At the Intersection of Autism and Social Anxiety

Published April 30, 2021

Social anxiety is extremely common among autistic people. After a systematic analysis of 24 studies, researchers Debbie Spain and Francesca Happé found that autistic people experience social anxiety "with rates far exceeding non-autism population norms." Despite the fact that social anxiety is so widespread in the autism community, this facet of autistic life isn’t often discussed in non-autistic circles. As an autistic woman, I want to bring more awareness to this topic.

How autistic people experience social anxiety

Speaking from my own experiences, I feel that social anxiety in autistic people is like an inner alarm. Many people think that autistic people lack self-awareness, but social anxiety is autistic people’s understanding that they are not meeting other people’s expectations for how they should behave. My brain goes into overgear. Bells go off to signal that something is wrong, very wrong. My brain starts scrambling, dissecting every possibility of where I failed. Trying to figure out how the situation soured is like an equation that I can’t solve, no matter how hard I try. It’s easy to buy into the stereotypes about autistic people, in general, that I’m incapable, handicapped, defective, lesser-than.

When I’m socially interacting with someone, the social anxiety makes my head begin to hurt. I start to feel hazy and lightheaded. Maybe, if I’m having an especially bad day, I feel a hint of nausea. When the interaction is finally over, my heart is pounding, and it almost feels like I have to catch my breath. It’s as if I just finished running a marathon. Only once it’s over can I finally exhale, and I have to sit down in silence and calm down until it’s time to brace myself for the next interaction.

There are many times when I interact with others in which I think, "This is too hard. I can’t do this anymore." But I have no choice but to keep interacting with people and fulfilling the smothering, suffocating expectations of social rules. If not, I’ll face the consequences. People will kick me to the curb.

Why social anxiety is a necessary evil

Many have found that social anxiety and the self-regulation that comes with it is necessary to navigate our society. According to a 2017 study by Laura Hull et. al., "Respondents' social and communication difficulties, and their unique behaviours and interests, meant that they stood out from the crowd during social situations. It was felt that the general population viewed this as unacceptable, and so respondents felt a pressure to change their behaviours in order to seem 'normal enough'."

In addition, "many respondents described how they would not have achieved as much had they been more open about their autism characteristics. Camouflaging [hiding autism characteristics] during these situations was thought to improve employment opportunities, and so enable them to become a 'functioning member of society'." One respondent even said that "I'm pretty sure no one would hire me if I didn’t camouflage in job interviews."

For autistic people of color and other marginalized groups, the stakes are even higher. According to autistic black woman Morénike Giwa-Onaiwu, if people of color behave in certain ways because of their autism, white people may assume that their behavior differences are caused by their race. White people may perceive such differences more negatively when they occur in a person of color. Thus, people of color may face more danger if they do not camouflage their autism.

In summary, autistic people have to suppress their true, unvarnished selves in order to be accepted. If they don’t, it will cost them everything — their jobs, their friends, and possibly even their lives.

What can we do to end social anxiety?

Non-autistic people should promote the idea that diversity in communication is normal. Autistic people may communicate in a manner that is different than non-autistic people, and that’s something that we should celebrate.

Society has made it seem as if there is only one appropriate way to communicate, but communication is not one-size-fits-all. This isn’t true. The way autistic people communicate is not inferior to the way other people communicate. Forcing everyone to fit one mold of communication can prevent people from being their true, best selves. We, as a society, need to let autistic people convey their thoughts and feelings in a way that works for them, not stifles them. If we can do that, then autistic people will have less reason to have social anxiety.