Children with autistic traits more likely to develop an eating disorder, suggests study

Children with autistic traits are more likely to develop an eating disorder in adolescence, a new study suggests.

Researchers at University College London (UCL) found that children who displayed more autistic traits aged seven were 24 per cent more likely than their peers to have weekly disordered eating behaviours at age 14.

Previous research had suggested that autism and eating disorders can occur together. However, it was unclear whether these traits result from or appear before behavioural signs of eating disorders.

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Dr Francesca Solmi, of UCL psychiatry department and lead author on the study, said: "We have found that young children with autistic traits at age seven are more likely than their peers to end up developing eating disorder symptoms in adolescence.

"Most other studies looked at snapshots in time, rather than tracking people over multiple years, so it wasn't clear whether autism increases the risk of eating disorders, or if symptoms of [an] eating disorder could sometimes resemble autistic traits."

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The study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, involved 5,381 adolescents who have been participating in the 'Children of the 90s Cohort' study designed by the University of Bristol.

The researchers looked for autistic social traits at various ages, starting at seven and following at ages 11, 14 and 16.

These traits were reported by a parent using the Social and Communication Disorders Checklist and were not a diagnosis of autism.

This means the findings would involve children who do not necessarily have autism but would also include children with autism who might not have been diagnosed, the researchers said.

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The researchers then considered whether the children showed behavioural characteristics of disordered eating - which includes fasting, purging, prolonged dieting, and binge-eating - at age 14.

Results also showed that eating disorders at age 14 did not appear to increase autistic traits by age 16.

Children with autism often have difficulties with social communication which, the researchers say, could contribute to higher rates of depression and anxiety at young ages.

They believe disordered eating might result from dysfunctional methods of coping with these emotional difficulties.

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Study co-author Dr William Mandy, of UCL Psychology & Language Sciences, said: "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." Tom Quinn, eating disorder charity Beat's director of external affairs, said: "Early intervention is so important in treating eating disorders and we hope this research will help parents and clinicians spot early signs of an eating disorder more rapidly and ensure those at risk of developing an eating disorder get the help they need."

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If you need help with an eating disorder you can contact BEAT on 0808 801 0677 or by visitingwww.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/

Additional reporting by Press Association
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