A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Spring, 2020 | Number 2, Volume 34

Relationship between ASD, eating disorders explored

Research indicates that around 20% to 30% of adults with eating disorders, as well as 3% to 10% of children with eating disorders, also have autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In a new large-scale study, Francesca Solmi and colleagues report that ASD traits appear to precede eating disorders, indicating that ASD is a risk factor for disordered eating. 

Using the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, the researchers evaluated data on more than 5,000 children. Parents participating in the study completed the Social and Communication Disorders Checklist (SCDC) when the children were 7, 11, 14, and 16 years of age, allowing the researchers to determine the children’s levels of social traits associated with ASD. In addition, data collected from the children when they were 14 years of age enabled the researchers to identify those who exhibited eating disorders such as fasting, purging, dieting, or binge eating. 

The researchers found that 11.2% of 14-year-old girls reported engaging in at least one disordered eating behavior within the past year, compared to 3.6% of boys. Adolescents with eating disorders exhibited higher levels of autistic traits by 7 years of age, indicating that the ASD traits predated the disordered eating (as eating disorders were very rare at age 7). Children with higher rates of autistic traits at 7 years of age were 24% more likely to exhibit weekly disordered eating behaviors at the age of 14, while the presence of eating disorders at 14 years of age did not increase the level of autistic traits by age 16. 

The researchers say children with ASD may be at greater risk for eating disorders because of their social and communicative issues, higher rates of anxiety and depression, sensory issues, rigidity of thinking, inflexible behaviors, or tendencies toward repetitive behaviors.


“Trajectories of autistic social traits in childhood and adolescence and disordered eating behaviours at age 14 years: a UK general population cohort study,” Francesca Solmi, Francesca Bentivegna, Helen Bould, William Mandy, Radha Kothari, Dheeraj Rai, David Skuse, and Glyn Lewis, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, May 2020 (free online). Address: Francesca Solmi, Division of Psychiatry, University College London, Wing B, 6th Floor, Maple House, 149 Tottenham Court Road, London W1T 7NF, UK, [email protected]


“Children with autism face higher risk of eating disorders,” news release, University College London, May 13, 2020.