How to Distinguish Between Social Anxiety and Autism

Опубликовал Admin
25-11-2016, 23:18
Getting an accurate diagnosis for yourself or your loved one isn't always easy. You may struggle with discerning between symptoms or cases in which two disabilities share many symptoms. Here are some of the ways to tell social anxiety and autism apart.

Analyzing Symptoms

  1. Recognize how autism and social anxiety can look similar. Both autistics and people with social anxiety experience social difficulties, and may be happier being alone than being in a group. 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    • Not speaking much; quiet or withdrawn in social situations
    • Isolation
  2. Consider the motivation for social avoidance. An autistic person may experience confusion and sensory overwhelm in social situations, and may be less interested in seeking out social activity. (This varies.) A socially anxious person does not experience sensory issues, and withdraws for fear of being judged.
    • Autistic people may also be nervous in social situations. This is usually because they have had bad experiences, such as misinterpretations and bullying.
    • Autistics struggle to guess what others are thinking, which can be stressful, and may result in social mistakes. 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."
  3. Watch for social fears. 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 people may have some concerns about socializing, but these are usually related to past mistreatment. For example, if bullies are stopped and the autistic person makes some good friends, the autistic person won't be so nervous around those friends.
  4. Look at social skills. Autistic people don't know how to respond to many social situations. (For example, they may not know how to make friends.) They don't have the needed social skills. People with social anxiety have the skills, but become too scared to use them. Their fear of socializing 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.
    • An autistic person may fidget in social situations. However, this is normal autistic body language, and it helps them be comfortable. They will do it when they are alone, too.
  5. Consider autism traits that are not present in social anxiety. Autism is a pervasive developmental disability, and affects areas of life besides socializing. Autistic people will experience most or all of...
    • Atypical development: may hit milestones more slowly, more quickly, and/or out of order
    • Stimming (unusual movements that stimulate the senses)
    • Passionate special interests about a few select topic(s)
    • Sensory issues (under- or over-sensitivity)
    • Difficulty developing independence skills, such as cooking or bathing
    • Motor skills delays
    • Disorganization and need for routine
  6. Look at the onset. Autism begins prenatally, and is lifelong. Social anxiety is often caused by a sudden or ongoing issue (moving house, traumatic bullying, abuse, etc.). Social anxiety can be cured 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). Late-diagnosed autistics can look back and recognize signs they showed in childhood.

Moving Forward

  1. Look up what autistics and people with social anxiety have to say about their lives. This can help give a human aspect to the symptoms you read about. It may be easier to relate to stories like "My chest clenches every time a stranger visits my house" than "Nervous around people."
  2. Consider the possibility of both conditions. Autistic people often struggle socially and are at risk for being bullied, meaning that they may develop social anxiety as a result.
    • It is very common for autistic people experience one or more mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and others. If you suspect autism, don't rule out anxiety.
  3. Make an appointment with a psychologist to get yourself or your loved one screened. A psychologist can administer questionnaires and conduct interviews to help determine the appropriate diagnosis/diagnoses.
    • An autism diagnosis can be hard to get, especially for adults, females, and people of color. Some autistics self-diagnose for this reason. Self-diagnosis grants you access to the Autistic community, but you can't get accommodations without an official diagnosis.
  4. Talk to the psychologist if you suspect misdiagnosis. Since autism and anxiety can look similar, it's important to put time and thought into the diagnosis, and speak up if there's a potential mistake. Be open and honest about any concerns.
    • An autistic person may falsely test positive on a social anxiety screening, especially if they are asked questions like "I prefer to be alone" or "Social situations can be overwhelming."


  • Avoid negative sources of information of autism, such as Autism Speaks. These paint a doom-and-gloom picture that is not representative of reality.
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