How my Autistic Traits turned into Eating Disorder Behaviors
Today I’ll be sharing how my autism manifested as an eating disorder! If you follow me on Instagram @livlabelfree or are already familiar with content through my blogs, YouTube channel, and my podcast, chances are you’ve heard me talk about autistic traits and how they are often closely linked to disordered eating behaviors. In my upcoming book I also illustrate how my eating disorder developed based on certain personality traits, and I honestly believe the fact that my autism was undiagnosed, propelled me to turn to controlling food and exercise when I was just 11 years old.
One very important thing to note before I share five of these personality traits is that autism did not CAUSE my eating disorder, as autism & eating disorders do not have a cause-effect relationship. If they did, then everyone with autism would get an eating disorder. This is similar to the myth that “thin models” or “magazines” causing eating disorders to be untrue, because if thin models truly caused Anorexia or other eating disorders, everyone who saw a thin model would get an eating disorder..,and we all know that’s not true! We are ALL exposed to diet culture and we are ALL exposed to the media, but only a fraction of the population goes on to develop a full-blown eating disorder.
A HUGE factor in the development of an eating disorder has to do with genetics, and we all already know (or I hope you know) that autism is a genetic disability…it’s something you’re simply born with. It’s not caused by vaccines, bad parenting, or any of those bullshit myths that people will come up with nowadays. You also cannot “treat” autism because it’s a disability, whereas an eating disorder is a, well, DISORDER, meaning that you CAN treat it. A disability is part of your identity, a disorder is not.
There’s obviously still SO much research that has to be done when it comes to exploring the genetic link between autism and eating disorders, but I believe that awareness of these co-morbid mental health issues is key. I believe people openly talking about this link, like I do on my podcast, my blog, my YouTube Channel, and my Instagram, is also key! There are several statistics attaching numbers to probability and occurrence of someone who is autistic AND has an ED, but I don't believe these statistics are reliable because they don't even come close to the reality of how many people who have an eating disorder are ALSO autistic.
Just to take me as an example, I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was 11...and only found out about autism nearly a decade later! And this discovery was not even because someone else suspected it, but because I started doing my own research. Since finding out I am autistic I have learned so much, and that’s exactly what I’m going to be sharing with you today! So without further ado, here are 5 autistic traits that turned into eating disorder behaviors.
1. Highly Sensitive
My first autistic eating disorder trait is that I’m highly sensitive. I was a super picky eater growing up and have always been really sensitive to the way food makes me feel. I have a very sensitive stomach which I’ll be sharing more about in an upcoming gut health post (be sure to subscribe to get it delivered straight to your inbox!), because I know that gut issues are all too common among autistic individuals as well as those with eating disorders! So already here, the combination of picky eating and resisting certain foods due to sensitivities gave rise to restriction because I would only eat foods that made me feel “safe” and foods that I trusted would not wreck my gut. When it came to my eating disorder, these foods kept getting more and more limited, up to the point where I only had a few foods I felt safe eating.
2. Difficulty with Change
My second trait is difficulty with change and having a strong preference for structure and routine. All of the traits I’m sharing today are obviously interlinked, but I believe that difficulty with change played a significant role in the prolonged duration in my battle with Anorexia. Change is incredibly hard for autistic people, and this can obviously be a huge barrier when it comes to recovery from an eating disorder…because to recover, you basically have to change every single thing you are doing! Whether that’s branching out and eating new foods, stopping the excessive exercise, just eating more calories and eating foods with higher nutrient density…all of these behaviors and habits come down to changing what you are doing on an everyday basis! Autistic people CLING to routine, just like I clung to my running routine and rigid eating structure during my eating disorder. But in recovery, I had to change all of these routines. And to do that, every choice I made had to be the opposite of what my eating disorder told me, which brings me to my third autistic-ED trait!
