Whenever I know that I’ll be going to an event, whether it will be held at my house or at a different venue, and regardless of whether or not I will be going with a friend or if I know people there, I always have the same sinking feeling of dread that settles down to the pit of my stomach and refuses to leave until after the event is finally over. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, it is not surprising that I have developed a little something called social anxiety or social phobia. Now, having this isn’t a marker of having Asperger’s Syndrome, but is something that I think ends up developing naturally as the years go by based on all the experiences a person accumulates over time.
Social anxiety or social phobia is the fear of interacting with others, and according to the Social Anxiety Institute, “the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression”. You can tell if you do have this if you have an irrational and intense fear of social situations, and you tend to have “emotional distress” during social interaction. Just like all anxieties, this does hinder you from actually being social and interacting with others.
More often than not, those with high functioning autism and those with Asperger’s Syndrome, according to Asperger expert Tony Attwood, do end up developing mood disorders or intense anxieties. I find this to be true, as I also have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and I also ended up developing social anxiety as well. However, as someone who lives life on the spectrum, I am not surprised by this fact at all, and I am not surprised that most Aspies do have social anxiety.
I think that Aspies who have social anxiety kicks in during their teenage years and continues all the way into adulthood. When we were kids, regardless of whether you were neurotypical or not, no one really cared if you behaved and acted differently from the others. However, as you get older, you start becoming more aware of how different you are from your peers, and it becomes more prominent in college and high school, which is where most of us do get bullied for being different.
These situations, plus the awareness that we have a hard time reading social cues in social situations, is what causes the social anxiety for us. Ultimately, this makes attending parties and events very nerve wracking for us.
When I get invited to a party or event, as an extrovert, I’m usually ecstatic about the prospect of meeting new people. And then, while thinking about it, I start worrying about whether I will look okay in the outfit I chose, about what to do if I don’t know anyone there, about whether or not I’ll behave, act and say what is appropriate for the event, etc. All of this ends up with me wanting to not going to the event at all. The ride going to the event is even worse as more and more anxieties come into play, and finally, the worst part of all is entering the venue and wondering how I would be able to navigate my way through a sea of people and how to interact with them. At that point, I usually have to resist the urge to run to the bathroom and call my mother or sister in a panic.
Sometimes, I end up contenting myself with “people watching” so that I can figure out which conversation I can try to join in on, or if my anxiety is really bad, I end up just being your typical wallflower and not doing anything at all.
However, more often than not, my “people watching” usually pays off, and I’m able to pinpoint those who share a common special interest or two with me. When that happens, I usually feel as if a huge weight has been lifted off of my shoulders, and I can start allowing myself to talk normally and gush a bit about the things that I am passionate about.
Games and programs are another thing that gives a lot of anxiety, as I usually worry that I may not be able to understand the game, and that I’ll probably not be good at all at it. Sometimes, I’ve allowed myself to join in on the fun if I’m comfortable with it, sometimes I just observe, and more often than not, I try my best to escape the situation I’m currently in.
Because of this, most Aspies to tend to isolate themselves from others at an event, even though they really do want to join in on the fun.
I think that this is why I had a lot more online friends when I was a teenager then actual friends in real life. The friends that I usually made online usually had a common interest with me, and it was easier to edit and censor myself when communicating with them online. After all, I could just write things down and edit them and I didn’t need to deal with social interactions and trying to figure out verbal or social cues. Until today, I find that social media and writing online helps me communicate and interact better with others than in real life.
However, there are ways that you can mitigate social anxiety. It can be dealt with with coming up with coping strategies with your therapist, and by learning some social skills that will help you in situations like this. For me, coming up with a plan for social situations and learning some social skills have greatly helped me in overcoming my social anxiety, even though I know that it will probably never truly go away, and that I am still a long way from overcoming it.
Having plans, however, allows me to be reassured that I know what I am doing, and it allows me to remain a little bit more objective, especially when I’m in panic mode.
Anxiety and social anxiety, although it isn’t a true marker of someone with high functioning autism or Asperger’s, is something that unfortunately develops over time due to the experiences that one has growing up with it. However, with the right strategies and social skills, one can survive social events, even though you may still have social anxiety even after successfully attending an event.
I do hope that this little post on social anxiety will help explain why we do have this and goes on in our heads when we do have social anxiety. However, if you have any more questions about it, please feel free to let me know in the comments below!