Background: Autistic adults are at increased risk of developing eating disorders (Sedgewick et al, 2020). One potential mechanism that might explain this elevated risk is alexithymia, a difficulty in identifying and verbalizing one’s emotions. Alexithymia is highly prevalent in both autism and eating disorders populations (Westwood et al, 2017; Kinnaird, et al, 2019). There is evidence that alexithymia mediates the relationship between autism and eating disorder psychopathology (Vuillier et al, 2020; Moseley et al, 2023). Deficits in alexithymia are related to differences in interoception – the neural perception of bodily sensations (Brewer et al, 2016). Therefore, this project will investigate the role of alexithymia and interoception in the relationship between autism and eating disorders and assess if eating disorders symptoms can be reduced by improving interoception.
Proposal: Study 1 (1st year): Systematic review of research investigating the mediating role of alexithymia and interoception in the relationship between autism and eating disorders. Following this, we will set up a small advisory group consisting of autistic adults to ensure a user-led approach to the remaining research studies. Study 2 (1st and 2nd year): Lab based study to examine the mediating role of physiological measures (heart-rate variability, respiratory sinus arrhythmia), interoception and alexithymia in the relationship between autism and symptoms of disordered eating. Study 3 (2nd and 3rd year): Proof-of-concept trial of a novel therapy targeting interoception in reducing symptoms of disordered eating in autistic adults.