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What It Feels Like to Have Social Anxiety When You're Autistic

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I am going to talk about some of the darker corners of my mind. My social anxiety grew out of repeated failures, confusing social interactions and a lifetime of feeling out of sync with the rest of the world. It is the words of doubt, questioning every interaction.

Did I say something offensive? Is she making a face? I can’t tell. (I have face blindness.) Shoot! Round and round in my head. So much work navigating interactions that others find pleasurable. I’m happiest at home with my husband and a good book.

In my teen years, I learned to blend in with others around me by mimicking their behavior. I didn’t fit in naturally, but shallow teenagers were easy to copy. Unfortunately, adults are much more complicated and subtle. Nonverbal communication skills are valued in society, and employers want fast talkers who can read between the lines. I can’t do either of those things without great effort.

I don’t come off as smooth and slick in casual conversation. Often, I play the fly on the wall in large group settings. It’s easier than talking, and lets me pay more attention to the people around me (assuming the room is not too loud for me to focus). Being put on the spot in an office meeting will cause me more stress than most people because words stop flowing any time I am put under pressure or asked to speak spontaneously.

Naturally, I am unfiltered; however, I have learned to cautiously monitor everything I say in certain environments (mostly at work). My opinions and humor tend to be a bit beyond what is culturally acceptable in office etiquette. Starting controversy in the office is not my goal.

Social Filter V1.0

When I was a young, undiagnosed woman with autism, who did not care what other people thought of her, I was happy. I offended people constantly and often had no idea. If I ticked someone off bad enough, then they would blow up at me. I would dismiss them as being an ass or too sensitive. People who could not handle me were kicked out of my life. Burning bridges does not work in the adult world. If you want to get a good job, then you have to learn to play nice and “have good manners.”

Social Filter V2.0

When I was young and learning to hide behind a social filter, it was easy to copy my peers. All I had to do was “hold all my weird in.” Social Filter V1.0 was fairly basic. As an adult, developing new social coping strategies, more and more rules were added to my social program. Every time I have a social blunder, I make a rule. There are so many rules in my head about socializing that it is difficult to filter through all of them in every social situation.

It’s a workaround, a patch designed to help my computer keep up with computers that were built for socializing. My brain was not meant to work this way. So it is running hot and fatigued, but somehow I am getting by.

Running Social Filter V2.0 on my computer is like trying to run Windows 10 on a computer built for Windows 95. The hardware was not made to handle so much data so quickly. I’m working overtime and still not keeping up with the expectations society has for me as an “exceptionally bright young woman.”

Why can’t I just be normal? Why can’t I hold a conversation? What’s wrong with me? Am I anti-social? Why doesn’t my memory work?

These were some of the questions in my head before my late autism diagnosis. The constant failures caused my self-esteem to fall. I began to hide myself from the outside world. So bright but so rude. You should know better. People would say such things. My best never seemed good enough.

Eventually a computer that was running happily with Social Filter V1.0 became overloaded and crashed due to the more complex Social Filter V2.0 software. Struggling with burnout related to autism, tired from constant unexplained social blunders and feeling completely insecure, defective and sick, fearing the worst and afraid of my own mind, finally I ended up speaking to a psychologist.

What happened?

I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. So I started reading blogs and watching videos by other people online with autism and eventually started my own blog and began virtually networking with other people on the autism spectrum.

Knowledge is power. Now that I know I have autism, I don’t have to try and hide my little quirks. I do keep things to a minimum at the office, mostly for my own privacy. Social Filter V3.0 is working well. I’ve designed to work in harmony with my brain. I keep stim toys in my hands and don’t try as hard to talk unless I feel like it. I wear hats and shades indoors. Sometimes, I use earplugs if I need a sound break.

I am kind to myself and explain sensory processing disorder to others when appropriate. I speak up if I am confused and laugh at myself if I make a mistake. I forgive myself and accept myself.

Other than trying to be kind to others, I try not to have a filter. That is Social Filter V3.0. This filter, made out of self-love and knowledge, will allow me to defeat my social anxiety, now that I know I have nothing to be ashamed of. If only I had found out his information years earlier, then perhaps I never would have developed social anxiety.

This is why we need awareness, but not just awareness. We need understanding and acceptance. Being aware of something and having compassion for someone are two different things.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 22, 2016
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