Social Anxiety vs. Autism
Are you wondering what the difference is between Asperger’s vs. social anxiety? In a nutshell, one is a neurological condition while the other is a mental disorder. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and then consider what to do if you are experiencing one or the other.
There actually no longer is an official diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (sometimes referred to as Asperger’s disorder).
While the diagnosis existed from 1994 to 2013, it was rolled into the autism spectrum diagnosis in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Now, anyone showing the signs previously identified as Asperger’s Syndrome would be diagnosed with mild or high-functioning autism.
As far as the signs and symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome (or high functioning autism), these are listed below.
Note that anxiety is not a symptom of Asperger’s and not required for a diagnosis of high-functioning autism.
usually first diagnosed or identified in childhood (though it is increasingly common for high-functioning autism to be diagnosed in adults)
- preoccupation with interests, routines, parts of objects (e.g., getting really into a coin collection and only wanting to talk about that one thing)
- repetitive motor movements (e.g., like hand twisting)
- problems with making eye contact, understanding facial expressions, and body language
- trouble with communication and relationships and social interaction
- having a hard time making friends and understanding how other people are feeling, being able to share in their interests
Social Anxiety Disorder
Okay, so now that we’ve outlined what Asperger’s Syndrome is (I’ll keep referring to it as Asperger’s in this article, because it’s just easier that way), how does it differ from social anxiety?
Let’s talk about what the symptoms are of social anxiety disorder and the diagnostic criteria. That should help to make things clear.
A person with social anxiety disorder avoids or endures social and/or performance situations because of a fear of being judged, humiliated, or embarrassed.
This might be a fear of others noticing your anxiety symptoms, noticing your poor social skills, or believing that there is something wrong with you internally (a character flaw) or externally (a body flaw).
People with social anxiety disorder feel the need to hide or conceal these parts of themselves while in social or performance situations, which in turn causes anxiety symptoms.
In this way, people with social anxiety disorder might experience some of the same problems as someone with Asperger’s, but the underlying cause is completely different.
Instead of being unable to read body language because your brain isn’t wired to do so, you have trouble reading body language because of your anxiety or just a lack of experience interacting with people.
Social Anxiety vs. Autism
What are the differences in how a person with social anxiety disorder goes out into the world vs. a person with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s?
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A person with Asperger’s might appear rude or lacking in tact. They might not get the jokes you tell or can’t take a hint when you aren’t really clear with what you say.
They might stand too close to you or talk too loud. They also probably don’t understand your facial expressions or the gestures you are making. It’s as though they are trying to make logical sense of everything instead of just inherently understanding it.
On the other hand, people with social anxiety disorder may speak too softly or stand too far away.
They may feel too much and take on the emotions of others, which becomes overwhelming. In other words, they notice a slight frown and assume that someone is upset with them.
When they struggle in social situations, it’s not because they lack the natural ability to understand what is going on. It’s because their anxiety gets in the way.
People with Asperger’s use the logical part of their brain too much, while people with social anxiety disorder are overwhelmed by the emotional part of their brain.
Are you with me so far?
Asperger’s and Anxiety
What about having both Asperger’s Syndrome alongside social anxiety disorder? In fact, this is totally possible and even common for those with high-functioning autism to develop secondary social anxiety.
When you can’t understand other people and what they do, it’s only natural that this would create anxiety and perhaps lead to feeling as though you are being judged.
Social Awkwardness vs. Asperger’s
Both people with Asperger’s vs. social anxiety will come across as socially awkward, The underlying causes are different but the end result is the same. Trouble making and keeping friends.
For this reason, social skills training can be helpful for both types of people.
Social skills training involves learning about body language, eye contact, speech (tone, volume, rate), and how to make conversation and make friends.
It usually involves interacting with a coach or mental health professional who models the behaviors for you and then has you repeat them while giving you feedback.
So, even though Asperger’s and social anxiety disorder might be different problems, they can benefit from some of the same solutions.
What about you? Do you have a diagnosis of Asperger’s (high-functioning autism) or social anxiety disorder, or do you know someone who does? How have you or they coped?
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Asperger’s vs. Social Anxiety
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I’m 48 year old male. Had serious social anxiety issues since mid 20s. Over the years I’ve read and taken in all information, had cbt therapy. Looked within myself, childhood, all forms of possibilities. I’m a realist, and got to understand the inner workings of the limbic system ( amygdala and hippopotamus etc) got a realisation, that even though trigger was as simple as tripping over in front of someone. It boiled down to being judged. Looking further , wanting to be perfect ( clothes, hair, looks etc) I’ve got many coping mechanisms, and with my rational understanding of forming personalised confidence, happiness, positivity. From affirmations, eye movements, havening techniques ……. nothing bothers me in any way, no fears or delusions. But for reasons I can’t fathom is , that deep engrained part I just can’t rid. To the eye contact stage. Including still walking outside, passing anyone, family, friends, shops. I can’t control. I will say I have epilepsy, medication ( carbamazepine) and paroxetine, anxiety and depression, don’t drink or smoke, though I did daily at time of original trigger, which probably had a lot to do with it. Read information that cbt therapist hadn’t heard of, a strong rational “realistic “ outlook of life in general. I can’t understand what this lingering part of the anxiety is caused by , unless some other psychological issue. Any information would be appreciated. Thank you liam
Arlin Cuncic, M.A. says
Hi Liam, thanks for sharing your experiences. You might want to look into something called “Radically Open DBT.” It’s something I’m researching myself right now too. The idea is that some people have a tendency to be too rigid or controlled in their interactions, and this therapy is designed specifically for that problem.