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(15,751 posts)
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 11:16 AM Feb 2016

The invisible link between autism and anorexia


Louise Harrington was starting to doubt that she had anorexia. She knew she was shockingly underweight, and she desperately wanted to gain at least 30 pounds. She had no desire to look like a model. She had no phobia of fatness. She wasn’t afraid to gain weight. She didn’t have any of the typical body image worries that overwhelm many people with anorexia.

Instead, what trapped Louise in a haze of malnutrition and compulsive exercise for more than 30 years was that eating too little and exercising too much blunted the feelings of overwhelming anxiety that threatened to drown her. (Louise asked that we not use her real name.)

The psychologists and psychiatrists she visited couldn’t comprehend what was driving her behavior. When she was in her 20s, one doctor told her she couldn’t have an eating disorder because she didn’t have a fear of fatness. Other therapists said she was either lying or in serious denial. The assumption that her anorexia was necessarily driven by a desire to be thin further frustrated and alienated her, so she stopped trying to get help.

It wasn’t until she turned 40 and she was fainting regularly at work, and was in and out of the hospital with malnutrition, that Louise tried, once again, to get psychological help. For the first time, a psychiatrist connected Louise’s longstanding social difficulties with her rituals around eating, and brought up a possibility that no one had never mentioned: autism. She was diagnosed with autism shortly thereafter.


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(38,387 posts)
2. I used to exercise obsessively and not eat.
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 12:58 PM
Feb 2016

The exercise was obsessive, but the not-eating, I'd tell people "I forgot."

Nobody believed the "I forgot" to eat part, but it really was like that, I simply never thought about food. That's not anorexia.

I met my first girlfriend in the computer lab. I'd probably been there at least sixteen hours. There was a bathroom and drinking fountain down the hall, so I was fine.

She said, "C'mon, you need to eat."

I also used to drive out to the desert with a few gallons of water, no food, and come back in a few days when I was expected to be somewhere, or I was running low on water. I'd also take day jobs loading and unloading trucks. The first time I made $100 in a day I was loading trucks.

Yep, I do have an "autistic spectrum" diagnosis (among other things...) so some of this "spectrum news" seems reasonable to me.

Some of it does not. I'm not fussy about food, probably because of my childhood. In my parent's house you ate what there was to eat or you starved. Most food of my childhood was stuff my parents bought cheap in bulk, or fish my dad caught back when there were fish to be caught in the ocean, or stuff from family and neighbors gardens. If I've got rice and beans in the cupboard and a few things to flavor them with, then I'm happy. My wife is not like that at all. She loves Trader Joe's. Our city doesn't have one, so she and her sister will make the journey every couple of months.

Alas, now in my fifties, every damned joint in my body hurts, and maybe it's possible I labored and exercised too hard while malnourished when I was younger.

I had coffee and ibuprofen for breakfast today. I'll put some rice on later, maybe throw an anchovie and some spinach in it.


(15,751 posts)
3. Aches and pains in your 50's, When I asked my doc, she said "Mr. Johnson, you are just getting older
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 01:25 PM
Feb 2016

. Wait until you are in your 60's. But I have to remind myself to eat all the time. My weight got to 200lbs when working. All the going out during lunch with co workers and meals after work really put on the pounds. I never wanted anything, maybe a small salad, but they kept at me. I have not bee able to get my weight down to 150 where I was when I went to work there. I had that natural swimmers type build most of my life. I think the body probably likes that build. I wished I could get into the habit of cooking, but just not in my nature I guess.


(38,387 posts)
5. Aches and pains, I wish...
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 02:51 PM
Feb 2016

... it's stuff that looks bad on x-rays.

My "natural state" is skeleton man. I fill out a little with beer and steroids, but that's no way to live.


(15,751 posts)
6. I was that way when I was younger. 5% body fat as a kid.
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 03:10 PM
Feb 2016

They could not teach me to swim, I kept sinking. I did not have enough body fat to have floatation. I would eat with my parents but never not that much. Just really never that hungry. I did start putting on some weight around 30, I think I got up to 135 lbs then at 5'11", still a bean pole. When I started taking Testosterone a few years ago, I started filling out a little bit, My normal T level is 90, which is pretty low and I have been probably low all my life. I have run across some kids at the gym and told them to have theirs checked and they were in the 80-90 range, so it seems to be a big thing now with guys.


(63,340 posts)
4. So, she spent decades being diagnosed as "hysterical," in other words
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 01:28 PM
Feb 2016

Very interesting story with an all-too-familiar history of dismissive non-treatment.



(78,249 posts)
8. Autistic and >250 lbs. here
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 03:28 PM
Feb 2016

edit: but it is true that many of us have, shall we say, rather specific food preferences. I'm relatively easy: just avoid mustard, mayo and cheese (except for pizza, oddly enough) and we're good. In fact, I introduced Mom to Thai food years ago. But I'm hardly representative of the Autistic American community.


(35,773 posts)
10. I'll read this later, but I wonder...
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 05:38 PM
Feb 2016

... Far too often people now correlate various manifestations of anxiety with autism, though anxiety and eating do seem to have overlap. Anyway...


(53,521 posts)
11. I think the problem is how autistic people are stereotyped.
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 06:01 PM
Feb 2016

She doesn't fit the popular stereotype of high-functioning autism (think Sheldon Cooper), which is male-centric in many cases and STEM-centric, and so the possibility was overlooked for a long time. People who poo-poo the claim that Jefferson and Einstein were autistic suffer from the same stereotype bias.


(15,751 posts)
12. I think I was mildly Autistic as I would get on a creative project and stay there.
Thu Feb 18, 2016, 06:09 PM
Feb 2016

Been known to pass out at my computer after working straight for 4 days for fear I would forget something. It was not a common thing but I decided to listen to some of my albums and did all 140 of them, would only wake up with the music stopped.

Docs gave up on me a long time ago, "Hey what ever you are doing, just keep going it." I accepted as a young kid that I was strange, and just accepted it.


(11,012 posts)
13. Damn! I could have told them that thirty-five years ago IF the many
Tue Mar 29, 2016, 04:33 PM
Mar 2016

psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, family doctors, licensed clinical therapists, and social workers had ever connected the ELEVEN markers for autism with autism. (For the record, these days seven markers are all that are needed for a diagnosis of full autism.) Not knowing anything about autism, I finally figured out that he fell somewhere under the autism umbrella when he was 20 years old. He wasn't officially diagnosed until he was 35.

My stepson was always seriously underweight, refused to eat -- had to be bribed, sung too, tricked, given appetite stimulating drugs, and otherwise coaxed into eating. Even as a newborn infant, it was difficult to feed him... His mother used to squeeze formula into his mouth and then blow on his face to get him to swallow.

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