I read a statistic recently that 20-30% of people diagnosed with eating disorders are autistic. That’s a wild statistic considering autistic people make up approximately 2.21% of the population.
Starting at the age of 10, my parents began receiving calls from my school stating that I wasn’t eating my lunch. I had decided at that point to only eat carrots so that I could be thin. By that age, I had already come up with a foolproof masking strategy that would get me through life until my early twenties. I decided to be thin, learn/mimic pop culture, and use substances to numb away any difficult feelings and the eventual sensory overwhelm.
I am not unique in this strategy, it is an effective one after all. At least effective in the sense that no one suspected that I was struggling with what I truly was struggling with. I had the “perfect mask” or so it seemed.
So why are autistic people like myself overrepresented in those getting eating disorder diagnoses? There could be many reasons for this; sensory issues, masking, peer pressure/bullying, anxiety management, challenges regulating emotions, obsessive or black/white thinking, perfectionism… the list could go on. All of those reasons were applicable to my situation as well as many others that I have encountered as an autistic-centered therapist, coach, and group leader.
So if being thin was part of masking, how does unmasking affect body image and disordered eating? This will vary for each individual but for me, this meant radically accepting a softer, fuller body. Unmasking for me has been a process of untangling rigid and restrictive thoughts and rules about food. There are many times that my eating habits become restrictive due to sensory challenges and I have learned to, instead of forcing myself to eat more of a variety, roll with it.
Unmasking eating and body image has been a process of healing decades of self-manipulation and self-judgment. Manipulating myself to meet other people’s expectations regardless of the cost and judging myself harshly when I didn’t measure up. I am slowly coming to terms with how much of a cost it was to deny my own needs for decades in favor of being perceived positively