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Autism & Social Anxiety

Ever walked into a bustling room and felt like the sounds and lights were on overdrive? For autistic individuals, navigating social spaces can sometimes resemble a sensory gauntlet.

Many autistic individuals can have heightened perspectives to some things, from loud chatter to bright lights, that can amplify feelings of social anxiety. In this whirlwind of overwhelming sensations, understanding and accommodating these sensory challenges can be crucial for fostering a more inclusive and supportive environment.

In this blog, the team at Unique Peace Counselling will explore how autistic individuals can be extra sensitive to social experiences and offer some tips for navigating social spaces.

man experiencing a sensory overload
Sensory Overload

The Social Gauntlet

One big factor contributing to social anxiety for autistic individuals is sensory overload. Imagine walking into a room buzzing with chatter, bright lights, and whooshing sounds—what might be stimulating to some can feel like a sensory tsunami to other autistic individuals.

Let’s break it down:

  • Sensory Diversity: Autistic people can sometimes experience the world with heightened sensitivity to various things. What might seem like regular background noise to some could be magnified and perceived as unbearably loud for others. Similarly, bright lights or even specific textures can provoke intense reactions. This can even go beyond what is experienced by the 5 senses.
  • Difficulty Filtering Information: Imagine trying to listen to someone talking while simultaneously processing the flickering of fluorescent lights and the scent of someone’s perfume—it’s like trying to focus on a single conversation amid a sensory nightmare. For autistic individuals, these stimuli can all compete for attention at the same intensity, making it incredibly challenging to filter out what’s important from what’s overwhelming.
  • Impact on Social Interaction: In social settings, sensory overload can be particularly challenging. It can distract from conversations, make it hard to maintain eye contact or process facial expressions, and even lead to physical discomfort and anxiety. It’s like trying to dance to a tune when the volume is cranked up to maximum—it’s tough to catch the rhythm or feel comfortable moving.
  • Coping Strategies: Some ways to navigate this sensory gauntlet. First, accepting that your sensory challenges are valid and are worth caring for can be a great step, as it helps lower the risk to mask and to hide our distress. Next, giving ourself permission to cope. Using tools to help limit sensory exposure can help to lower stress. Communication accommodations can also help lower anxiety, like asking another to speak differently.

Coping Strategies for Social Anxiety in Autistic Individuals

Here are a few strategies that can serve as a social anxiety toolkit for autistic individuals:

  • Comfort Items: Comfort items can be literal lifesavers. It could be a favourite fidget toy, a cozy blanket, or anything that provides a sense of familiarity and comfort. These items act as anchors, grounding individuals when they feel overwhelmed.
  • Earplugs or Noise-Canceling Headphones: These are like secret shields against overwhelming noise. They can tone down the volume of a bustling environment, giving some much-needed peace.
  • Sunglasses or Tinted Lenses: Bright lights can feel like piercing lasers. Sunglasses or tinted lenses can be a shield against these sensory assaults, offering a bit of relief in visually intense situations.
  • Social Scripts or Cue Cards: Preparing in advance can be a game-changer. Having scripts or cue cards for social interactions can act as a roadmap, reducing the uncertainty that fuels anxiety.
  • Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practicing mindfulness or relaxation exercises can help manage overwhelming emotions when social anxiety kicks in. Deep breathing exercises or simple grounding techniques can work wonders.
woman using noise cancelling headphones to calm

Unique Peace Counselling - Supporting the Neurodivergent Community

Are you navigating life in Ottawa with a neurodivergent perspective? Please reach out to us to find understanding and support at Unique Peace Counselling. Our tailored approach to working with neurodivergent individuals in Ontario, whether you’re autistic or have ADHD, aims to improve mental and emotional well-being.

Explore telephone or online therapy sessions because your journey deserves a place of compassion and guidance. Reach out today and take a step towards finding your unique peace!