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Obesity and autism in girls: Finding psychologists for this overlooked demographic

Lana Bandoim's picture

Researchers have found that obesity can be a challenge for girls who have autism. Although parents often complain about their autistic children being underweight and having issues with food, scientists have discovered a growing number of children are actually dealing with obesity and autism at the same time. This is an overlooked demographic, but it deserves attention.


The autism epidemic continues to be in the news, and the number of children and adults with the condition is increasing every year. Unfortunately, some girls are overlooked and diagnosed later in life. Some may never receive a diagnosis. This is a significant problem since early intervention is an important predictor of later communication skills and other factors. Finding a doctor that understands the importance of a diagnosis and treatment for autistic girls and women is important. Furthermore, finding a doctor who can help them deal with obesity is crucial.

If you are seeking a diagnosis for your daughter or interviewing psychologists to work with a girl who has already been diagnosed, you will need to ask a few key questions. You should keep these concerns in your mind as you meet with doctors and therapists in order to determine if they have the right skills and background to work with your children. A psychologist can also help your child deal with obesity by working in conjunction with your doctor and dietician.

Obesity, autism and girls

Several studies have focused on autism and obesity in children. A study published in Pediatrics found that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are at a higher risk of obesity and weight issues. Another study published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry found higher rates of obesity among autistic children. Girls are often overlooked, so it is important to get help for them. The American Psychological Association notes that there is a mind-body connection and link to obesity. This is why a psychologist is an important team member as you work on your child’s autism and weight issues.

Imitation factor

The first step to dealing with your child’s health is to get a diagnosis of autism. One reason that girls are diagnosed later than boys is that they are better at imitating social skills and behaviors than boys. This imitation ability can even fool trained eyes, so girls can blend in with their peers easily. In some cases, they imitate others, but they do not understand why they are performing these behaviors.

You may want to ask a potential psychologist how they might respond to these imitation issues. It is important that any doctor working with autistic girls be able to tell the difference between imitation and interaction. If their response is that your daughter’s ability to perform these social activities is enough, you have not found the right person. Imitation can be stressful and tiring for children, and a psychologist needs to be able to help them cope with the emotions in addition to addressing the imitation behaviors themselves.

Spotting special interests

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Some of the key diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders are repetitive behaviors and obsessive special interests. There are some special interests that have become specifically associated with autism in boys. In many cases, these are trains and other kinds of transportation or construction equipment. Objects that move in repetitive ways fascinate them.

However, girls who have autism may have different special interests than boys. Picked up as part of their imitation strategies, girls are often obsessed with learning all the details about a band or a certain line of dolls. Food can also become an obsession for them. Since some of these are considered normal, detail oriented fan behaviors in girls, doctors do not always acknowledge them as special interests.

When meeting with a psychologist, you want to ask them how they would describe special interests and how they identify these preoccupations. You also want to ask about how they deal with obesity and food issues. A psychologist with expertise in treating girls with autism will typically have a broader understanding of what constitutes a special interest and can work with girls to identify socially appropriate ways to engage with their peers around this interest. Other girls often share the same special interests, but autistic girls struggle to make appropriate overtures, cannot show interest in others and may not be interested in their opinions or discussing problems with them.

Consider neurological factors

Depending on the level of training a psychologist or therapist has received, he or she will have a different level of exposure to neurological foundations of psychological issues. However, those who do not understand how neurology impacts autism spectrum disorders, may be ill equipped to understand why autistic girls behave differently than boys on the spectrum.

People often stereotype those with autism based on visual cues such as flapping or rocking, which are behaviors linked to problems in the cerebellum. The cerebellum is the area of the brain that controls motor activity. Although both boys and girls with autism show less grey matter than average in parts of the cerebellum, girls typically have more of this connective material than boys. This can reduce the severity of these repetitive behaviors in autistic girls compared to boys. It is also important to note that problems with the cerebellum have been linked to obesity.

When you speak with a psychologist, you want to ask about their knowledge of neurological issues in autism and try to ascertain whether the doctor will use external behaviors as a major indicator for their diagnosis and treatment. Girls often disguise these behaviors, and while this may help them blend in, it can cause unnecessary stress. A good psychologist can help girls determine whether they are disguising functional behaviors and should be averse to common treatment phrases like “quiet hands.” In addition, a good psychologist will be able to help them deal with obesity.

Working as a team

If your daughter is autistic, a great psychologist or other therapist will be just one part of the team that will be part of your daughter’s life. You want to make sure that you are always an active participant in that team and that you have a clear sense of what both your daughter and you want out of therapeutic encounters. By aligning everyone’s goals, you are more likely to achieve success and progress through intervention work.