Autism or Social Anxiety
Are you wondering about the differences between social anxiety vs autism? While social anxiety involves a fear of judgment and worries about how others perceive you, the central features of autism are sensory overwhelm and trouble with social cues.
Autism is a neurological condition that is present from birth and cannot be changed while social anxiety typically develops in adolescence and can improve with treatment.
Because of the overlap between autism and social anxiety, some people may be misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. If you have problems with social situations that are concerning to you, read through the signs and symptoms of both autism and social anxiety below, and see if one or the other seems to fit better.
And if you want to know for sure, make an appointment with a mental health professional for a full consultation and assessment.
Signs of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety exists on a continuum from shyness all the way up to social anxiety disorder. Below are some of the defining symptoms of a person who is socially anxious.
- worry, fear, and anxiety about being judged by others or embarrassing yourself
- trouble making eye contact
- fear of being judged by others or being criticized
- cognitive distortions (e.g., feel as though others are judging you, without any concrete evidence)
- anxious when meeting new people or being around strangers
- physical symptoms such as shaking, trouble breathing, racing heart, stuttering
- adequate social skills but then anxiety causes you to freeze up around others (mind going blank)
- can be triggered by outside events like childhood trauma or bullying
- typically begins in adolescence
- overly self-conscious
Signs of Autism
Autism is diagnosed as a spectrum disorder, meaning that it can range from mild to severe in terms of how much it impacts your life. Some people do not receive a diagnosis until much later in life, often because of multiple factors such as the ability to mask symptoms, lack of understanding by doctors, and individual ability to function in daily life.
If you are wondering whether you might meet the criteria for a diagnosis of autism, have a read through the signs below and see whether they seem to fit your situation.
- trouble making eye contact (i.e., it feels as though people are looking into your soul)
- confusion and sensory overwhelm
- trouble reading social cues and resulting social mistakes (i.e., you can’t understand what people mean, can’t read facial expressions, don’t catch on to sarcasm, don’t understand tone of voice, can’t tell when someone has lost interest, talk too long about one topic, not using gestures when you speak)
- trouble making friends
- fidgeting and/or stimming in social situations but also when alone (repetitive behaviors that are used to self-soothe or stimulate the senses)
- may hit developmental milestones more slowly
- a passionate interest in a few narrow topics
- need for routine and familiarity
- as a child, not responding to being comforted
- the tendency to shut down or become overwhelmed in social situations (easily overstimulated or understimulated, making it impossible to focus or concentrate)
- masking (hiding signs of autism in social situations so that you fit in)
- needing to stand up, pace, or fidget while in a conversation
- using gadgets to help you feel calm like wearing headphones
- enjoy watching the same movies, listening to the same songs, over and over again
- need for predictability and routine
- unable to handle when other people do not stick to a plan (e.g., when friends set dinner for 6 pm but nobody is ready)
- feeling “burnt out” after masking in social situations (e.g., having physical symptoms like headaches and body aches)
- better at slow and thorough processing than multitasking or fast processing
- feel less stress and anxiety when allowed to go at own pace, be logical, and not hide autistic traits
Similarities Between Social Anxiety and Autism
Are you wondering about the similarities between social anxiety and autism? We’ve already talked about some of them in the above lists of symptoms. Below is a list of symptoms that can overlap. As you can see, behaviors can be similar but have different underlying causes.
- Lack of eye contact
- The tendency to prefer spending time alone/avoiding people
- Appearing to be socially awkward
- Preferring to be in small groups
- Feeling uneasy or unsure in social situations
- Needing time after being in a social situation to recover
However, there are far more differences between autism and social anxiety than there are similarities. What might seem like the same problem on the surface can be quite different underneath.
Differences Between Social Anxiety and Autism
Okay, so now let’s talk about the differences between social anxiety and autism! There are many, but here is the list.
- Socially anxious people have no trouble reading body language or facial expressions whereas autistic people struggle with this
- Social anxiety often comes or goes depending on how comfortable you feel in a situation, whereas autistic habits are constant
- Socially anxious people are awkward because of their anxiety, while autistic people are awkward because they can’t read situations/have distracting habits
- Autistic people may hide or mask their “unacceptable” traits while socially anxious people try to hide their anxiety or perceived flaws
- Autistic people engage in hyperfocus (focusing on one conversation topic, becoming totally engrossed in one hobby); socially anxious people don’t necessarily do this
- Autism is lifelong, whereas social anxiety can be treated/improved
- Autism causes sensory overwhelm, whereas social anxiety causes physical symptoms of anxiety
- Autistic people might benefit from building a life suited to their autism, whereas adjusting your life to accommodate your social anxiety will only make it worse
Co-Occurring Social Anxiety and Autism
But what about someone who has both autism and social anxiety? Research indicates that this certainly does occur, often because autistic people may experience mistreatment or bullying due to their social awkwardness. This can lead to feeling afraid or fearful of being yourself around others.
Getting a Diagnosis
What should you do if you think you may have autism or social anxiety? The first step would be to get an assessment by a mental health professional such as a psychologist. If you’re not sure who to ask, your primary care doctor is the best option.
Again, remember that social anxiety is something that can be treated, whereas autism is a lifelong situation. If you’re only looking to understand yourself better or devise a life that suits you (and you relate to autism), you could look into the autism community for support. However, if you think you have social anxiety, getting help from a professional is highly advised, since it is one of the most treatable mental health disorders.
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Here are some of my favorite social anxiety tools
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