MONDAY, May 18, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Autism may be a risk factor for eating disorders, a new study suggests.
Previous research has shown that 20% to 30% of adults with eating disorders have autism, and the same is true for between 3% and 10% of children and teens. But it wasn't clear if autism developed before eating disorders or vice versa.
To find out, researchers assessed autism traits in nearly 5,400 children in the United Kingdom at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16, and signs of eating disorders (such as fasting, purging, prolonged dieting or binge-eating) at age 14.
The research team found that autism traits appeared first, suggesting that it may be a risk factor for eating disorders, according to the study published online recently in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Children with more autism traits at age 7 were 24% more likely to have weekly signs of disordered eating at age 14. However, eating disorders at age 14 did not appear to increase autism traits by age 16, the investigators found.
"The next step is to learn more about why those with autistic traits have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder so we can then design interventions to prevent eating disorders," said study co-author William Mandy. He's a senior lecturer in health education and psychology at University College London (UCL).
"Around a fifth of women presenting with anorexia nervosa have high levels of autistic traits -- and there is some evidence that these women benefit the least from current eating disorder treatment models. People with autism and eating disorders may need a different approach towards treatment," Mandy said in a university news release.
Senior study author Glyn Lewis, a professor of epidemiological psychology at UCL, said parents and caregivers of children with autism should be aware of the risks. "Being alert to eating disordered behaviors and seeking help early could be helpful," Lewis noted.
The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on eating disorders.