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Autism, Eating Disorders, and Harm Reduction

autism recovery

When discussing eating disorders, the traditional approach to treatment often emphasizes the elimination of disordered behaviors and achieving a state of "full recovery" as defined by societal norms. However, this one-size-fits-all model can be particularly problematic for autistic individuals, whose experiences and needs can vastly differ from neurotypical standards.

Harm reduction offers a more compassionate and practical approach, recognizing the unique challenges faced by autistic people with eating disorders. This post explores why harm reduction can be a life-changing aspect of supporting an autistic person struggling with disordered eating, highlighting its role in promoting safety, individual recovery, and hope.

What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction for eating disorders is an approach that focuses on minimizing the negative consequences associated with disordered eating behaviors rather than eliminating them entirely. This approach acknowledges that recovery is a complex and individualized process, and it aims to support individuals in making safer choices and improving their quality of life.

Disordered Eating Behaviors are Safety Adaptations

For many autistic individuals, many “ED behaviors” are not merely symptoms of a psychiatric condition but are deeply intertwined with their need for safety and predictability. Autistic people often have heightened sensitivities to textures, tastes, and routines. These sensitivities can make the goal of achieving "typical” eating patterns not only impossible, but harmful and traumatic.

Instead of viewing autistic eating preferences as pathological, it is crucial we invite curiosity and view these behaviors as adaptive mechanisms that help an autistic person cope in this overwhelming world. Harm reduction approaches prioritize understanding and respecting these needs, helping individuals make safer choices within their unique context rather than pushing them towards an unrealistic standard of "normal" eating.

Individual and Nuanced Recovery

The traditional recovery model often pressures individuals to conform to a specific idea of what "recovered" looks like. This model can be particularly alienating for autistic people, whose experiences and definitions of health & wellness often do not align with societal expectations. Harm reduction acknowledges that recovery is highly individual and nuanced. It shifts the focus from rigid benchmarks to aligning actions with personal values and one’s desired life. This approach is especially vital for autistic individuals, who often face additional complexities in their relationship with food and eating.

Providing Hope, Not Giving Up

A critical misunderstanding about harm reduction is the notion that it equates to “giving up hope for full recovery.” On the contrary, harm reduction provides hope, particularly for those who have been labeled as "too complex" or "treatment-resistant" due to their neurodivergence. Traditional models may inadvertently marginalize these individuals by failing to accommodate their unique needs, leading to a sense of hopelessness.

Harm reduction offers an inclusive and supportive framework for autistic people who cannot fit the mold of society’s definition of “normal eating.” By focusing on achievable goals and incremental improvements, harm reduction helps build a foundation for an individual’s unique form of health and happpiness.

Incorporating harm reduction into the treatment of eating disorders for autistic individuals is not about lowering standards or abandoning the goal of recovery. It's about reimagining recovery in a way that is inclusive, compassionate, and realistic. By respecting the unique ways in which autistic people navigate the world, we can provide them with the support they need to achieve a meaningful and sustainable sense of well-being. If you want help on that journey, learn more about 1-1 coaching with me here!

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