Sunday, February 22, 2009

Coping with Social Anxiety

This topic was suggested in a recent comment and I figured it was something I haven't covered properly in the past - so here goes...

Defining Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety isn't something that only affects people with aspergers, it affects people with all kinds of mental conditions as well as those with physical issues, weight issues and other differences that mentally or physically distinguish them from the general populace. The distinction may not necessarily be a real one but could, and often does, only exist in the subject's mind. Social Anxiety is so great an issue, that it's considered to be the third largest psychological problem in the world today.

Social anxiety isn't limited to difficulty meeting people in face to face conversation but also includes;

  • Telephone Conversations
  • Social Occasions
  • Simply Going Outdoors in Public Places
  • Being Watched
  • Recording (video and photo Cameras, Microphones etc)
  • Instant Messaging, Chats, Facebook and other Web 2.0 Systems

Aspies tend to walk a line that varies between total fear and no fear, depending largely upon the individual. Some aspies aren't afraid of face-to-face verbal interactions but just aren't very good at it. Constant negative feedback however can often tip the scales.

Acting and Public Speaking as Ways to Reduce Social Anxiety
The best ways to reduce social anxiety, particularly in the school years, revolve around "jumping straight in" - regardless of how scared the individual might be. This doesn't work well at younger ages, where such fears can lead to meltdowns but it's quite acceptable for the mid to late teenage years.

When I was at school, I had "buddy" teacher (a teacher who became a good and trusted friend). One day this teacher picked me out of the class and said that he had noted that I was good with history and thought that I should join the debating team. He gave me a couple of days to sign up on my own - but I didn't. Then he joined me up and informed me that I was now committed. At first, I was a little annoyed but he made it clear that he thought it would be good for me and that he would be supporting me all the way.

The teacher led me on with the promise of replacing me when a suitable person could be found. Of course, now I can see that it was all a ploy and I went on "debating tour" and was forced to confront my demons.

Around the same time, the teacher suggested that I take "drama" as one of my elective subjects. I had absolutely no desire to act and I really couldn't see the point of drama but he told me that it was an essential skill. In retrospect, I have to agree.

There's absolutely no mistaking the importance of public speaking and acting for people with aspergers. Amongst other things, it helps you to lose the "monotone" in your voice - a feature that aspies are famous for. It also prepares you for "acting the rest of your life".

If you're interested in reading about acting therapy for aspergers, you might be interested in the following book;

Teaching Asperger's Students Social Skills through Acting: All Their World's a Stage
by Amelia Davies

Unlike most NT's aspies tend to "act" every day, often faking emotional reactions, tones and gestures in order to appear more like the NTs that surround them. It's no surprise therefore that there are a lot of famous actors with aspergers.

More to come...
There's a lot more to discuss in relation to social anxiety. Next time, I'll give some more concrete examples of how social anxiety displays, how the quality of an individual's interactions can increase or decrease social anxiety and tips for improving on a day to day basis.


Beastinblack said...

Great article, definately ticks all the boxes. Social anxiety for me is the fear of the unknown, because to us each person is like learning a totally new skill. I have a friend who I have had virtually all my life, we dont even say hello when we meet, it is just straight into the topic of conversation! little eye contact, but he doesnt care. Why? simply because he is used to me and vice versa. When I dont see people regularly I get nervous when I see them again eventually, and dread the next contact. Once I am used to them it gets better. That even includes family members.

Eric said...

In my recently published pre-teen novel, Ian, one of Santa’s helpers, has to undergo some management training. Of course it includes public speaking, which he dreads at first. But he likes the way the class is structured and soon also realizes that the other students share the same types of anxieties. He also learns how to “work the room" by helping his friend Elise with her administrative functions prior to the speech making. It makes him feel more like a host and really helps him to cope with his speaking anxiety. (Makes him a good listener, too)!

All the best!
Eric Dana Hansen
Author of "IAN, CEO, North Pole"

Rachel said...

Nice article. This topic brings up a couple of paradoxes for me.

I find myself very resistant to the idea of "acting," even though I've been pretending to be normal most of my life. I suppose I've always wanted to be as genuine as possible, and have tried very hard to be honest in all my interactions. (You can imagine the result.)

These days, I am more comfortable with the idea of putting on a face when I go to work. At the same time, my social persona is more and more a reflection of my odd, eccentric, sensitive Aspieness. I've learned how to answer questions like "How are you?" with the required "I'm fine, how are you?" whether I'm feeling great or not, and whether I want to know how the other person is feeling or not. But somehow, acceding to these small social niceties has made it easier for me to be my quirky self, which people seem to appreciate.

Khelben said...

