Eating disorders and autism

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is when the way you eat becomes a problem. The best-known disorders are anorexia (the person stops eating enough) and bulimia (the person eats unhealthy quantities), but there are other disorders too. Autistic people are more at risk of developing an eating disorder than non-autistic people.

What is an eating disorder?

The term eating disorder refers to a set of eating behavioral conditions that can lead to physical or psychological health difficulties. A higher proportion of autistic people have eating disorders than in the allistic (non-autistic) population. However, some people are wrongly diagnosed with eating disorders when in fact they have autism.

Sensations and food

Eating and drinking are actions that bring an enormous amount of sensation. Most of the human body’s senses are activated when we eat. Each food has its own smell, taste, temperature, texture and so on. What’s more, chewing and swallowing produce sounds. The texture and taste of food can change over the course of a meal as the temperature of the food approaches room temperature. Food will once again change texture and taste as it is chewed and mixed with saliva. Autistic and hypersensitive people are more attuned to this world of sensation.

These people can become easily overwhelmed during meals, especially when the meal is with other humans and you also have to remember to eat politely and talk to others to seem friendly. There’s simply too much for the brain to handle. Managing hunger may seem much easier for some.

The inability to manage the sensations associated with eating can mean that people with autism, especially those born as girls, may be wrongly diagnosed with an eating disorder.

Link to autism

Certain autistic traits can make a person vulnerable to certain eating disorders. For example, the need for a fixed routine or the tendency to create rules and be disciplined can be vulnerability factors. Being disciplined, following rules and being consistent in one’s routine are qualities that can help us accomplish our daily tasks. However, if a person internalizes certain dietary rules that are not good for their health, this can cause them to slip into eating disorders.

20% of people with eating disorders are autistic

Types of Eating Disorders


Eating a lot of food in a short space of time


The desire to eat well, taken to extremes

Eating behaviors

The way a person deals with food and the habits he or she has in relation to food.

Other eating habits that are not eating disorders

Hypersensitivity to food tastes and textures

Receiving too much sensory information when eating

Hyposensitivity to food tastes and textures

Not receiving enough sensory information when feeding

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer