Social Anxiety and Autism

Mark Ty-Wharton1I am aware I have a subtly different style of communication and can see how it contributes to social anxiety.  I tend to stare at the floor and listen.  This way, I can usually get the context of a conversation from the tonality of the audio cues in language.  It is how I learned to compensate for my disability.  As a person who worked in sound for years, it seems an obvious choice.

While I don’t have a natural ability to follow some other social cues, I can apply logic.  Most of the time this works.  If I concentrate , I can usually figure out facial expressions pretty well.  For some reason I am anger blind and fail to notice if I am really annoying someone.  In familiar situations where I have learned other people’s patterns and probabilities, I fare much better.

I am also more comfortable if I have someone neurologically typical to ask for assistance when I get stuck on something.  Occasionally things go way over my head and I nod and pretend.

For me, most of my anxiety stems from a feeling of not knowing.  It is a bit bewildering to miss simple social cues.  It makes me feel foolish and stupid if I miss something obvious.  Especially when people are joking or conversation is ambiguous or metaphorical.  I get angry at myself, then embarrassed and anxious.

It is important to me to be a good communicator, I have a special interest in becoming more social.  I am working on improving the way I interact with people.  And recently I am discovering the way I assess myself and social situations is not working for me.

Because of the way my high functioning autistic mind works, I am very good at focusing on fine detail and learning it.  But I cannot seem to learn every combination of every facial expression logically.  There is only so much I can figure out.

While I am learning to accept I will always make mistakes socially, I don’t want to feel like I am putting up with it.  I understand that neurologically typical people have an intuitive knowledge in social interaction I somehow miss.  It is called mind blindness.  Sometimes I miss the meaning of a word, sometimes I miss a facial expression and sometimes miss the entire context.  That is how it is and acceptance is being okay with that.  It’s a choice.  Like choosing a thoroughbred sports car, great on the open roads but it tends to overheat and stall in traffic.

So here I am in traffic.  I just arrived at a bustling party with friends eager to say hello.  And here I am doing the social equivalent of my first driving lesson in an E type Jag.

The Aspie solution of course, if I know enough stuff I can make it.

The average English speaker possesses a vocabulary of 10,000 to 20,000 words out of around a million estimated words in the English language.

Imagine you could make words out of any combination of letters, then imagine there were no rules in language, then thinking only about four letter words…

There are 26!/22! possible combinations of four letters in a 26 letter character set.  Which gives 358,799 alternative four letter words to the word fu*k.  So why do I keep saying that!?!?!?!  Sorry mum, I promised I wouldn’t.  Ahem…

Given that the longest recorded word is 189,819 letters (the chemical name of titin, the largest known protein), if we were to work out all possible combinations of letters up to and including words of this length, it is fairly easy to see there is infinite possibility of combinations of letters that could be used to make words.  My calculator got jammed even trying.

But bear with me here, this is going somewhere.

Spoken language (the part of communication I am good at) with all its infinite probability accounts for a very small percentage of face to face communication.  I think the NLP guys say seven percent.

It seems to me that there are language patterns I repeat, (yes mother, I am working on it).  To learn written language, I had to sound out the words, yet now I recognise them instantly.  I cannot choose to not recognise a written word.  I can even read and write backwards, mirrored, upside down, left handed and pretty much any combination of those.

So let’s say for a moment I want to learn to read another visual language, facial expressions.  What if autistic minds are over focused (stuck on) the building blocks.  What if we are still sounding them out, or worse still don’t even know my alphabet.  What if we could learn more about the building blocks using the Facial Action Coding System?  Or perhaps a specialised simplified version that takes a clear look at 5 or 6 major muscle groups.  Perhaps I need to lift up my head and start studying faces.

The problem with neurologically typical people is, they freak out when I stare at them.  I don’t naturally know how much eye/face contact is enough/too much.  There is no damn logic to it when I focus on the details.  Again, perhaps there is something else to get about the overall patterns of social interaction here?

People tend to follow very predictable patterns and then, they don’t.

Mark Ty-Wharton’s Social Anxiety and Autism appeared originally at his eponymous blog, and is reprinted here with his permission. Mark’s s latest book is The Logic of Attraction.

on 04/22/10 in featured, Language | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. languages also tend to differ from each other. English is a very difficult language for the same reason it is a good language for changing situations. I know the fealing of hearing, this or that is happening, and I’ll not know at all what they’re talking about until the second or third time I hear it.

  2. Marianna Maver says:

    Wow, Mark, this is fascinating! I stumbled into the Shift web-surfing for something completely different (like, “Shift” came up when I Googled contemporary home furnishings?? — huh?), but I saw what it was and thought ‘this looks interesting…” and then forwarded to your essay. Though (I guess) I am more on the “neurotypical” end of the scale, as I’ve been hearing more about Aspburgers, I’ve wondered whether or not my lifelong social difficulties may have been as a result of being a scotch -or more — over on the “Aspie” side, and it was just never recognized or diagnosed in the ’50s and ’60s when I was going to school … At any rate, I can definitely relate to what you’ve written here about being diligent in your efforts to “read” people, … and also your efforts to, like, figure it all out on more of a conceptual and/or experimental basis. Thank you for sharing… I’ll definitely look for your book, and dig a little more around “Shift” …

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