Exploring autistic traits in anorexia: a clinical study

Mol Autism. 2013 Nov 12;4(1):44. doi: 10.1186/2040-2392-4-44.


Background: The objectives of this study were to explore associations between autistic traits and self-reported clinical symptoms in a population with anorexia nervosa (AN). Experimental and self-report evidence reveals similarities between AN and autism spectrum condition (ASC) populations in socio-emotional and cognitive domains; this includes difficulties with empathy, set-shifting and global processing. Focusing on these similarities may lead to better tailored interventions for both conditions.

Methods: A cross-sectional independent-groups design was employed. Participants with AN (n = 66) and typical controls (n = 66) completed self-report questionnaires including the Short (10-Item) Version Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ-10) questionnaire (the first time this has been implemented in this population), the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale and the Work and Social Adjustment Scale. Group differences and the relationship between autistic traits and other questionnaire measures were investigated.

Results: The AN group had a significantly higher AQ-10 total score and a greater proportion scored above the clinical cut-off than the control group. Seven out of ten AQ-10 items significantly discriminated between groups. In the AN group, levels of autistic traits correlated with a greater self-reported anxiety and depression and a lower ability to maintain close relationships; however, eating disorder symptoms were not associated with autistic traits.

Conclusions: Women with anorexia possess a greater number of autistic traits than typical women. AQ-10 items that discriminated between groups related to 'bigger picture' (global) thinking, inflexibility of thinking and problems with social interactions, suggesting that autistic traits may exacerbate factors that maintain the eating disorder rather than cause the eating disorder directly. Using screening instruments may improve understanding of patients' problems, leading to better tailoring of intervention. We conclude that further investigation of autistic traits in AN could inform new intervention approaches based on joint working between ASC and eating disorder services.