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Autism vs Shyness: Know the Difference

December 4, 2023

Lack of interaction with peers, looking away, and not responding when someone is talking to them can leave parents and practitioners wondering whether a child could be displaying autism vs shy behaviors. In instances like this, it’s important to distinguish between what could be considered typical shyness and symptoms of autism.

An important note is that autistic children can be shy, and there are shy children with autism. 

Early intervention and other effective support and services can help the child have a higher quality of life and develop skills earlier in life. But how do you distinguish between autism versus shyness?

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How To Spot a Shy Child

According to the American Psychological Association, shyness is a feeling of awkwardness and worry, particularly with new people and unfamiliar situations.

A shy child may exhibit similar behaviors and physical symptoms, such as an upset stomach, sweaty palms, and a fast heart rate. The child may blush more and stumble over their words.

Sometimes, shy children stand off to the side of the field instead of participating in the game. They are usually the ones who are super focused on what they are drawing or reading because they would prefer not to participate.

What Are Some Characteristics of Autistic People?

Autism symptoms can appear differently for different people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that autism affects social interaction and communication and can make it difficult for autistic people to interact with others.

Children with autism may also display repetitive behaviors and experience different sensory sensitivities and aversions. Difficulty with language and some delays in speech and cognitive skills can also be one of the early signs.

If parents are ever concerned about their children, they can always talk to their child’s doctor and ask them any questions or talk about concerns they may have.

Autism vs Shyness: Why the Confusion?

Some children can be both autistic and shy, but there are instances where they can be mistaken. For example, a child may have difficulty understanding social cues and possibly initiating conversations.

In that case, some people may think that they are displaying autistic traits, whereas other people may just look at it as the child is being shy.

It is important to note that shyness is based on an individual’s personality, whereas children with autism may exhibit different neurodevelopmental, behavioral, social, and emotional problems.

So, the big difference between autism versus shyness is how the individual reacts to social interactions and whether any other underlying conditions could interfere with those interactions.

Autism vs Shyness: Know the Difference
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-shyness-difference/

What About the Shy Children With Autism?

Just because a child has autism doesn’t mean that they cannot show other coexisting traits, such as shyness. 

When determining whether an autistic child is shy, there are traits to look for. Some of them are lack of participation and signs of social anxiety like shaking or sweating. 

Suppose there are extreme traits like consistent heavy breathing, blurry vision, or even shutting down in front of people. In that case, parents can talk to their child’s doctor about possible social anxiety disorders that their child may be experiencing.

When it comes to any questions parents may have about their child’s behavior or any new traits they start noticing, parents can talk to their child’s doctor or even a support staff at their child’s school. 

Talking to a professional can help answer some of the questions that parents may have. It would make understanding their child’s unique personality easier and help create a supportive environment to help the child thrive.

Creating a Supportive Social Environment for Children

Is your goal to encourage socialization in the classroom and support children with autism to make social connections? In that case, the environment needs to be supportive.

A supportive environment would consider the room’s aesthetics and how it provides a sensory-friendly space for each child.

For example, a classroom with bright colors, intense lighting, and smells from the nearby cafeteria can make some students uncomfortable.

Imagine a student who can hear the buzz of the lights and has to close their eyes because the colors and brightness give them a headache. Most likely, they’ll have difficulty focusing and won’t be ready to learn.

On the other hand, a neutral classroom with neutral tones, warm lighting, and pleasant sounds and smells can allow the sensory-sensitive students the calm they need to focus on building social skills.

Encouraging socialization with shy children could be simpler when the environment where the children interact is considered.

Creating a safe and supportive environment to practice social skills and form social connections will greatly benefit the autistic children in the classroom. This helps create the necessary space that the children may need to:

  • develop coping strategies
  • form social connections
  • strengthen overall social skills
  • make meaningful relationships
  • build self-confidence

Building Confidence and Social Skills in Children with Autism

Children need ways to develop strategies and strengthen the coping skills necessary to interact with others.

Without these skills, the children who prefer to do tasks alone and hang out on the classroom’s outskirts could develop social isolation and become more introverted.

These shy children with autism need emotional support because it can be extremely stressful for them to be in group activities that they are not ready for.  Many therapies and services help children develop the skills needed to succeed.


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The therapies that can help children with autism develop social skills could include:

These practitioners assess the child to see where they need support and skills development. For instance, in occupational therapy, the child may learn to play certain games properly while also learning to take turns and follow instructions.

In speech therapy, the child can enhance their confidence in talking to other children by building their speech patterns and back-and-forth conversations. 

Those are only two examples of the many aspects and skills that the child can develop and strengthen through their sessions.

Is It Autism or Shyness?

Sometimes, it can be difficult to pinpoint if a child is exhibiting shy traits, autistic tendencies, or both. Collaboration among the child’s teacher, parents, and practitioners in identifying and providing needed support can significantly impact the child’s development. 

Positive behaviors, language development, and social interactions could help build the child’s overall social confidence. Parents talking to their child’s healthcare professionals about any questions or concerns helps to know what services and support best fit the child and their overall well-being.

FAQs

Q: Can autism be mistaken for shyness?

A: Autism can be mistaken for shyness because of overlapping behaviors. For instance, a shy child may avoid eye contact or not participate in social activities, similar to an autistic child who may exhibit behaviors like avoiding eye contact and not engaging in peer play.

Q: Are autistic people usually shy?

A: Autistic individuals may face challenges in socializing due to certain aspects of autism, but this does not necessarily indicate introversion. Shyness or social anxiety, while relatively common in autistic people, is not inherently linked to their condition.

Q: Is it autism or social anxiety?

A: Both autism and social anxiety can coexist in individuals. Social anxiety involves an intense fear of social situations and judgment, while autism may manifest as challenges in reading social cues.

Q: Can I be autistic and not know it?

A: Yes, it is possible to be autistic and not know it. Many adults with undiagnosed autism are unaware due to developed coping mechanisms or less obvious traits.

Q: Are people with Asperger’s shy?

A: Yes, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome may be perceived as shy due to challenges in understanding figurative language. This difficulty with social nuances can lead them to seem reserved or quiet.

References

American Psychological Association. (2022). Shyness.
https://www.apa.org/topics/shyness

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html

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