In the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, Scott Bellini examines the prevalence of social anxiety in teenagers with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome in his study entitled “The Development of Social Anxiety in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum.”
The author seeks to answer the question, “Does the combination of social skill deficits and physiological arousal make a significant contribution to the variance in social anxiety?” Basically, his thesis is that both a lack of social skills and a higher prevalence of physiological arousal does contribute in a significant way to the social anxiety levels of adolescents with autism and Asperger’s. Specifically, Bellini asserts that adolescents with ASD do have higher levels of physiological arousal which makes is “more likely that the individual will become overwhelmed by interactions with others/”
The author supports his thesis first with a discussion of other studies which have addressed certain aspects of his theses. First, he notes that recent studies do show that people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) do have higher levels of anxiety than people without ASD which can create difficulties in life. These difficulties can approach debilitating in that they often produce fear, isolation, thoughts of suicide and substance abuse tendencies. Another study found that children with autism scored higher on anxiety tests than children with other learning disabilities.
The author defines social anxiety, then, as “an intense fear of social situations or performance situations where embarrassment may occur.” He goes on to identify two subcategories of social anxiety: performance based anxieties and social interaction anxieties.
The author notes a study which found that children with ASD have a more difficult time regulating their own levels of physiological arousal in stressful situations and are more likely to be “adversely conditioned by negative social interactions.
Many studies have asserted that the function of the body’s limbic system can contribute to this situation, specifically, the amygdale. According to one cited study, the amygdale helps regulate the emotional impact of sensory input such as facial expressions and other types of cues. If this amygdale is not functioning properly, then the person will be unable to react appropriately socially and emotionally. This may cause him to avoid social situations.
Studied forty-one adolescents, aged 12 to 18, with ASD; nineteen had autism and sixteen had Asperger’s Syndrome. Their IQs were all within the normal level. Each participant was given measurements to assess their levels of social anxiety. These included the Social Skills Rating System, the Social Anxiety Scale for Adolescents, and the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children.
They then measured physiological arousal, social skill deficits, and social Bellini found that the levels of social anxiety may begin with poor experiences with social interactions but that they are definitely exacerbated by physiological tendencies. He says, “social anxiety may be the result of aversive social experiences, but the impact of these experiences may be mitigated by a combination of temperamental characteristics and the environmental supports available to the individual.”
He closed by noting his own small sample size, but feeling that his study will be helpful to those that are seeking to continue the study of social anxiety in ASD patients.
Bellini, S. (2006). The Development of Social Anxiety in Adolescents With Autism Spectrum
Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 21(3), 138-145