Social anxiety disorder (or social phobia) is a common condition in autistic people. Some studies estimate its prevalence among the autistic population to be as high as 50%! A concerning statistic, given that the estimated prevalence for the non-autistic population is 7-13%.
While social anxiety doesn’t typically have the same potentially fatal results as other psychological disorders, it can stop people from living their lives. A key symptom of social anxiety disorder is avoidance – going to great lengths to avoid social situations.
This means many people with social anxiety become isolated from their friends and family and find it difficult to go to work or get a job. Some people don’t leave their house for weeks, because they’re afraid of being around other people.
For these reasons, it’s important to keep social anxiety under control when you can. There’s no known ‘cure’ for social anxiety, but it can be managed through various strategies. For a handy infographic on my favourite ways to combat my own social anxiety, scroll to the bottom!
Is social anxiety linked to autism?
Social anxiety and autism are two different conditions affecting the brain, with a high comorbidity rate. Social anxiety disorder is much more common in the autistic community than in the neurotypical community.
We still don’t know exactly why this is, but many researchers have theorised it could stem from a mix of having an autistic brain, and living as an autistic person. Basically, a combination of nature and nurture (like most psychological disorders).
For many of us, we face a LOT of awkward social situations during our childhoods, not to mention outright rejection. As this builds up over time, we internalise a fear of social interaction, developing social phobia.
My experience of social anxiety was pretty gross. I felt trapped by my own brain, limiting myself to the few people and places I knew best. I remember feeling literally paralysed by my own fears. So yeah, could have been better.
What’s the difference between social anxiety and autism?
It’s pretty hard to differentiate social anxiety and autism – both are characterised by a difficulty interacting with other people. And considering an estimated half of all autistic people also have social anxiety disorder, knowing where one ends and the other begins is a tricky task.
However, autism is a wide collection of traits, not just social awkwardness. Sensory processing issues, cognitive functioning, and other areas of life are affected. Social anxiety, on the other hand, only affects social skills.
There are other less obvious differences between the two. People with social anxiety often want to socialise with others, but are too anxious to do so. Autistic people, especially children, are more likely to have little interest in socialising in the first place.
I actually noticed some differences through my own experience of both disorders (fun, I know). While many people with social anxiety disorder report a lower level of anxiety when talking to fewer people, I noticed the opposite.
In large groups I found it easier to fit in, to sit back and observe the conversation. In smaller groups this became harder. I had to talk a little here and there, though it was still doable.
But my worst nightmare? One-on-one conversations. All I have to rely on is my own set of poor social skills, and my even worse ability to hold a conversation.
You can imagine my surprise when online social anxiety forums ranted about how much they despised big groups. It seemed one-on-one conversations were the lesser of two evils to everyone except myself.
Now, I understand that my autism was what made me different, but back then it was confusing. I had mistaken my autism for social anxiety. This won’t be the case for everyone, as autism is a wide and varied spectrum, but this difference was one of the best ways I could tell I was neurodivergent.
Coping skills for social anxiety
- Reward yourself
Facing social anxiety can feel like an endless battle. It’s important to take the time out to celebrate small victories. For example, if you talked to a stranger or went to a party, reward yourself with your favourite food or a new book.
Giving yourself a reward for facing situations that trigger anxiety can be a great way to calm your body. You’ll have something to look forward to after the event, and no victory is too small to celebrate!
- Exposure therapy
Exposure therapy is based on the idea that we get less scared of something as we experience it more. Through talking to people, your brain learns that it’s a safe thing to do, meaning you’ll be less scared in future.
If you find that exposure therapy isn’t doing much to help you, don’t worry! It won’t work for everyone. Never push yourself too hard and risk a burnout or meltdown. Take it one step at a time.
- Get help
If you’re really struggling with anxiety, it’s a good idea to talk to a professional. Counsellors and therapists can equip you with ways to manage your anxiety during social interaction. They’ll also help you question any negative thoughts.
Plus, by seeing a mental health professional, you’re also practising a form of social interaction! Seeking therapy can be a huge step for people with social anxiety. It provides you with regular opportunities to practise social skills in a safe, supportive environment.
- Use relaxation strategies
There are calming strategies you can use when you feel anxious. Breathing techniques, mindfulness, and social anxiety affirmations are just a few. Next time you feel nervous, try taking some deep breaths and thinking good things about yourself.
You can find lots of affirmations for anxiety online, but they aren’t always helpful for autistic people. Some autism-friendly social anxiety affirmations I like to use include:
- There is nothing wrong with me.
- I have interesting things to say.
- I’m a friendly person.
- People enjoy being around me.
- I am calm and relaxed.
- It doesn’t matter if I make a mistake.
Before you take part in a conversation or social event, it’s good to prepare a mental plan. You could think up some conversation topics to use, or relaxation techniques that can help you.
Being prepared can help you relax before, and during, a social event. If you feel as if something has gone wrong, you can refer back to your mental plan and choose a phrase or technique that can calm you down.
- Avoid alcohol
Alcohol calms you down and reduces insecurity in the short term. But in the long term, it can make you more anxious. You may also say or do things you regret. While it can be tempting, alcohol is not a good coping strategy for social anxiety disorder.