Results of a research study conducted by Dr Megan Freeth, Dr Tom Bullock and Dr Elizabeth Milne University of Sheffield
Experiencing anxiety in social situations is common for individuals with a diagnosis on the autistic
spectrum. Autistic individuals can often be fearful of social situations or performance situations for a multitude of reasons, such as not knowing what may happen during the situation or they may worry about others’ expectations regarding how they should react. Individuals with autism often experience general heightened physiological arousal, such as a racing heart beat and other physical symptoms of anxiety in day to day life. Feeling generally anxious coupled with struggling with social skills can result in problematic levels of anxiety specifically when faced with social situations.
Over the past ten to fifteen years there has been an emerging general consensus that rather than individuals with autism being very different from individuals in the “neurotypical” population, instead autism is now thought of as being on a continuum or spectrum. There are some individuals whose behaviour is very different to those with autism; these individuals may be described as being “low in autistic traits”. There are other individuals whose behaviour is much more similar to those with autism; these individuals may be described as being “high in autistic traits”. Then there are those who fall somewhere in the middle. In any case, there seems to be a sliding scale of amount of autistic traits that any given individual may possess.
In the current piece of research we aimed to investigate how widespread difficulties with social anxiety are in the student population and whether individuals who are high in autistic traits (but who did not necessarily have a diagnosis of autism) were more likely to struggle with social anxiety. 1325 students completed standardised questionnaires. These questionnaires assessed the amount of autistic traits an individual has and how much social anxiety they experience. We found that just over 3% of the students who completed the questionnaires were high in autistic traits and that of these students just under 2% experienced extremely high social anxiety. Students who reported having poor social skills, who found it difficult to quickly shift attention between multiple tasks and who had difficulty with aspects of communication particularly reported suffering from social anxiety. Having poor social skills was particularly anxiety provoking for male students; having difficulty shifting between multiple tasks was particularly anxiety provoking for female students. We suggest that these skills should be targeted by student support programmes. Certain methods of teaching at university, such as group seminars and tutorials, and some methods of assessment, such as oral presentations and group projects, used at university may be particularly difficult for individuals who suffer from social anxiety and/or display autistic traits. These individuals may particularly benefit from additional support.
Freeth, M., Bullock, T., & Milne, E. (2013). The distribution of and relationship between autistic traits and social anxiety in a UK student population. Autism, 17(5), 571-581.