very lack of recognition for underlying autism that contributed to the prolonged duration of my illness. I was tossed in and out of treatment for years, acting as the perfect patient every time. I told therapists what I had learned they wanted to hear, and manipulated the system in any way possible. As soon as I left treatment, my weight would spiral downwards...which sent me right back to treatment.
No one could figure out why all the therapists, nutritionists, and psychologists weren’t helping me get better; after all, they were the “professionals”, right? Now, looking back at what was almost 7 years in and out of traditional treatment through an autistic lens, I completely understand why treatment only made my eating disorder worse: the professionals were trying to rid me of my autistic traits.
The very focus on eliminating characteristically autistic traits such as the need for predictability, difficulty with change, preference for visual order, and literal-mindedness actually made me hold onto the very thing that led me to cope with feeling invalidated in the first place, which was obviously my eating disorder!
As autistic people, we are told we’re “too sensitive,” that we”re “picky eaters,” that we’re “emotionless” and “rude” and often that "we only think about ourselves.” These are all labels placed on us by the external world, labels we cannot control. We cannot control others’ perceptions of us, and because autistic people tend struggle to understand social cues, we often mask even harder to “play it safe” and do everything we can to ensure other people like us, or as I used to say, make sure people don't “hate me”.
This lack of control over our external circumstances, which basically comes down to it just being impossible to meet our needs in a neurotypical world that wasn’t built for us, is what causes us to cling to things we CAN control. And what’s the easiest thing there is? Bingo! How we eat and how we move. We all eat and move on an everyday basis, so logically, it makes complete sense food and exercise are such common control mechanisms.
Some people may turn to alcohol or drugs or sex, but if you look at when most eating disorders develop, it’s at quite a young age...and the only thing you really have control over as a kid, is how you eat and move! So I, like so many other people I’ve met with eating disorders, did just that: I made a plan to follow the perfect diet and follow the perfect exercise regimen, so I could – or so I thought – live a perfect life.
Years later, I understand nothing is perfect, so this plan of mine was a recipe for disaster. But hey, at least my journey to recovery was the very thing that led to my greatest discovery, and that is being autistic! This entire journey has brought me to where I am today, which is guiding other neurodivergent individuals to full recovery from an eating disorder through a 100% individualized approach.
Recovery from an eating disorder as an autistic person WILL look very different than it does for a neurotypical person because we are simply wired differently! And now I’m going to give three examples of that different wiring and unpack 3 traits that need to be considered when tailoring recovery to your autism, because the traits I’m about to share are just a mere 3 of MANY traits every professional told me I had to get rid of if I wanted to recover from my eating disorder. Let’s get into it!
1. Attaching numbers to food and exercise
My very first autistic-ED trait is attaching numbers to food and exercise, and this would be in the form of counting calories, exercising for a certain amount of time or distance, weighing and measuring my food, eating at certain times, and honestly there are just countless (no pun intended!) ways in which I attached numbers to food, exercise, and my life in general.
The latter being said, I have always attached numbers to parts of my life. At school, this manifested as a hyperfixation on grades. In sports, this manifested as a score. Even now, I’m super protective of the amount of hours I sleep, I count my pieces of clothing when I’m folding laundry, and I always brush my teeth for a minimum amount of seconds.
Eating and moving are things we humans need to do everyday, so of course this tendency to count would manifest into those parts of my life! Why it eventually turned into an eating disorder was because it came to a point where I was no longer in control and my health was put at risk...but I do want to emphasize that you can be fully recovered from an eating disorder as an autistic person and still attach numbers to food in some sense!
For example, having a set eating schedule can actually be really beneficial for autistic people, because we tend to struggle with hunger cues due to interoceptive difficulties. Furthermore, attaching a minimum number of calories to meals and snacks can be another way to use this autistic trait to your advantage in recovery, because it gives you a reason to challenge your fear of eating more in a way that aligns with your autistic desire for that number attachment. With movement, instead of trying to hit a minimum number of steps each day, set a maximum for yourself!
Long story short, the trait of attaching numbers to food and exercise does not exclusively have to be tied to your eating disorder, because it can equally be used as a strength to recover.
2. Arranging food in a certain way
My second autistic trait that I was told was solely an “eating disorder behavior” is arranging food in a certain way – think color-coordinating food items, making sure they don’t touch, and even today, I tend to use lots of small plates, different bowls, and different utensils. Ever since I was a child, I was a very picky eater and had strong preferences for the way my food looked. I believe this is strongly tied to the anatomy of the autistic brain in the sense that we think in pictures and visuals.
To comprehend and literally “get a clear picture of” what is in front of me (ranging from food to facts I had to learn in school), I needed to arrange the items in a way that I could see the separate entities. When food is all mixed up, my brain has a harder time processing the information, which can put me into a state of anxiety and thus, make it harder for me to eat due to being in fight-flight-freeze mode.
In traditional treatment, I was forced to “become comfortable” with eating food that wasn’t presented in my preferred way because “my need for perfection was my eating disorder talking.” However, the more I forced myself to do something that wasn’t aligned with the way my brain worked, the more anxious I felt…and thus, the more I wanted to cling to the control mechanism I’d clung to for years!
