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Study of Eating Disorders in Autistic Females (SEDAF)

Background:

A surprisingly high number of women in treatment for Anorexia Nervosa (AN) meet diagnostic criteria for autism. Prevalence studies consistently show that 20-30% of women with AN can be considered to be on the autism spectrum (for review, see Huke et al., 2013). Of all AN patients, those with high autistic traits benefit least from current treatment approaches (Tchanturia et al., 2016), and have particularly low recovery rates and levels of functioning (Wentz et al., 2009). To improve care for autistic women with AN, a better understanding of how AN and other forms of restrictive eating develop and persist in autistic individuals is required.

Methodology:

SEDAF is a collaborative project between researchers at UCL and Cardiff University. The project takes a mixed-methods approach, combining qualitative and quantitative research.

In phase one we conducted interviews with autistic women, their family members and health care professionals to identify potentially causing and maintaining factors of AN in autistic women. This study also aimed to identify practical barriers to referral, engagement and treatment for autistic women in eating disorder services.

The findings of this study will be used to build the first theoretical model of restrictive eating disorders in autism, which will then be tested in the second phase of this project using quantitative methods. Autistic women with AN, non-autistic women with AN, and autistic women without AN will be compared on a number of measures relating different elements of the model.

Implications:

This research project will deepen our understanding and raise awareness of the autism-specific mechanisms that cause and maintain restrictive eating disorders. This will help eating disorder services to improve the way they engage with and treat autistic patients. In the longer term, this research can lead to the development and testing of new autism-specific AN treatments and interventions to prevent the development of restrictive eating disorders in autistic girls and women.