Are Asperger's Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder the Same?

While Often Confused, Asperger's and Social Anxiety are Different Disorders

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Asperger's disorder, also known as Asperger's syndrome, is a pervasive developmental disorder that belongs to the class of autism spectrum disorders and involves impairment in certain basic aspects of communication and relationships.

Although people with both Asperger's and social anxiety disorder (SAD) experience difficulty in social situations, they are completely different disorders; the diagnostic criteria and symptoms of the disorders are very different.

Asperger's is usually diagnosed in childhood. If your child has been diagnosed with this disorder, he or she might

  • experience significant impairment in social interaction, such as problems with eye contact, facial expressions and body postures.
  • have trouble developing friendships, sharing interests and understanding the social and emotional perspectives of others.
  • engage in restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, such as becoming excessively preoccupied with interests, routines and rituals, the parts of objects or repetitive motor mannerisms such as hand twisting.

How Do SAD and Asperger's Differ?

If you suffer with SAD, anxiety is the driving force behind the difficulties that you experience in social and performance situations. Your ability to function is limited by your anxiety in those situations. A diagnosis of Asperger's, on the other hand, does not require the presence of anxiety.

Behavior in social situations is instead impaired because of trouble reading and understanding social and emotional cues.

People with Asperger's might

  • appear tactless and rude 
  • be unable to take hints or understand humor
  • stand too close  
  • talk too loud 
  • have trouble understanding the meaning of gestures, tone of voice and facial expressions

    These characteristics are opposite of those displayed by the socially anxious; if you suffer with SAD your fear of embarrassment or humiliation most likely manifests in

    • standing too far
    • talking too softly
    • or being overly sensitive to the body language of others

    Those with SAD are capable of forming relationships but are impaired by anxiety; on the other hand, people with Asperger's have difficulty with the nuts and bolts of communication that make relationships possible.

    Research on Brain Function in Asperger's and SAD

    Neuroimaging research may shed some light on how the brains of people with SAD and Asperger's differ. Studies of brain function show that for most people, the amygdala—the emotion center of the brain—is activated when understanding facial expressions. On the other hand, for those with Asperger's, the prefrontal cortex—the center for judgment and planning—becomes active when processing facial images.

    This means that people with Asperger's try to logically figure out the meaning of a facial expression rather than experiencing an automatic emotional reaction. Studies have also shown heightened sensitivity of the amygdala in those with SAD; this makes it even more clear that the two disorders are very different.

    Treatment for Asperger's and SAD

    Although there are no firm data, comorbid anxiety disorders are common among children with Asperger's. This means that it is possible for a child to suffer with both Asperger's and SAD. Whether or not a child has one disorder or both, social skills training is one form of treatment that may offer promise for both SAD and Asperger's.

    Although the cause of social impairment in Asperger's and SAD differs, many of the same symptoms are present in both disorders. If you suffer with Asperger's or SAD, you likely have a host of social skills deficits, such as problems with

    • eye contact
    • body postures 
    • speech qualities, such as tone, volume and rate

    In addition, you probably have trouble building and maintaining friendships. Social skills training has been shown effective in treating social anxiety symptoms and may also offer promise for those with Asperger's in terms of developing basic skills for interacting socially.

    A Word From Verywell

    Whether you have a child who is showing signs of anxiety or trouble with social situations, or you yourself are struggling, it is important to consult a doctor to learn the meaning of your particular array of symptoms. As described in this article, SAD and Asperger's are separate problems that show some overlap, but need to be treated differently. Once you've identified your specific issues, treatment can be devised to help you overcome your difficulties in social situations.

    Sources:

    American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, 5th edition. 2013.

    Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide. Asperger's Syndrome. 2015.

    Kuusikko S, Pollock-Wurman R, Jussila K, Carter AS, Mattila M-L, Ebeling H, Pauls DL, Moilanen I. Social anxiety in high-functioning children and adolescents with Autism and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 1697-1709, 2008.

    Social Anxiety Institute. How is social anxiety different than Asperger's disorder? A2013..

    White SW, Oswald D, Ollendick T, Scahill L. Anxiety in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. Clinical Psychology Review.  216–29, 2009.

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