Previous research has demonstrated that individuals with anorexia nervosa display elevated autistic traits in comparison to individuals who do not have the disorder. However, it remains unknown as to whether this relationship is a stable trait of individuals or if it is caused by a psychological or physical state. This study investigated the state vs trait nature of the relationship between disordered eating and autistic traits in a non-clinical sample, while additionally exploring the ability of cognitive inflexibility to predict this relationship. Thirty-four undergraduate students from the University of St Andrews completed questionnaires regarding their affect, disordered-eating attitudes and autistic traits alongside a measure of set-shifting ability in the Brixton Spatial Anticipation test during a period of examination stress and a period of no stress. It was revealed that on both occasions, individuals who scored higher on a test of disordered-eating attitudes also scored higher on a test measuring autistic traits. This relationship was stronger when participants were stressed. Autistic traits were also found to significantly predict a change in eating attitudes between a stress-induced state and pre-existing trait conditions. Inflexibility, as reflected by Brixton scores, did not appear to relate to either measure. These results indicate that slightly elevated autistic traits in those exhibiting disordered-eating attitudes may be state-dependent, as opposed to reflecting the engrained traits of the individual. Findings are discussed in relation to future research replicating the study with a larger sample and implications for the diagnosis and treatment of anorexia.
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