Am I Autistic Or Just Shy? How To Tell The Difference

By Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated June 12, 2019

There are several symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and some of them overlap with shyness. Being shy, socially awkward, and struggling to make eye contact could mean that you have ASD, but it could also mean that you don't. You may just have a personality trait that's developed from childhood and persisted into adulthood.

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You may assume that ASD is unlikely because you couldn't have reached adulthood without it being diagnosed. But that isn't necessarily true. You may be on the mild end of ASD (sometimes referred to as Asperger Syndrome) and functioning so well that there was no need to seek a medical diagnosis.

However, the treatment for shyness as a personality trait is different from the treatment for shyness as a symptom of autism. So if you're asking yourself, "Am I autistic or just shy?" then you need a mental health expert to administer some tests to make a correct diagnosis.

The good news is that both conditions can be treated, although it must be said that ASD is more complex.

Definitions of Shyness and Autism

The Medical Dictionary defines shyness as "a personality trait that produces behaviors ranging from feeling uncomfortable at a party to an extreme fear of being watched by others while talking on the telephone."

The same dictionary defines autism as "a complex developmental disorder distinguished by difficulties with social interactions, verbal and nonverbal communication, and behavioral problems, including repetitive behaviors and narrow focus of interest."

The chances are that you're none the wiser and still asking, "Am I autistic or just shy?" so let's look at both conditions in more detail.

Causes of Shyness

A part of the brain that determines a person's temperament is called the amygdala. It handles our emotions and dealing with new situations. The amygdala processes new data by accessing our memories of earlier experiences. If our previous experiences have been unpleasant, the amygdala flashes a warning, and we withdraw from the current situation emotionally and physically - we are inhibited and shy.

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We avoid strangers, a social gathering is torture, and job interviews are a misery. We're only comfortable with people that we trust and surroundings that we know well.

So we need to look at our past experiences and how they made us feel to understand why the amygdala is flashing warning signals and keeping us locked in shyness and inhibition.

Overly critical parents or caregivers, sarcasm from teachers, and teasing from peers may all play a part in developing shyness. Children who are constantly embarrassed or humiliated by thoughtless adults who think that they're amusing is no fun for the sensitive child.

And it doesn't only apply to children. Consider the boss who disparages their employee or the in-laws who continually reminds us that we're not good enough for their precious offspring.

Not everyone who is subjected to unkindness from others develops shyness but for those who do, it can be an emotionally crippling condition that prevents us from reaching our full potential. It can even develop into a full-blown anxiety disorder.

Causes of Autism

While research on the causes of autism is ongoing, there is broad agreement that autism is a brain disorder that affects the way in which an autistic person uses and transmits information.

Scientific studies have found that brain abnormalities that affect language and the processing of information may have developed while the baby was still in the womb.

But there is also a compelling case of genetics playing a role. For example, identical twins are more likely to be autistic than non-identical twins, and if you have one autistic child, the chances are 5% higher than the general population of having another.

Source: radiologictechnology.org

Other studies have found that babies born prematurely or to older fathers also seem to have a higher risk of autism.

Current studies into possible environmental causes of autism, such as sex hormones, medications, lead, pesticides, and chemicals used to manufacture plastic have not been proven yet but are suspected of playing a role.

What we do know for sure is that vaccinations do not play any role in autism. Many studies have been conducted to find the link between vaccinations and autism, and there is none.

Am I Autistic or Just Shy?

Although the causes of autism and shyness are poles apart, they still don't answer the question "Am I autistic or just shy?" This is because shyness and autism have overlapping symptoms: social awkwardness, avoiding eye contact, and wanting to be alone.

While both conditions may result in a person appearing to be withdrawn and introverted, the reasons for their reluctance for social interaction are entirely different.

The first thing to note is that shyness is a state of mind while autism is a brain dysfunction that causes a complex developmental disorder.

Secondly, autism is a permanent condition; you cannot grow out of it. On the other hand, shyness can be overcome by identifying the underlying psychology and addressing it.

People who are shy often have low self-esteem and lack confidence. They want to go to that party, but instead, they stay at home alone to avoid being thought stupid or ugly or boring. They feel socially awkward and they fear being judged by other people.