3. Difficulty Choosing
…and that is difficulty choosing! As an autistic person, I have an incredibly hard time making choices. That’s why I have so many routines in place; to prevent me from having several different options! Because when I do, I get so caught up on making the “perfect” decision, that I get overwhelmed and end up not choosing anything at all! This phenomenon is called analysis paralysis and is very common in individuals with anorexia as well, as I unpack further in my post Interoception in Autism and Anorexia. One relevant topic I discuss in that post is that anorexia seems to be the “solution” to analysis paralysis -- when we can’t figure out the "perfect" food to eat, we end up not eating at all – and this loops back to why the development of eating disorders is so common among autistic individuals.
The avoidance of analysis paralysis through food can appear on two opposite ends of the spectrum, meaning pure restriction or it can also manifest as overeating. On the restriction end, simply not eating may become a coping strategy for not having to face decisions. When it comes to overeating, however, it’s because we can't choose what to eat, that we end up eating everything and then feeling overly full. But because autistic people are super sensitive and feeling full can feel very uncomfortable, they may turn to using dangerous behaviors such as self-induced vomiting or exercise to purge. I’ve personally experienced both sides of the spectrum – from simply not eating enough to abusing exercise – so if you’re dealing with any or both of these behaviors, know that you’re not alone and there IS a way out!
4. Literal thinking
My fourth autistic trait that led to the development of my eating disorder is literal thinking. Looking back at my childhood, I believe – scratch that – I am CERTAIN literal thinking was HUGE factor in the development of my ED at such a young age…and honestly, writing my book has been such an insightful process because it’s really made me aware of all the ways I tried to navigate life as an undiagnosed autistic girl.
One story I share in my book is how in 5th grade, I started learning a lot about health and nutrition. This is also when we had to start taking fitness tests during gym class, so as someone who was a perfectionist and wanted to be the best at everything, this combination was a perfect storm for developing disordered eating behaviors.
In nutrition class, we were given a lot of blanket statements such as that you “should” eat an apple instead of chips, and that eating “too much” sugar could cause diabetes or obesity. My detail-oriented brain took these “recommendations” very literally, as I truly feared that I would get sick if I didn’t eat the “healthiest” option or workout for the recommended time each day. Quickly, my latching on to these "recommendations" became super obsessive, which leads me to the fifth and final trait I’ll be sharing today:
5. Obsessive Personality
…and that is having an obsessive personality! Because we all know that disordered eating just revolves around obsession! Whether that be obsession with healthy eating (more specifically the case with orthorexia), obsession with calorie counting, and/or an obsession with exercise, an eating disorder should honestly be called an obsessive disorder!
As anyone who’s struggled with disordered eating knows, it’s not actually about the food or exercise, or dare I say even the relationship with the food or exercise. Food and exercise are simply tangible things – things autistic people can easily control in a world that wasn’t built for us. We can’t control or change the stimuli everywhere, we can’t control or change the fact that neurotypicals don’t make plans, and we can’t control others’ judgment of our lack of social skills – but we can control what we put into our mouth and how we move. So if you think about it this way, it really isn’t strange that so many neurodivergent people go on to develop eating disorders!
Full recovery from an eating disorder as an autistic person is 100% possible!
But with all that said, I want to reiterate that just because you may have fallen into an eating disorder due to being neurodivergent, doesn’t mean you have to stay stuck in one forever. As I illustrate in my upcoming book and am always talking about with my clients in 1:1 coaching and in my course, awareness is the very first step to change.
Understanding that my eating disorder was a manifestation of my autism, allowed me to stop being a victim to the disorder and instead, learn to embrace my neurodivergent brain. Discovering I am autistic was for me, the key to full recovery from my eating disorder, as it allowed me to recover on my own terms without trying to fit the mold of what I believed recovery to be.
If you want to learn how to fully recover from an eating disorder while embracing your autism, be sure to download my free audiotraining in which I guide you through 3 simple steps to give you the clarity & confidence you need to use your autism to your advantage in recovery. It’s honestly like a private coaching session with me on demand and packed with SO much value, so I’m super excited for you to listen!
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