Eating Disorders in Students with Disability
Students with learning disability are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). The resulting physical symptoms will typically be maintained by a person’s disturbed body image and preoccupation with size and shape. People with learning disability, however, will often have difficulty in conceptualizing these abstract ideas and therefore be more likely to be diagnosed with atypical eating disorders or EDNOS. In EDNOS, a student engages in some form of abnormal eating but does not present all the specific symptoms required to diagnose an eating disorder. A student could meet all the criteria for anorexia nervosa but manage to maintain a normal weight. Students with severe learning disability are more likely to present abnormal eating behaviors such as consumption of inedible materials (pica) such as paper, extreme food fattiness, food refusal, and food regurgitation.
Students with disability are more susceptible to poor body esteem and idealization. Bodies of students with disability are not represented in physical ability standards, and thus an eating disorder may develop as a way to gain control and punish the body for failing at what others can do or how they look. Students with visual impairment are dependent on others to construct their own body image. Often, the body image constructed by the “seeing eye” is based on visual perceptions of others and does not represent a subjective idea or construct.
Most professionals are not familiar with treating students with disability. In addition, students with disability often hesitate to address issues related to the impact of their disability. Confronting body image issues is often threatening and creates fears of being seen as incompetent or being misunderstood and judged. To help students with disability to recover from eating disorders, it is important to work on developing a sense of body ownership and pride, being sensitive to needs and feelings, and avoiding negative remarks about body size, shape, and disability. Avoid comments about how difficult a person is to lift and move, or how little they move, as these types of comments are potential triggers during recovery.
The goal of National Eating Disorders Awareness (#NEDAwareness) Week is to shine the spotlight on eating disorders and put life-saving resources into the hands of those in need. This year’s theme is “It’s Time to Talk About It.” For more resources and to access toolkits, please visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/. To contact the NEDA helpline dial 1-800-931-2237. Click here to access NCHPAD’s Nutrition Spotlight: Understanding Eating Disorders article.