On Shyness and Social Anxiety

Close-up on a child with ponytails, staring towards the ground. They are standing in front of a pine bush.
Social anxiety, or what is often called shyness, is extremely common among autistic kids and adults. Here's the short version of how it develops.

It’s about patterns

I was labeled as shy as a child, which grew into social avoidance and extreme social anxiety off and on for most of my life.

That’s extremely common among autistic individuals. 

Our brains aren’t great at picking up the nuances of social situations, but we’re really good at identifying patterns. Which means that we can tell when we’re not treated the same as other kids, even if we have no idea why or in what way.

Which means that we can tell when we’re not treated the same as other kids, even if we have no idea why or in what way.

So what happens is this. As babies or toddlers, we behave a little (or a lot) differently than other babies or toddlers, so the adults around us respond to us differently, and we notice that they are treating us differently. We don’t know why, or how to make it better, and when we try to engage, we’re not doing it the way we’re expected to and we get undesirable reactions, which produces undesirable behavior from us, which prompts more…you get the idea.

After a while, we start going into every social situation with the expectation that it’s not going to go well, which basically guarantees that it won’t. As the cycle perpetuates, behaviors that look like shyness result, even though it might not actually be shyness. And over time, social anxiety is the natural result.

It is possible to break that pattern and learn a more positive pattern—it happened for me—but it will take a long time and a lot of intentional effort and positive support. More on that later.

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One Response

  1. I agree with your point of view, your article has given me a lot of help and benefited me a lot. Thanks. Hope you continue to write such excellent articles.

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Picture of Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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