Recovering from an eating disorder is hard enough but it can be especially challenging when the general information and approach don’t necessarily fit with your experience. When navigating eating disorder recovery as an autistic person, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Find a team that understands both autism AND eating disorders
A common challenge is finding providers or a program that truly understand both autism and eating disorders. One of the most frequent issues reported is providers trying to treat the eating disorder in a vacuum and ignoring the interaction with autism. The approach of trying to isolate the eating disorder will not work. We know the two are linked not just biologically but also with regards to some of the needs that the eating disorder can meet like dampening sensory overload, providing a way to regulate emotions, or a way to connect to others. The interaction must be explored and not ignored for recovery to happen.
2. Identify which thoughts and beliefs are supporting continued eating disorder behavior and which ones may be associated with autistic traits
We are trying to treat the eating disorder, not change autistic traits. Identifying what is related to the eating disorder and what is related to autism can be difficult. You don’t have to do this all at once as it will be a process that evolves throughout your recovery. Some questions to ask yourself that may help with this are:
Is this something that I did around food prior to my eating disorder?
Does this pattern show up in my life in areas that aren’t just related to my eating disorder?
Am I able to still make progress while doing ____? If not, how can I honor myself and my traits while still working towards recovery?
3. Remember that everyone’s rate of progress is going to look different
From the amount of time it takes to find the right providers to coping with high distress around change, recovery for autistic individuals can pose many challenges and often takes longer. Instead of just looking forward at all there is left to do, be intentional about reflecting on the progress you have made. Just because it may be moving at a slower pace does not mean that it isn’t happening.
4. Work to understand some of your unique traits that are going to be an asset to you in the recovery process.
It is easy to beat up on ourselves for being “different” and can take work to look at how some of our unique differences can actually be a strength when it comes to the recovery process. Take time to look at some of your unique traits and journal about how they may help you in recovery. When you are faced with a particularly difficult recovery challenge, try to review your writing and identify which trait may help you navigate it. Approaching these challenges from a strengths-based perspective is both empowering and effective.
Maggie Klyce, LICSW-S, CEDS-S is a therapist and consultant with her own practice in Birmingham, Alabama. She is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and an approved supervisor for those seeking this designation. She is a national presenter on the topics of eating disorders, autism, and addiction. Maggie previously served as President for the Alabama Chapter of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals and currently serves on the Eating Disorder Treatment Facilitator Task Force.