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Neurodivergence and Eating Disorders

By Avery

Before I get into the nitty gritty of life with neurodivergence and an eating disorder, let me preface with where I’m coming from…

I’m non-binary and live with chronic health issues (which doesn’t particularly factor in here, but definitely plays a part in my disorder and how it manifests). More relevant today: I’m autistic and recovering from atypical anorexia nervosa.

Autism and other forms of neurodivergence often come hand in hand with sensory issues. For the average person, most stimuli are easy enough to ignore, or work past. I can’t do that. Unpleasant sensory experiences cause the equivalent in my head of someone pulling the fire alarm. It’s loud, it’s intense, and it doesn’t stop until well after you’ve convinced yourself that everything is fine. This is unlike intrusive thoughts that come with disordered eating, in that they can’t be fixed or changed; they are intrinsic to my experience of the world, and I’ve had to learn to work around them.

When things are calm, and I have spare spoons (mental energy – see the spoon theory), I can tolerate more. But when I am stressed, foods outside my comfort zone are like eating glass. Needless to say, this complicates things a little when I’m already anxious about a meal, and this adds just another reason to avoid it.

I grew up in a household where you ate everything on your plate, no matter what. It led to some rather unpleasant meals, where I was expected to eat things that gave me headaches or made me feel physically ill. Needless to say, I did not like mealtimes even before my eating became disordered. Eventually, accommodations were made after many years of difficult meals, but I was constantly having those accommodations held over my head to guilt me for being ‘a problem’ or ‘difficult.’ Which brings me to offer this tip:

NEVER, and I do mean NEVER, blame someone with neurodivergence for atypical eating habits. If they’re problematic, work with them to find a solution that allows for health and minimal distress. If the habits aren’t problematic, then leave them alone.

As an adult, I’m more experimental, and can tolerate a wider range of foods than when I was little, with the key difference being that it’s on MY terms. I can choose when and where to explore, and cook things to give me the best chance of liking them. At the end of the day though, I’ll always go back to my staples and my comfort foods.

Again, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” On the other hand, it ain’t broke, that means that it is something I can work with. Foods that are good stimuli to me make eating a manageable task. I know I’m more likely to eat if I have hummus in the fridge, or that I can incentivize myself to take my vitamins if they’re gummies (vitamin tablets are foul and we all know it…)

Neurodivergence isn’t something to be fixed or cured, but a fundamental part of how our brains work, and it’s something to be worked in tandem with. A lot of what I learned, I learned from trial, error, and lived experience, which is understandably difficult to emulate from the outside. It can be hard, as family or friends of someone with an eating disorder, to know where to push and where to back off.

The short answer is: ask. Learn what their favourite foods are, or even just what foods are ‘easy foods’ and don’t cost a fortune in willpower to eat. Things that are reliable, often simple, and at the end of the day, something to eat.

One of my biggest tricks for myself is sauces. I know personally I can stomach a lot of unfamiliar foods if I can add aioli, and even with foods I like, it makes the experience better. Know what brand/flavour of sauce or topping someone enjoys, and use that. Sauces go with everything.

There is no magic fix; consideration of sensory sensitivity doesn’t miraculously make eating a breeze, but it does take away one key barrier between us and recovery.

Addendum: Poverty and scarcity will always make this harder; do what you can within your means, but please don’t feel guilty if you’re unable to accommodate your loved ones’ (or your own) needs to the fullest extent. Focus your efforts where they have the most impact, and seek out non-food ways to make eating a less stressful experience.

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3 Comments

  1. Daryl

    Thank you so very much Avery for providing this insight into the extra challenges of an eating disorder if one is neurodivergent. This will be so helpful for many families who are striving to help their loved one manage an eating disorder and move towards recovery.

  2. Lisa B

    Avery, thank you for echoing what worked to support our neurodivergent child into recovery. We supplied lots of what she could eat. As she has matured, like you, she now finds lots of ways to add in variety. Your story will resonate for many!

  3. Fiona

    Our daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder at 14 and with Autism at 31. Many a mistake was made in the intervening years because the treatment of one wasn’t informed by knowledge of the other, but that can’t be helped now. Now she does have the second diagnosis and articles like this are so helpful. Thank you.

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