There’s a fine line between picky, sensory eaters and an autistic kid who has an eating disorder. Here’s how to tell the difference.
Eating disorders affect approximately nine percent of the population worldwide in their lifetime. That’s about 701.5 million people.
Autistic people are more susceptible to developing eating disorders than their peers. People with anorexia are more likely to be autistic.
Little support exists for autistic people with eating disorders because of the sensory aspect, so knowing the signs of eating disorders in autistic people is crucial.
Signs your autistic child has an eating disorder
While other eating disorders in children exist, autistic people are commonly associated with anorexia nervosa and avoidant/restrictive eating disorder (ARFID).
Anorexia can happen to anyone of any size or shape, at any weight. The most dangerous cases are the ones in people who fail to get diagnosed due to not meeting stereotypical anorexia standards.
Lack of interoceptive awareness
Interoception is a type of sensory input that helps you know how you feel on the inside, namely if you’re thirsty, cold, in pain or hungry. In autism, interoception is impaired when paired with special interests. That’s normal.
It’s not normal when, repeatedly, the autistic person fails to realize they’re hungry or thirsty. This can be circumvented by setting timers to remind them to eat or drink, but those timers will be ignored if the needs are deemed unimportant.
Special interests take priority for the autistic person. It’s not intentional; it’s a lack of interoception.
This is a precursor to disordered eating. When you don’t recognize hunger cues, you don’t think twice about forgetting to eat for 24 hours.
Lack of control
Eating disorders may form due to a lack of control. Autistic people need routine to function properly and feel like they’re in control.
When they don’t have that, they may seek alternative methods to feel like they are in control.
Losing a job, constant rejection, and autistic masking may lead to an eating disorder.
In smaller children, it might look like having few friends who accept them or having many friends who only accept a part of them. Autism looks different in girls, and autistic girls tend to mirror their friends. Any friend who is obsessed with dieting will pose a risk to your girls on the autism spectrum.
Once the autistic person’s life gets back on track, recovery is easier.
Your child might not eat because of sensory needs, routine changes, lack of control, interoception, and/or alexithymia — to name a few.
If you’ve already investigated dental and other medical conditions, and your child doesn’t even find solace in the worst of their safe foods, they’re not a picky eater.
They have an eating disorder.
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