Shy Little Pixie: Unlocking the enigma of Autistic social anxiety
- April 19, 2022
Written by Chantell Marshall
In almost 43 years of life, I cannot recall a time when I have not felt incredibly shy and unsure of myself, and even more unsure of my place in this world. It is as though this hesitancy is knitted into the marrow of my bones as an intrinsic element of my persona, impossible to extricate.
As a child, I was often described as painfully shy, with my family or friends speaking for me. I remember internally pleading with myself, “Speak, Chantell!”, but I just could not say the words aloud. As an adult, on similar occasions I have been admonished by teachers, doctors, psychiatric staff, and others under the assumption I am being rude or ignorant. I now understand this to be situational mutism.
And yet, behind the veil of the written word, I can truly communicate! I have the chance to consider what I am conveying, to edit my words, and to ensure I understand what the other person is communicating before I respond. There is no immediacy, and I do not have to worry about stammering, eye contact or misinterpreting what is being said.
This discrepancy between my intense social anxiety in person, and my perceived capacity in written form has been expressed to me time and again. My gosh, the number of people who have said to me, “You are very different in person to what I was expecting”, the disappointment in their eyes, crystal clear. This has greatly impacted upon my ability to succeed in job interviews, relationships and friendships.
When I am able to mask, I may make it through an hour, but invariably, my mask soon slips, and like Cinderella at the ball, I am left escaping in tears for fear of the ‘real me’ being exposed.
I have had many years of therapy for this, to the point where I could write a book on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques – but I have never succeeded in applying them to myself. Two years on from my Autism diagnosis, I now understand why it never worked for me. Traditional CBT does not consider an Autistic person’s neurology and needs. I was repeatedly told that my aversion to bright lights, noise and crowds were symptoms of anxiety, my ability to make eye contact would improve with practise, my struggles with small talk were just shyness, and my fidgeting was a nervous habit. Graded exposure felt akin to torture as I was persuaded to keep persisting despite my intense distress, under the promise of my anxiety easing with practise (spoiler alert: it never did).
The essential piece of information that was missing was the knowledge that I am Autistic. I will always find eye contact difficult because it does not feel natural to me. I find lights, noise and crowds overwhelming because my sensory system is heightened. Small talk feels strange to me because my communication style is different (and what exactly is small about talking anyway?!). My need to fidget is my body simply trying to regulate.
And graded exposure only increased my levels of anxiety due to repeatedly being pushed into what I now understand to be sensory and social overload, resulting in bouts of Autistic shutdown. All of these factors need to be taken into consideration when an Autistic person has social anxiety.
Growing up as a child who never understood the way that most people communicate, I learnt that being too honest leaves you rejected or in trouble, so I became hyper-vigilant, second-guessing every interaction.
Social cues are still confusing to me. I will often think someone is upset with me when they are not. I tend to be the last to understand a joke, or conversely, I will find something hilarious that others do not.
Society flows on a river of false niceties where people choose to lie to one another to keep up the status quo – “I am good, thanks”, when it is clear they are not. People are often friendly to someone’s face, but then express disdain behind their back.
I understand the purpose of these social norms, but they leave me genuinely confused as to where I stand with others. Do they actually like me or are they just being courteous? How much do I share with a new acquaintance? How do I know if they are bored? If the social interaction has a specific purpose, like at a checkout, I understand the social expectations – but at a social gathering, like a barbecue, how do I assess if someone is genuinely interested? What if they are smiling yet wishing I would leave? There is often no real structure to follow in casual settings, which is anxiety- provoking in itself for many Autistics, let alone those experiencing social anxiety also.
Phone calls are my social nemesis. I may not be good at decoding body language and facial expressions, but if you take these away, the only thing I have left is the person’s tone of voice. I cannot see the whole person to assess if they are being sarcastic, or serious, or any other social nuance. I never quite know when I should speak, which causes me to stammer, and I am left wringing my hands and cringing as I attempt to sound friendly whilst every fibre of my being is desperate to end the call with what my brain perceives as an unnerving, disembodied voice.
Possibly the greatest challenge for a socially anxious Autistic is the pressure of masking. I may be able to present a friendly, appropriate impression externally, but internally, my brain is working overtime. I am constantly reviewing what has been said to me, trying to formulate a response, and assessing the reaction to check if I have ‘got it right’. It is exhausting and means I often struggle to keep up with conversations.
I can only sustain this interaction for a limited time frame before I feel myself ‘fading’ – I lose eye contact, blink excessively, stammer more and struggle to find a cohesive thought.
I have recently engaged an amazing support worker to improve my ability to interact within the community. I long to be able to work or socialise, yet in reality, I can barely say two words to a new person. But – I have to remind myself of the 21yr old young mum I once was, who could not leave the house, who kept the curtains closed, and who had to allow a psychologist into her home for the sake of her toddlers.
And, most importantly, I remind myself of the 41 years this girl spent floundering in life purely because she had absolutely no idea she was Autistic. An Autism diagnosis has been the golden key to unlocking my lifelong struggle with social anxiety. Moreso, discovering my Autistic identity has given me the precious gift of self-compassion, as I now understand myself so much better. Just like Cinderella, I have finally found my missing glass slipper.
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