Well written!

toli said...

when i was in high school, we had a public speaking group called toastmasters.

turned out to be fun, but the challenge was to get past the embarassing aspect by essentially pushing past the fear with a group of equally roped-in teenagers, and ultimately, allowing yourself to learn a few 'tricks' to effective public speaking, i.e. projecting for emphasis, building emphasis with pauses and sweeping eye contact, filling in pauses and time, watching the room, moving hands for emphasis, etc.

also noticed it makes you a more effective liar/salesman, which is a far more handy skill than just public speaking. overall, helpful.

Dragonella said...

hmmm, for me, I have a lot of problems socially. I go to a public school, and hate it. I walk with my head down to avoid talking to people and getting into an awkard situation. I really don't mind talking to someone, as long as I am not being threatened, or cornered, or mocked for my slightly twisted beliefs (that make perfect sense to me). But I am skipping the senior trip in a few weeks to avoid people, I hide out at lunch in the piano room to aviod talking, I leave school early because I don't take any more classes than I need credits, to avoid people. I will automatically go out of the way to avoid people. I will work on a group project by myself and do 6 times the work just because I don't want to be mocked or abused. I hate it when I am told to do something with other people or for them. All the people I know that I have not met on the internet have abused me and used me in some way. so, you can't tell me to do something like acting or public speaking, because I simply won't do it. I used to have to do both, and I would get so sick just thinking about what people were going to say about the horrible job I did, that I wouldn't be able to do it. As far as acting goes, I act all my life, for everyone. People think I am happy in my own little world. But I am not. It is just something Aspies do. There is not one person that I have not acted for what emotions I was feeling, or what I wanted to do, what I liked... etc... It is a hard thing to tell someone like me to fit in socially, or to act or public speak. If you have been treated like I have my whole life, you are going to do anything you can not to get any more crap than you already get. Its not always a scared thing. I am not scared to talk to people or make friends or have relationships, its just that I don't like the abuse I get when people mock me or use me. It is something I don't want to have to deal with anymore. No one else is doing anything about it for me, so I have to deal with it myself the only way I know how. And that is by avoiding everyone.

Gavin Bollard said...


The idea of acting is fine when you're very young but it sounds to me like you already have a lifetime of being mocked or abused behind you. That being the case, it makes sense that you can't forcefully socialise your way out of it.

The problem here is that you have been around the wrong types of people for so long that you probably no longer trust anyone. This will make life difficult for you because when the right friends do suddenly appear, you won't recognise them for who they are and you'll miss important opportunities.

I really don't have an answer for you. The socialisation needs to occur as early as possible to enable to aspie to develop a "thick skin" and be able to ignore the insults. Leave it too late and it will develop into full blown paranoia.

Every friendship is a risk - and with females, the risks are much higher. If you don't take the risk though, you don't stand much of a chance of winning a reward.

Anonymous said...

Useful article.

I am the parent of a 25yr old male who is mild AS. He has just started work on a graduate training programme and is getting very anxious. He is intelligent (got a 'first' degree classification), but does not cope well with difficult social situations. The training programme has also coincided with moving away from home for the first time (apart from an abortive start at University 5 years ago).
I'm feeling very down at present, wife and I are trying to support him with long phone calls.

barb said...

Hi Gavin,
I found this site while googling public speaking and Aspergers. I want to write and submit an article about how public speaking helps people with disabilities, in particular Asperger's. My son took a public speaking course and I think it helped him to think faster because he had to organize complex ideas and say them within the time limit. Can I interview you via email or quote what you have written on your blog as relates to public

Gavin Bollard said...


Please feel free to quote anything you find on my blog. It's a non-profit venture intended to raise awareness of aspergers and to promote understanding.

Being quoted elsewhere is entirely consistent with my intended direction.

If you want to email me directly, simply fill out a Kontactr Form and I'll respond (that will give you my direct email address).

barb said...

Thanks so much. I will contact you if I need more information.

Ryan said...

i hate the idea of acting in social situations i have done it my whole ,and now that i am more aware of the fact that i am doing it i am even more bothered and insecure by the fact that i have trouble just being myself, unfortunately i don't completely understand what that is

paulab said...

What can we do for an Aspie in first grade that will be asked to do a public - little talk about her experiment as parents wonder by in the classroom seeing all the kids experiment displays and talks. She's very shy with most people and prone to melt-downs if she feels overwhelmed. I can just picture her walking away from her "spot" with tears in her eyes. I can't imagine her not feeling overwhelmed.

Anonymous said...

love it.

Anonymous said...

The day-to-day "acting" is really just functioning in a "foreign" culture. It's not dishonest to speak the local language. (An American in France learns to shake hands when saying hello or good-bye. Part of what linguists call "pragmatics.") Books on good manners (or "How to Talk to Practically Anyone about Practically Anything") are good "software manuals" for pragmatics. Odd, but the social niceties ("Fine, thanks") serve to signal goodwill while allowing both people to maintain some privacy.