Can you tell the difference between autism and shyness?

Shyness and autism may look similar, but being able to identify them properly will enable you to provide the right support for your students

Kate Shaw

autism girls

As a child with high functioning autism, my behaviours were often misunderstood as shyness.

I was diagnosed with a form of high-functioning autism at the age of 20, which meant that I went through the majority of education without any learning support.

Thankfully, I love learning and performed excellently in school in the subjects I enjoyed.

Quick read: Autism: why are we still not spotting the girls?  

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But looking back, I do wish that I received a diagnosis sooner. I would have benefited greatly from support in social understanding.

The key differences between shyness and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) lay within how we approach socialising. Of course, there are people on the spectrum who are also shy.

But it is important to spot when a child may be showing behaviours that suggest ASD rather than shyness in order for them to receive the support they may need. With the right support, that child’s confidence and self-esteem can be improved, along with their learning.

Many, including myself, refer to having autism as living in a world where the majority of people do not speak the same language as you.

There is a common misconception that people on the spectrum are usually antisocial. Processing information whilst socialising can be tiring and this is why many people with autism are selective about when and how they socialise.

This does not mean that we do not enjoy socialising, it just means that we may need more time to process the sensory input around us while socialising.

autism girls

On the surface, this can seem like shyness. I often look down or off to the side when processing in social situations, for example.

It only takes me a few seconds to fully process and express a response, but in this short space of time it can seem like there is an issue with the social flow of the situation or conversation.

Eye contact does not come to me instinctively either. It does nothing to help me process the conversation but it is a behaviour I have taught myself in order to fit in and make neurotypical people feel that I am engaged with what they are saying.

Ideally, I would look at their mouths when they talk but this is less socially acceptable (even though it would help me process what they have said a lot faster). This is a form of social masking that tires me as it is something extra that I do while trying to process the information around me at the same time.

Confusing conditions

Social anxiety and autism have long been confused because of the traits that seem similar. In school, for example, I really wanted friends but just did not understand how to start friendships.

I was not anxious about speaking to people, I was confused about how other people started friendships. I didn’t understand how these bonds were made and often made social mistakes by not understanding the rules or constructs.

Generally, identifying the differences in these behaviours boils down to the context.

People with autism can generally have a lack of understanding of the social constructs and rules of socialising, whereas people with social anxiety have a full understanding and are overanalytical of these social constructs and rules.

Of course, this is addressing the issue in a general sense but this is the simplest way to explain the different thought processes.

Separate support

Therefore the support we give people with ASD should be completely different to the support for people who are shy or have social anxiety.

People who have social anxiety need support in overcoming the fears they face after overanalysing the possible outcomes of all of the complexities of social interaction.

People on the spectrum like myself often need somebody they can trust to explain the complexities of how social interactions change as you go through life and encounter different people.

Both need to be supported, but with very different approaches.

Kate Shaw is a photojournalist in North East London

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