Scientists at Cambridge University have discovered that girls suffering from the eating disorder anorexia also present with some of the more mild characteristics of autism.
These include a strong interest in systems and order, lack of empathy, rigid attitudes and behaviour, fascination with detail, and matching differences in the area of the brain that processes social perception.
Researchers tested how 66 anorexic girls aged between 12 and 18 without autism scored on tests to measure autistic traits. These findings were then compared to more than 1,600 typical teenagers in the same age range and found that girls with anorexia scored five times more in the same range as those with autism.
The findings of the study offer hope for new ways of treating the debilitating mental illness that affects one in every 100 adolescent girls in Australia.
Lead scientist on the study, Simon Baron-Cohen, says that while treatment of anorexia has tended to mainly focus on the life-threatening symptoms of the illness, it is the traits sufferers share with the autistic that could be used to break the torturous cycle of anorexia.
“... this new research is suggesting that underlying the surface behaviour, the mind of a person with anorexia may share a lot with the mind of a person with autism. In both conditions, there is a strong interest in systems. In girls with anorexia, they have latched onto a system that concerns body weight, shape, and food intake,” he said.
Tony Jaffa, who co-led the study, added that this obsession with systems can possibly be used by medical professionals to the patient’s advantage.
"Shifting their interest away from body weight and dieting on to a different but equally systematic topic may be helpful," he said. "(And) recognizing that some patients with anorexia may also need help with social skills and communication, and with adapting to change, also gives us a new treatment angle."