What’s the difference between autism spectrum disorder and social anxiety disorder (SAD)? With the prevalence of autistic individuals also being diagnosed with SAD, it can be hard at times to tell the difference between the two. And what can be done when the surrounding environment (school, work, or a busy home) is setting off both ASD and SAD? First off, there is a difference! Learning about this difference is one of the many pieces that came together to help me find healing after my ASD diagnosis. For me, and many others, autism leads us to be open books, personal-space breakers, loud talkers, socially unaware, and confused by humor and gestures. On the other hand, social anxiety often causes us to want to shrink away by talking quieter, requesting lots of personal space, and being hyperaware of body gestures and language because of fear.
What does this mean and how can it help? Social anxiety is oftentimes a physical and psychological reaction of an autistic individual who is trying to be accepted and be perceived as neurotypical. We hear, “Don’t stand so close! Don’t talk so much! Don’t be so loud! Just look at other people’s body language and you should understand!” We internalize these don’ts, but that cannot change our autism. We become hypervigilant, wanting to both please and be accepted. And even if we reject other people as a defense mechanism, we can still wind up afraid of socializing.
So, where is the tip in all of this? If ASD and SAD are both a part of your life, and you find yourself burning out constantly, try keeping a journal that can help you separate out the symptoms and traits of the two disorders. In a safe space, ask yourself questions like, “Am I overstimulated because of loudness at school? Or am I anxious because of peer interactions?” From there, we can work out if sitting in a corner by a window during class might help, or if a change of friends or even if eating lunch in a classroom (instead of the cafeteria) with one trusted friend might help. In any case, involving a professional, be it a therapist or a guidance counselor, can provide some of the necessary supports.