Food and Behaviour Research

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Trajectories of Autistic Social Traits in Childhood and Adolescence and Disordered Eating Behaviours at Age 14 Years: A UK General Population Cohort Study

Solmi F, Bentivegna F, Bould H, Mandy W, Kothari R, Rai D, Skuse D, Lewis G (2020) J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2020 May 3.  doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13255. Online ahead of print. 

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Some people with eating disorders have difficulties with social communication. However, no longitudinal evidence regarding the direction of this association exists. We investigated trajectories of autistic social traits across childhood and adolescence in adolescents with and without disordered eating behaviours in early adolescence.

We used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Our disordered eating measure indicated presence of any, monthly and weekly disordered eating (fasting, purging, dieting, binge eating) at age 14 years. Autistic social traits were reported by mothers using the Social and Communication Disorders Checklist (SCDC) at age seven, 11, 14 and 16 years. We modelled SCDC score trajectories using multilevel negative binomial models adjusting for a number of child- and maternal-level confounders.

Of the 5,381 adolescents included in our sample, 421 (7.8%) experienced one or more disordered eating behaviours, and 148 (2.8%) weekly episodes. Adolescents with disordered eating had a 20% increase in SCDC scores (relative risk (RR) 1.23, 95% confidence interval (CI):1.14, 1.32) compared to those without disordered eating. This association was particularly apparent for those reporting weekly (RR 1.43, 95%CI: 1.27, 1.61) as opposed to monthly disordered eating (RR 1.12, 95%CI: 1.01, 1.22).

Greater autistic social traits in childhood could represent a risk factor for the development of disordered eating in adolescence. Although mechanisms of this association need to be elucidated, clinicians should be aware that autistic social traits could have predated the eating disorder when managing people with these conditions.