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Unseen Struggles: Neurodivergent Women and Eating Disorders

In the vast spectrum of human diversity, there exists a group known as the neurodivergent. Neurodivergence, encompassing conditions like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, and others, often intersects with eating disorders. This overlap is particularly significant among women, who face unique challenges such as sensory sensitivities and difficulties in connecting with bodily hunger cues.

Growing up without a diagnosis can often lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, resulting in the development of coping mechanisms such as disordered eating. Growing up as a teenage girl brought many social, emotional, and physical changes that impacted my body image. Being a teenage girl was like walking along an old unstable rope bridge with girlhood on one end and womanhood on the other. The bridge was so unsteady that turning back was not an option; you had no choice but to navigate your way forward into the world of womanhood.

Navigating the challenges of a changing body as an undiagnosed neurodivergent girl was difficult. As a neurodivergent woman who developed Binge Eating Disorder (BED) before receiving a formal diagnosis of dyspraxia, these challenges were my normal, they were all I knew. Receiving a diagnosis provided me with a roadmap to navigate life’s complexities, but it also meant I learned of the disparities in diagnosis rates between genders.

Men are more likely to discover they are neurodivergent before the age of 18 than women. This means that neurodivergent women lack understanding and support at a critical age and develop their own ways of masking or coping. Considerable numbers of neurodivergent women develop disordered eating patterns to help them navigate the complexities of living in a neurotypical world. For these women, controlling food intake can provide a sense of order in a world that often feels overwhelming and unpredictable.

Societal pressures around body image and eating behaviours can be particularly challenging for neurodivergent women. Education about women’s health is often reduced to basic biological functions, neglecting the social and emotional impacts these functions can have on women. Better education could empower girls to understand, nurture, and love themselves, potentially preventing or reducing health issues like eating disorders. It could help us to understand our cravings and hunger cues in addition to why we crave certain foods at certain times.

When seeking support for BED, I was referred to various services including the eating disorder service, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and health trainers. The eating disorder service confirmed that I do in fact have an eating disorder, which helped me overcome internalised stigmas I had adopted in relation to my body and eating habits. CBT is a commonly offered therapy that helps individuals manage their problems by changing the way they think and behave. In my case, I did not find it very useful as it lacked structure or direction and didn’t seem to have a real-world impact. As a neurodivergent individual, seeing a health trainer proved to be more beneficial.

Health trainers are not personal trainers; they combine physical and mental health to support you in your own health journey. They help people with all kinds of lifestyle changes to support their wellbeing. They meet with you regularly; help you set goals and give you tools to help you achieve this. This tailored support was crucial in my recovery journey. Meeting with my health trainer monthly allowed me to set achievable goals and provided accountability. Over time, I became excited to reflect on my targets and the impact achieving them had on my mental and physical wellbeing.

As part of my recovery journey, I learned about the processes that go on in my body and how they relate to mood, emotion and cravings. I understood why I wanted specific foods at specific times, for instance why I wanted iron-rich foods close to menstruation. This has helped me to remove shame around food and encouraged me to track my monthly cycle which has promoted greater awareness of the subtle changes in my body throughout the month.

The final aspect of my recovery journey was embracing self-care and self-love. Partaking in simple acts of self-care like a skincare routine provided structure to my day and allowed me to focus on things I enjoy rather than worrying about how I look. It also meant that I was less likely to be consumed by cravings or thoughts of food as my time and mind were full of other enjoyable or mentally stimulating pursuits.

In conclusion, the intersection of neurodivergence and eating disorders, particularly among women, is a significant issue that requires greater awareness and understanding. As a neurodivergent woman myself, I can attest to the unique challenges and experiences that come with this intersection. Early diagnosis of neurodivergence in women can be a crucial step in navigating this complex journey. Comprehensive education about women’s health, including understanding the social and emotional impacts of biological functions, can empower women to better understand and nurture themselves.

In some cases, tailored support from health trainers can be beneficial, providing routine, structure, direction, and guidance. By sharing our stories and raising awareness, we can help illuminate the path towards healing for others navigating a similar path. It’s important to remember that everyone’s journey is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. The key is to find the support and strategies that work best for you.

Contributed by Chloe

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