By Ugo Uche - Promoting Empathy With Your Teen

Some, if not most of you have noticed that I still use the term Asperger Syndrome, even though the American Psychological Association, the American Counseling Association and the American Psychiatric Association have all elected to depart from this terminology in favor of the all-encompassing Autism Spectrum Disorder, (ASD). This is because it is generally agreed upon that there is little difference between those who are high functioning on the autism spectrum and those who were previously diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. While I agree that the differences between those high functioning of the spectrum and those with Asperger is minuscule, the differences in language acquisition and use in early childhood is significant. With those diagnosed with Asperger having more command for language than those on the spectrum.

Regardless, I will be using the terms Asperger syndrome and ASD interchangeable for the near future. So, in addressing the title of this post, “why do people on the spectrum often struggle with social anxiety?” Well, the answer is a bit complicated.

We can say that all, if not most people diagnosed with ASD have remarkable issues with social interactions, however not all people on the spectrum end up with a diagnosis of social anxiety. Informally, I will say, that there does seem to be a positive correlation for those on the spectrum who are exceptionally bright, developing significant social anxiety from their late childhood years onwards.

So first, I will address why all people on the spectrum have issues with social interactions. They do so due to the atypical neurological wiring of their brains relative to the average person, which leads to an impoverished ability to intuitively read between the lines and comprehend nonverbal communication. By the time human beings reach their twelfth birthday, their communications become more sophisticated, and by sophisticated, I mean double speak. They advance in the process of becoming less literal and more so where their literal communication is merely window dressing for what they really are communicating, (constructively or unhealthy.)

People on the spectrum have a difficulty recognizing this, talk less of comprehending it, and as a result will experience difficulties in communicating with their peers and others. This is because they are only relying on what is literally and verbally being communicated to them as opposed to weighing what is being communicated to them, with common body language signals and tone of voice. They often don’t understand sarcasm, rhetorical questions or double standards, and because of this deficit, from an early age they habitually experience conflicts in their interactions with others.

For those on the spectrum who are more courageous, they will often resort towards making up their own rules to live by, which still creates conflicts in their lives. For these young people, they continue pressing on in their day to day interactions, undeterred by the most recent conflict, that is until they are dealing with a conflict that threatens them with serious consequences. For those on the spectrum who are a bit more sensitive, they resort to avoidance strategies. They often develop anxious personalities, which manifests during social interactions as they are often waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The latter is more likely to show up in a therapist’s office, absent of a crisis. While the former is more likely to show up in a therapist’s office due to a crisis. Regardless, the solution is for the person to be made aware of his social deficits and all the ways these deficits manifest in his life. The next step is for him, to learn effective cognitive strategies for compensating for these deficits. Such as learning nonverbal cues derived from body language, tone of voice and use of language. Further, people on the spectrum who actively work on improving their deficit in understanding nonverbal communications, make radical progress, as their brains start to rewire in response to the efforts they are putting in to practice change.

Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.

References Norman Doidge (2007) The Brain that Changes Itself. Viking Press