Social Anxiety, or Just Disinterested? (And Why it Matters.)
Social interactions are a common cause of anxiety among individuals with autism. However, it can be extremely challenging for parents or clinicians to distinguish between social disinterest and social anxiety in someone diagnosed with ASD- and both are very common characteristics among individuals on the autism spectrum. Behaviorally, disinterest and anxiety can look the same in individuals with ASD: avoiding eye contact or retreating from social engagement are both perfectly reasonable responses in either case.
So why does this distinction matter? Dr. John Herrington, a CAR researcher and psychologist specializing in anxiety and autism, explains, “While the behaviors of social disinterest and social anxiety are similar, the treatment plan will be very different”. For children disinterested in social stimulus, skill building exercises can help them learn how to engage in appropriate eye contact and social interactions. When a child avoids social stimulus because of anxiety, a modified version of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective.
What does the future hold for research on anxiety in children with ASD? Dr. Herrington hopes new research will focus on amygdala studies, looking deeper into its shape and structure as well as its role in anxiety and social disconnection. Scientists should also emphasize treatment outcomes research to determine the impact of anxiety treatments on brain activity and behaviors. Dr. Herrington is currently running two studies related to this line of research: one tests whether a video game can help people acclimate to increasing eye contact and another that tests whether biofeedback techniques can help children recognize the physical signs of stress in their bodies.
For more on autism and anxiety, read Spectrum’s article covering Dr. Herrington’s research: Anxiety may alter processing of emotions in people with autism.