Autism Spectrum

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder which affects how a person communicates, relates to others, and understands the world. Some of the challenges of living with autism can cause or contribute to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Many people who suffer from eating disorders also have an autistic spectrum condition.

Features of autism include:
  • Impaired nonverbal communication
  • Difficulty understanding social expectations, norms, and relationships
  • Problems reciprocating social and emotional interaction
  • Repetitive or restricted behavior and interests
  • Sensory processing differences

However, autism is called a ‘spectrum’ because the same core features can present in very different ways from person to person. Here are just a few examples of how the core features of autism can present themselves.

  • Developing intense, ‘obsessive’ interests, often in unusual topics
  • Becoming very upset at small changes, such as a neighbor’s house being repainted
  • Not being able to judge whose turn it is to speak, resulting in accidental interruptions or long pauses during conversations
  • Finding eye contact overwhelming, or even painful
  • Seeking sensory input through repetitive movements like rocking back and forth, flapping hands, or watching spinning objects
  • Being unable to speak when under stress, or (in some cases) not being able to speak at all
  • Struggling to understand sarcasm or rhetorical questions

Girls and women in particular tend to express autistic spectrum traits in a different way, which means that they are misdiagnosed or ignored completely. Because girls are under more cultural pressure to be seen as sociable and empathetic, they are also more likely to devote huge amounts of time and energy learning how to imitate their peers, so as not to seem ‘abnormal’. Adults of any gender may also not be recognized as autistic because they have developed coping mechanisms or ‘workarounds’ that mask their symptoms. Regardless of age or gender, trying to conceal or cope with symptoms of autism is immensely stressful, and this stress can lower self-esteem and mood.

Some experts suggest that autism might be an underlying issue for a significant number of eating disorder patients. The stress of coping with symptoms, as well as the tendency to develop intense, fixated interests and rigid behavior patterns, can make a person on the autism spectrum more vulnerable to extremes of disordered eating and obsessions with food and weight. It has also been suggested that many people with Borderline Personality Disorder have autism as well, or in fact have been misdiagnosed with BPD when they should have been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition.

If you have an autism spectrum condition, identifying and understanding your symptoms can help you to cope with them. Although much of the media around autism is directed at parents of autistic children, self-advocacy and disability rights groups can provide useful educational and self-help resources for people who are on the autistic spectrum themselves.