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The Adaptive Eating Spectrum: A Neurodiversity-Affirming View of Eating Disorders

autism recovery
The Adaptive Eating Spectrum: A Neurodiversity-Affirming View of Eating Disorders

I’m currently in the process of creating the Autistically-ED Free Group Coaching Program for autistic individuals as well as parents & caregivers. The focus of this group course will be on how to best support either yourself or a loved one through eating disorder recovery in a neurodiversity-affirming wayA main theme of everything you will learn in this group is my model for the presence of co-occurring autism and eating disorders: The Adaptive Eating Spectrum ™️ (Liv Label Free).

This post briefly explains what this model is and why I believe it acts as the key to unlocking the connection between autism and eating disorders, which ultimately opens the doors to providing the best possible care for this population.

Autistic Behaviors are Adaptive Behaviors

According to the DSM-5, Autism is a Spectrum Disorder. This pathological nature implies that an autistic individual is “out of order” – but does being autistic equate to a lack of order, or is it that the neuronormative society we live in creates the illusion that anything non-conforming must be disordered?

Autism is a different way of being. It encompasses not only a divergent way of thinking, but a way of experiencing the world that’s incomprehensible for allistics (non-autistics). We feel things that others cannot feel, see things others cannot see, and internalize nuances that others have created polarized beliefs about.

Aside from the existential loneliness that accompanies this unique way of thinking, being autistic in a neurotypical world can feel incredibly threatening. Social norms you cannot comprehend, unpredictability, and hypersensitivity to noises and sounds can make the world an overwhelming place to be. With this in mind, classic autistic behaviors including stimming, pacing, anxiety, panic attacks, extreme difficulty with tolerating change – the list is endless – make total biological senseIt also helps explain the frequent hyperactive nature of neurodivergent folx, which can often spiral into the exercise addiction that is frequently present in people with restrictive eating disorders. These mobilization behaviors are all indications that someone is in their sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight mode). Their body has adapted to their seemingly dangerous situation, and is attempting to make its way back to safety via innate regulation techniques.

Eating Disorders are Adaptive Responses

When us humans lack trust and safety – that is to say, we lack a sense of control – we cling to things that we can control. And what’s a more convenient and accessible way to control the world around you than to manipulate the way you eat and move?

Furthermore, when the human desire to have autonomy (which is often heightened in autistic people) is threatened, we cling even more tightly to potential pathways towards safety. In this sense, trauma responses around food, which are often seen in people with ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), can be seen as a natural biological adaptation to danger.

When I first started learning about ARFID, especially in the context of neurodiversity, I became curious whether it would have been a more fitting diagnosis for me back in 2011, when I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa (albeit before ARFID was even added to the DSM-5 in 2013). I had never resonated with the fear of weight gain for appearance purposes, nor did I struggle with body dysmorphia. The sensory sensitivities and fear of negative consequences after eating felt much more aligned...yet the obsessive calorie counting, weighing food, and exercise addiction didn’t fit into this ARFID box. So if it wasn’t anorexia and it wasn’t ARFID, what eating disorder did I have?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized my eating behaviors didn’t fit into any of the boxes that eating disorder diagnoses have been constrained to.

The Adaptive Eating Spectrum™️

My autistic brain is always mentally coalescing information and creating new connections in an effort to make sense of an ungraspable world. In this way, I pondered the fact that similar to how autism – which in and of itself is a spectrum of incredible diversity – the way people adapt their eating behaviors in search of safety is also a spectrum. It was through this thought process that I had the ‘a-ha’ moment of viewing the combination of autism and eating “disorders” as The Adaptive Eating Spectrum (TAES).

Many neurodivergent folx run into walls when trying to get help for their “adaptive” eating behaviors. This is mainly due to the fact their presentation doesn’t match what the DSM-5 has categorized as diagnosable eating disorders, but also due to the lack of understanding how neurodivergent traits can manifest as issues related to food and exercise.

Shifting the traditional view of eating disorders from a “problem” to an attempted “solution” to safety acknowledges the creativity of the human mind and nervous system in responding to adversity. It invites empathy and understanding, recognizing that “ED” behaviors serve a purpose in the context of traumatic experiences.

Want to dive deeper?

As mentioned in the beginning of this post, my upcoming Autistically ED-Free Group Coaching Program will elaborate on The Adaptive Eating Spectrum as well as how it can be used to support autistic people to full recovery from disordered eating. As I create this program, your input is invaluable. You can get on the waitlist and share topics you want me to include by filling in your details here!

Want to learn how to navigate ED recovery as an autistic person?

Listen to my FREE TRAINING teaching you how to use your autistic traits to your advantage in ED recovery 💪

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