People with autism, on the other hand, are socially awkward because they have difficulty interpreting body language and facial expressions. They struggle to process non-verbal communication.

For example, an autistic person doesn't recognize that a person who is frowning and tapping their foot is experiencing a negative emotion like impatience or anger. Or that a smile and open arms mean that a person is warm and welcoming.

The autistic person will approach both people the same way, which can lead to misunderstandings and confusion.

While shy people readily pick up on social cues, autistic people need to be explicitly told what the rules are. Even then, if a person is at the high end of ASD, they may have difficulty understanding and following them.

Autistic people may also have a speech delay that makes it difficult for them to communicate and express themselves. Shyness, on the other hand, may result in a person not talking at all, not because they struggle with language, but because they're fearful of saying the wrong thing.

Shy people have normal social and communication skills but may not use them in a social setting where they feel nervous and uncomfortable. However, they will normally interact with people they trust and know well.

Compare this to the autistic person. Their social and communication skills do not change whether they're with strangers or with familiar people that they interact with every day.

Autism also has many more symptoms than social awkwardness and shyness. Depending on where a person is on the ASD scale, they can be obsessive, have difficulty with language, and be anxious if their routine is disrupted. Surprises and change can be difficult for the autistic person, and they may have impaired motor skills.

People who suffer from a very severe form of autism may be aggressive and inflict self-harm.

In summary, autistic people have brains that work differently from people who don't have autism. On the other hand, a shy person's brain is no different from an extrovert's brain.

So, are all autistic people shy and all shy people autistic? Not by a long shot. They can be both or neither. What's important to note is that shyness and autism are not the same things.

I Think I'm Autistic: What Should I Do Now?

Make an appointment with BetterHelp who will assess you and help you answer the question, "Am I autistic or just shy?" If you have autism, a trained therapist will also be able to tell you where you are on the ASD scale.

Whether you're autistic or just shy, therapy will help you reach your full potential.

Therapies for Shyness

The shyness that isn't addressed may develop into a full-blown phobia or anxiety disorder, so getting some help from a therapist or counselor is important.

The goal of therapy for shyness is for a person to find ways to change their behavior so that they feel more at ease in social interactions.

Group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and cognitive therapy are all helpful to overcome shyness by developing skills to help you cope in situations that cause you to be shy.

Shyness need not be a permanent condition. With the help of therapy, you can make some behavioral changes so that social interactions become less frightening. You may even find the confidence to go to that party instead of staying home alone.

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Therapy for Autism

Because autism can range from mild to severe, there is no one solution for all autistic people.

However, most people who live with autism will benefit from education and behavioral therapies that will help them be less withdrawn and socially awkward.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA), speech therapy, and social skills therapy are all designed to educate autistic people on how to interact with other people.

But because there are many more symptoms of autism than just social interaction, other therapies like occupational therapy may also be recommended.

Health professionals may also recommend medication for autistic people who are anxious, depressed, or hyperactive.

Asperger's Syndrome

The chances are that adults who ask the question, "Am I autistic or just shy?" are indeed just shy. But it could also be that they are high functioning, intelligent people who have the mildest form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome.

Some symptoms of Asperger's are:

  • avoiding eye contact
  • lack of facial expression
  • no interest in others
  • lacking empathy
  • likes routine and doesn't like change
  • may struggle to make friends or keep friendships
  • difficulty taking turns to speak in a conversation

As Asperger's is a mild form of autism, the therapies are similar.

In Conclusion

There's no doubt that living with autism is challenging. While extreme shyness may seem to be a minor condition compared to autism, it, too, can have a devastating effect on the quality of a person's life.

Fortunately, therapies and medications can help people living with these conditions to reach their full potential and live a happy and productive life.

If you think that you may have autism, contact BetterHelp for a therapist that will be a good match for you.

Likewise, if you suffer from shyness, the therapists at BetterHelp will guide you on how to overcome the fear of social interaction.

"I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness. […] Shyness is only the effect of a sense of inferiority in some way or the other. If I could persuade myself that my manners were perfectly easy and graceful, I should not be shy."

― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility


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