Mental Health Disorders and Special Needs Students: Eating Disorders -

Mental Health Disorders and Special Needs Students: Eating Disorders

Mental Health Disorders and Special Needs Students: Eating Disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating are serious psychiatric conditions and often severely disabling illnesses, whereby preoccupation with food, body weight, or body shape may cause severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors, related thoughts and emotions. Special needs children may also suffer from these issues, but in addition, students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may suffer from a selective eating disorder known as Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

What are the different types of Eating Disorders?

  • People with anorexia nervosa severely restrict the amount of food they eat, and often exercise excessively to lose weight. As a result, they can become dangerously underweight.
  • People with bulimia nervosa frequently eat large amounts of food and compensate by forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, and/or excessive exercise. 
  • People with binge-eating disorder lose control over their eating. But unlike bulimics or anorexics, they do not purge, excessively exercise, or fast after eating. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder often are overweight. 
  • People with ARFID are extremely sensitive to certain smells, tastes, and textures. In order to avoid aversive sensory experiences, they will only eat a limited variety of foods. While not driven by anxiety about body image, people with ARFID may lose weight to an alarmingly dangerous degree and can even be misdiagnosed with anorexia.

How to Help Special Needs Children with Eating Disorders

It can be difficult to distinguish early onset anorexia nervosa from ARFID. Pay attention to your child’s eating habits and weight. It is important to seek treatment early for an eating disorder as people with eating disorders are at higher risk for medical and further psychiatric complications due to malnutrition.

Exposure Treatment  

A core component of treatment for ARFID is exposing children to the anxiety-provoking stimuli. The child with ARFID may touch, smell, and taste a variety of foods over time to overcome the extreme sensitivity. Similarly, the treatment for anorexia nervosa is exposure to varied food groups, adequate energy, and weight gain. In both cases, treatment results in improved nutrition that both nourishes the child and helps them grow less anxious about their eating behavior.


Psychotherapies such as a family-based therapy called the Maudsley approach, can also be implemented. This is where parents of adolescents with anorexia nervosa assume responsibility for feeding their child. This can often be very effective in helping people gain weight and improve eating habits and moods.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help reduce binge-eating and purging behaviors. CBT is a form of talk therapy whereby a person learns how to identify distorted or unhelpful thinking patterns. By analyzing their thinking together with a therapist, the child can learn to recognize and change inaccurate beliefs.

If you suspect that your child has one of these eating disorders, it is essential to work with a professional who has experience with your child’s developmental conditions, and expertise in treating eating disorders. With medical care and nutritional counseling, full physical recovery is possible. Medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers may also be prescribed to help alleviate the underlying anxiety around eating.

Request a Tour of The Gateway School

Since 1980, RKS Associates has been a leader in providing the needs of special education students and helping children grow to their fullest potential. Each of our schools seeks to empower each student with skills for life, work, and recreation; we believe that every individual possesses the dignity and potential to contribute to a better world.

As part of the RKS Associates Network of schools in New Jersey, the goal at the Gateway School is to assist all students in becoming as independent as possible and help them get ready for the future. Located in Carteret, NJ, we serve individuals throughout Central and Northern New Jersey. Contact us at our main office at 732.541.4400 with any questions or schedule a private tour of the Gateway School today.

Chris Hoye, Principal-The Gateway School of Carteret, NJ