In my personal research, I’ve wanted to know how social anxiety and autism could affect my communication. In the past, I’ve had people approach me and ask “Have you seen that TV programme about women with autism… are you autistic? You act the same!”. It’s not available anymore so I can’t drop in a link for you to watch THAT programme.
Adults who have social anxiety or are on the Autistic Spectrum experience social difficulties/differences – and may be happier being alone than being in a group.
So, while social anxiety is not the same as autism, these two “conditions” do have some things in common because they can both make social interactions awkward or uncomfortable.
Shared traits can include:
- Spending more time alone
- Actively avoiding people at times
- Social awkwardness
- Only feeling comfortable around a few people
- Not speaking much; quiet or withdrawn in social situations
Social anxiety causes fear and extreme anxiety in social situations – while someone on the Autistic Spectrum may or may not suffer from anxiety.
However, if you’re suffering for social anxiety, this condition could remain a part of life for a long time and you could be at risk of simply accepting the condition as something that can’t be overcome. If you took an online Autism Spectrum test for yourself, your score could start pushing towards an Autism Spectrum identity.
Autism traits that are NOT present in social anxiety
Autism is seen as pervasive (which means throughout/ touching every part) in human development and impact or make a difference to areas of life besides socialising. A list of some examples can include;
- From birth/ during early childhood – milestones like talking, walking, reading, interaction develop more slowly, more quickly, and/or out of order
- Movements or fidgeting that affect the senses are called “stimming”. For example, VISUAL “stimming” could include; flapping hands, blinking and/or moving fingers in front of eyes, staring repetitively at a light, pressing on closed eyes to create visual effect.
- Being under or overly sensitive to noise, smells, touch – known as “sensory issues”
- Difficulty developing independence skills (such as finances/cooking/bathing)
- Motor skills difficulties – small/fine movements with extremities (fingers and toes) and other parts of the body like the hands, tongue, lips, wrists, and feet
- Disorganisation and various needs for routine
- Passionate special interests about a few select topics
- Be unable to recognise faces/ people (prosopagnosia is also known as “face blindness” )
- Due to a difference in thinking/cognisance styles, an individual on the Autistic Spectrum struggles to guess what others are thinking – which can be stressful and may result in social mis-steps
Additionally, an individual on the Autistic Spectrum often experiences confusion from “sensory overwhelm” in social situations and may be less interested in seeking out social activity, whereas a socially anxious person does not experience sensory issues and withdraws for fear of being judged.
People with social anxiety can read faces and body language just fine, but may experience cognitive distortions such as “She’s laughing because she thinks I’m a fool.”
People with social anxiety may experience out-of-control fears. They may worry about being judged by others, facing embarrassment, and dealing with rejection. These fears are persistent, regardless of whether others are judging them or not.
Autistic individuals may have some concerns about socialising, but these are usually related to past mis-steps and/or mistreatment. For example, if bullying stops and the autistic individual makes some good friends, they simply won’t be so nervous around those friends.
Autistic people don’t know how to respond to many social situations. For example, not instinctively knowing how to make friends and lacking the social skills for developing friendships. People with social anxiety have the skills, but become too scared to use them, their fear of socialising makes it difficult to use the skills they already have.
A socially anxious person might experience shaking hands, blushing, shortness of breath, sweating, stammering, etc. whereas an autistic person may fidget in social situations (stimming), however, this is normal body language for someone on the Autistic Spectrum – they’ll do it when alone, too as it serves many purposes.
The onset of social anxiety
Autism begins prenatally, and is lifelong. Social anxiety is often caused by a sudden or ongoing issue (moving house, traumatic bullying, abuse, etc.) and social anxiety can be overcome with proper treatment.
Social anxiety can develop at any age
Autism is usually noticed in childhood, or during a stressful transition such as moving house or starting college. Adults who are identified as being autistic after childhood can look back and recognise signs and behaviours.
People on the Autistic Spectrum often struggle socially and are at risk for being bullied, meaning that they may then develop social anxiety as a result. It is very common for autistic people to experience one or more mental health issues such as anxiety, depression – and others.
On another subject, but of importance to social anxiety and autism, there’s a lot of research that links adult autism and self medication with alcohol or drugs too… here’s a link to one woman’s story: I gave up drinking and discovered I have autism
Autism and social anxiety are two different conditions but both can make living a normal life more challenging. Both people with autism or social anxiety often benefit from behavioral therapy or medications – if their healthcare provider recommends it.
One potential problem for those of us on the Autism Spectrum, however, is that our social fears may not be irrational. For example, there may be a fear of making phone calls to strangers because of difficulties with communication/language pragmatics. The use of language in social contexts and the ways in which people produce and comprehend meanings through language is different for autistic individuals.
So even if communication fears don’t fit an aspect of social phobia, there could be a lot of social anxiety. In a clinical setting, if a therapist is using an anxiety scale test for autism identification, items with high fear/avoidance scores may need to be interrogated more thoroughly for the underlying reasons – and to avoid misdiagnosis.
Online Social Anxiety “test”
The Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale Test is a measure of the degree of social phobia that a person experiences and can be viewed by clicking the link here.
It’s surprisingly common to hear that individuals have gone through life without an autism diagnosis, feeling that somehow they don’t quite fit in. Many heave learned to cope with life in their own ways, although this can be hard work – and may be married or living with a partner, have families or successful careers. Others may be more isolated and find things much more of a struggle.
Online autism “test”
I’ve pasted a link here for an online test for autism – at best, this is a ‘screening’ test, not a diagnosis test, however it can help with understanding more about yourself and the Autistic Spectrum Link to “Aspie Quiz”
Seeking autism diagnosis is an individual choice and some people are happy to remain self-diagnosed. The only way to know for sure whether you are autistic is to get a formal diagnosis.
Here’s a link to the National Autistic Society’s experiences of diagnosis.
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