So again here, instead of trying to get rid of your desire for visual order, experiment with how you can use this autistic trait to your advantage in recovery from an eating disorder. Try making your food look like a work of art, and incorporate fear foods into your masterpiece! Recipe development and food photography was a huge part of this process on my own journey to full recovery from an eating disorder.
3. Eating with certain utensils, plates, and bowls
My third autistic trait that was considered an eating disorder behavior is wanting to eat with certain utensils and crockery, which is somewhat tied to my last trait in which I mentioned eating with lots of separate bowls and utensils. When I was in the thick of my eating disorder – or should I say the thin of it? – I was obsessed with learning about all the latest diet tips, tricks, and hacks.
One of these “hacks” was using smaller bowls and plates to eat off of, because visually you could make your food look like more. In line with this “hack,” I also learned that eating with smaller utensils would ensure you took smaller bites, which would prolong the eating experience…and when you’re restricting, prolonging the eating experience becomes a serious skill!
When I committed to full recovery from my eating disorder, I had to re-learn proper portions. Scratch that. I didn’t have to re-learn proper portions, I just had to learn them. I think this learning experience can be very difficult and overwhelming for individuals who developed an eating disorder at a young age like I did, because we have no history or touchpoints of what our life was like before our eating disorder.
Because we are much older and at later stages of life when we become aware of our illness and actually commit to getting better, we’re often no longer in an environment in which “normal” ways of eating can be demonstrated or shown to us. Despite all the drawbacks of traditional treatment for autistic individuals, I must say that this modeling was one of the few aspects of treatment that was helpful for me.
When I first willingly entered treatment and had decided I would do anything and everything it took to recover from the illness that almost killed me, I almost got a heart attack when I saw the size of my first meal. In my eyes, it was “way too much,” but that label was simply based on my frame of reference at the time – a frame of reference that was completely distorted by the eating disorder!
After consistently practicing and learning to eat portions of food that sufficiently nourished my body, I became aware of how disordered my patterns of using dessert spoons and mini ramekins for everything was. However, after I had restored my weight and returned back home, I noticed my desire for using the same bowls, the same plates, and the same utensils and cutlery hadn’t dissipated. I no longer felt the urge to use the smallest spoons or plates or bowls anymore, but I did always want to use the same items.
As I wondered why this was, I figured part of the reason was because all the plates and bowls and cutlery in the treatment center were the same. It’s something I never got the chance to “work on,” which was why my treatment team advised me to challenge these “ED behaviors” after care. But no matter how hard I tried, no matter how hard I forced myself to switch things up, I only noticed my anxiety get worse and thus, it became more difficult to eat.
When I finally was able to view my life through an autistic lens, this difficulty finally made sense. My desire to use the same items was simply a manifestation of my desire for predictability and routine, one of my core autistic traits!
In the end, I believe this desire for predictability and routine simply comes down to trust. As humans, we trust what we know. Just as darkness is the absence of light, distrust is simply the absence of knowledge. Autistic people have so many routines in place because it gives us a sense of trust and control in a world that is so difficult to trust, because most things are out of our control!
So just as we rely on our never-changing morning or evening routine, or rely on the comfort of the clothes we’ve come to love, we rely on the predictability of the experience that comes with eating from a certain bowl with a certain spoon.
This doesn’t have to be an eating disorder behavior because as with the two aforementioned traits, you can use your knowledge of this desire to challenge your eating disorder. For example, use the same bowl you always do, then fill that bowl with a fear food and challenge your eating disorder in that way. Combining something unknown and thus something you don’t yet trust – in this case the experience of eating the fear food – with something you do trust – in this case the bowl – you are making it easier for yourself to overcome an obstacle!
In recovery – and this is often the approach with traditional treatment – we often think we need to challenge all the things at once, but this can be so overwhelming that you are plunged into analysis paralysis and then end up not doing anything at all! This doesn’t get you anywhere, and only discourages you because you feel like you're not capable...and this is also the reason why I believe so many autistic individuals are eventually tossed out of the treatment system and labeled as “too complex” just like I was.
But you’re not “too complex” – you just need an individualized approach! The core of the work I do with my clients in 1:1 coaching is mapping out a recovery plan that aligns with your unique lifestyle and preferences, then breaking that plan down into clear, measurable, and realistic action steps. Living a life that’s free of an eating disorder doesn’t happen overnight. It took time for your disordered beliefs to engrain themselves, so it will take time for your brain to create new neural connections that support the life you want to live. To achieve that life, the key is taking small, consistent action steps over time. This way, you build confidence and motivation, which makes for a sustainable recovery – and isn’t sustaining your health and happiness the very thing you want?
And that's all I have for you today, my friend! if you loved this post and want to support all the free value I provide, I would like to invite you to become a Liv Label Free Patron. Creating consistent content takes a lot of time and energy, and as much as I wish it did, free content doesn’t pay the bills. So, for as little as $5 a month, you can support me on Patreon which allows me to continue doing what I love most – and that IS providing you with as much possible value! Plus, it’s my birthday, so consider it your gift to me ;)
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