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Distinguishing Between Autism and Social Anxiety

If you often feel uncomfortable or awkward in social situations, you may be wondering if there is a reason behind it.

Autism is on the rise, but just because you or your child might be uncomfortable or awkward in social situations doesn’t mean autism is the diagnosis. Knowing the difference between autism and social anxiety can help you figure out effective coping mechanisms or treatment for certain situations when social interaction is a must.

What is Autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, is a group of neurodevelopment disorders that cause developmental delays or difficulty with social communication and interaction. About 1 in 68 children have autism, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Signs of Autism include:

  • Failure to make eye contact
  • Repetitive movements (like flapping arms or rocking from side to side)
  • Lines up toys or objects
  • Upset with changes in routine
  • Wants to be alone
  • Lack of social skills
  • Doesn’t respond when name is called (appears deaf)
  • Delayed speech in children
  • Repeats words over and over
  • Avoids physical contact
  • Gives unrelated answers to questions

There are different levels of autism, with some cases being more severe than others. Behavioral or speech therapy is often beneficial for children with autism spectrum disorder.

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety can also prevent normal social interactions from being comfortable or going smoothly. The Social Anxiety Institute reports that prevalence rates for social anxiety disorder are 13 to 14 percent. Signs of social anxiety include:

  • Fear of interaction with other people
  • Fear of being negatively judged or evaluated
  • Self-consciousness
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Embarrassment
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Feeling uncomfortable in social situations
  • Likes to be alone
  • Avoids being center of attention or speaking in front of groups
  • Gets emotionally distressed during many social interactions
  • Doesn’t like being watched by others

Is There a Link Between the Two?

While social anxiety is not the same as autism, these two conditions have some things in common. They both can make social interactions awkward or uncomfortable. The main difference is that social anxiety disorder causes fear and extreme anxiety in social situations, while someone with autism may or may not suffer from anxiety. However, having autism appears to increase your risk for social anxiety disorder. The Indiana Resource Center for Autism reports that 17 percent of people with autism spectrum disorder also have social anxiety disorder.

Bottom Line

Autism and social anxiety are two different conditions but both can make living a normal life more challenging. People with autism or social anxiety disorder often benefit from behavioral therapy or medications if their healthcare provider recommends it.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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