Women with anorexia show clear traits of autism, a new study has concluded.
The traits were evident even after the women brought their eating disorder under control and achieved a normal weight.
Researchers also found similarities between anorexia and autism in women in a part of the brain that processes social skills.
The University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy carried out the study.
Researcher Louise Karjalainen said the eating disorder was not only linked to a food and weight fixation. There were also many other thoughts and behaviours in people with anorexia that were typical for autism.
One of the groups that psychologist Karjalainen studied included around 30 women with anorexia aged 15 to 25.
After a year their health improved. However, they still had the kind of negative thoughts and behaviour around food that characterise people with autism.
Karjalainen said: “Their general eating patterns improved during the follow-up year, but it was specifically noteworthy that they were still at the same level in their autistic behaviour in terms of meal times.”
Regression after acute anorexia
Several factors appeared to push women into regression long after the acute stage of anorexia. These included an unbearable food smell, a dining companion making loud eating noises, or an aversion to eating with others.
As with people with autism, some of the women also had problems multi-tasking. This could include cutting and chewing at the same time.
Karjalainen added: “It may be suspected that this partly is to do with the food and weight anxiety, but it was so clear that it is also linked to social factors.”
MRI scans showed the women had the same changes as women with autism in parts of the brain linked to social cognition.
This was due to thinning of the grey matter just behind the temple area. This was not present in healthy comparison groups or in men with autism.