Social Anxiety and Autism: How They're Related and How They Aren't

Katy Kandaris, LPC
12/1/2022

Social media has been an incredible tool since its creation. Recently, you might have noticed the trend, especially on TikTok, of creators talking about mental health and life with neurodivergent diagnoses.

While we love to see the visibility of these different diagnoses encouraging people to come forward, share their experiences and seek treatment, these creators can sometimes lead people down the wrong path.

TikTok can lead many people to self-diagnose themselves with mental and developmental difficulties to garner sympathy or views. One of the “trendier” self-diagnoses is autism. 

Videos on social media have undoubtedly prompted many people to seek treatment and therapy, and adults are very much underdiagnosed. The problem, however, arises when people conflate social anxiety and autism symptoms. The two are related, but declaring you have one might get in the way of treatment for the other. 

What is Social Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders come in all shapes and sizes, including social anxiety. Sometimes considered a social phobia, social anxiety is more or less situational. Someone with social anxiety feels it when introduced to specific social settings. 

Symptoms

Many types of anxiety disorders show similar symptoms, though they are often differentiated by when and how severely they show. Physical symptoms are usually the same, including increased heart rate, trouble breathing or rapid breath, nausea, and muscle tension.

Social anxiety is set apart by behavioral and emotional symptoms, such as: 

  • Analyzing your behaviors and reactions after the fact
  • Avoiding certain social events or situations
  • Dread of being humiliated or looking foolish
  • Fear of being judged by strangers
  • Intense fear of interacting with strangers

These fears of simply existing in public can be debilitating to some people. An interaction that might seem fun and no big deal to one person zaps all the energy and excitement from another.  

Causes

Like other anxiety disorders, social anxiety can run in the family. Many mental health disorders are genetic, and having one increases the risk that a close family member will also develop one. 

Trauma can cause anxiety, and social anxiety is no exception. Even a single embarrassing event can be enough to cause social anxiety to follow a person around for life. 

Treatments

Social anxiety can keep you away from activities you once loved, but it’s something you can overcome. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) have proven effective time and time again against most forms of anxiety. Combined therapy with gentle, increasing exposure can help many people work past their phobias.

Doctors may also recommend medication depending on the severity of your social anxiety, but that should go in tandem with therapy.

What is Autism?

As opposed to a mental health disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder. In other words, it affects brain development and usually begins to appear in the first two years of life.

Symptoms

Because of the “spectrum” piece, ASD can be incredibly mild and not diagnosed until adulthood, or it can be very severe, causing a person to need specialized care their entire life. 

However, no matter where someone falls on the spectrum, all symptoms have a common theme. Someone with ASD tends to have difficulty in social situations. They may avoid eye contact or have an odd verbal cadence. They may not understand non-verbal social cues, directions, or questions.  

Those with ASD often find comfort in repetition. Behavior-related symptoms of ASD can be a fixation with an object or concept, rigid routines, stimming, inflexible food preferences, and sensitivity to certain textures.     

Causes

Unfortunately, we don’t know the cause of ASD. Certain things like genetics, geriatric pregnancies, and other developmental disorders might play a part. But so far, these relationships seem to indicate correlation, not causation.

Treatments

Autism treatments mainly involve improving communication skills, understanding social languages, and helping with body movement. ASD can’t be “cured,” but a therapist can address symptoms to help someone move through life a bit easier.

Are they Related?

Social anxiety and ASD sound like they have a lot in common. It’s easy to see how someone might assume they have one, but, in reality, they have the other. But do the two genuinely have a relationship?  

Shared Characteristics

For starters, the link between the two in terms of social interaction seems obvious. The drive to avoid social situations might differ, but the end result is similar. 

One way to stave off anxious feelings is through routines and predictability. We see this behavior in both anxiety disorders and ASD.

Comorbidity

According to the UK's National Autistic Society, almost 50% of individuals with ASD develop social anxiety. When a person is diagnosed with two or more medical conditions alongside each other, they’re considered comorbid. Autism and anxiety are frequently seen comorbidly. 

Social anxiety can develop due to one or many traumatic social interactions that leave a person feeling defeated. Because the core symptom of ASD is difficulty navigating interpersonal relationships, individuals with it might feel anxiety about these social interactions. 

Self-Diagnosed Autism and Anxiety

It can take a long time, sometimes well into adulthood, to realize that what you do and how you feel are not the same as those around you. A self-diagnosed mental illness can lead a person to get their needed help. But it often prevents them from recognizing other problems that only a doctor or therapist could identify.

Sometimes It’s How Adults Get a Confirmed Diagnosis

By the time a child with ASD is two years old, they will likely already have their diagnosis. Self-diagnosed autism is often the only way adults can seek out the therapies that could help them. 

Adults with ASD might have gone through life thinking they had “quirks” when they had a developmental disorder that could have been addressed and improved. Remember, though, whether diagnosed with anxiety or autism, it’s never too late to try therapies and treatments.

But You’re Not Always Right

One danger of self-diagnosed autism (or any mental health disorder) is the similarity of symptoms across multiple conditions. By declaring that you have one, you might be neglecting the root causes of another. 

Treatments for any disorder may vary wildly. Addressing social anxiety through CBT does nothing for sensory sensitivities caused by ASD. Yes, you can manage them in tandem, but it’s up to your therapists and other healthcare professionals to determine how.

Anxiety is often the symptom of something else, including certain medical disorders. Not talking to someone about the onset of it could be dangerous.

Inner Balance Can Get You on the Right Track

It can be tough to navigate our bodies and minds, let alone in the era of social media. We’re grateful that more people are empowered to address their issues, but we want our clients to know that only qualified therapists and doctors can give firm diagnoses.

The qualified staff at Inner Balance Counseling wants to steer you in the right direction. Reach out for a consultation so we can guide you through whatever journey you need.

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Katy Kandaris, LPC
Owner & Trauma Therapist

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