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

While often confused, Asperger's and social anxiety are different

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Asperger's disorder, also known as Asperger's syndrome, is a pervasive developmental disorder that involves impairment in certain basic aspects of communication and relationships. Though Asperger's was originally a standalone diagnosis, the DSM-5 has retired it and now uses the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) instead.

Although people with both ASD 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.

ASD is usually diagnosed in childhood. If your child has been diagnosed with this disorder, he or she might:

How Do SAD and ASD Differ?

If you have 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 circumstances.

A diagnosis of ASD 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 ASD may:

  • Appear tactless and rude 
  • Be unable to take hints or understand humor
  • Have trouble understanding the meaning of gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions
  • Stand too close 
  • Talk too loudly 

These characteristics are opposite of those displayed by the socially anxious; if you have SAD, your fear of embarrassment or humiliation most likely manifests in ways like:

  • Being overly sensitive to the body language of others
  • Speaking too softly
  • Standing too far away

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

Research on Brain Function

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

This means that people with ASD 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 ASD and SAD

Research has found that it is common for children and adults diagnosed with ASD to also experience social anxiety. This means that it is possible for a child to have both ASD 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 ASD.

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

  • Body postures 
  • Eye contact
  • 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 ASD 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 are struggling yourself, it is important to consult a doctor to learn the meaning of your particular array of symptoms.

As described in this article, SAD and ASD are separate problems that show some overlap and may share some treatments. Once you've identified your specific issues, treatment can be devised to help you overcome your difficulties in social situations.

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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, 5th edition. 2013.