Understanding the relationship between social camouflaging in autism and safety behaviours in social anxiety in autistic and non‐autistic adolescents

Introduction

 

Social camouflaging is a term that describes the strategies that some autistic people use to hide or compensate for their autism traits and fit in with non-autistic peers. For example, they may mask their emotions, copy social behaviours, or avoid social situations. However, these strategies may also have negative consequences, such as increased stress, exhaustion, or isolation.

 

Social anxiety is a common mental health problem that affects many people, especially adolescents. It is characterized by intense fear or nervousness in social situations, such as speaking in public, meeting new people, or being evaluated by others. People with social anxiety may also use certain behaviours to cope with their anxiety, such as impression management, avoidance, or self-focused attention. For example, they may try to act in a way that makes them look good, escape from uncomfortable situations, or constantly monitor their own performance.

 

Previous studies have suggested that there may be some similarities and differences between social camouflaging in autism and social anxiety behaviours in both autistic and non-autistic adolescents. However, there is a lack of research that directly compares these two concepts and how they relate to each other. This study aims to fill this gap by exploring the relationship between social camouflaging in autism and social anxiety behaviours in autistic and non-autistic adolescents.

 

Methods

 

The study involved 115 adolescents aged 14 to 19 years, who were either diagnosed with autism (61) or not (54). The two groups were matched on age and social anxiety symptom severity. The participants completed online questionnaires that measured the following:

  • Autism traits: how often they showed behaviours or characteristics associated with autism, such as difficulties in social communication, restricted interests, or sensory sensitivities.
  • Social anxiety symptoms: how often they experienced fear, nervousness, or distress in various social situations, such as talking to strangers, giving a speech, or being the centre of attention.
  • Social camouflaging behaviours: how often they used strategies to hide or compensate for their autism traits and fit in with non-autistic peers, such as masking, assimilating, or accommodating.
  • Social anxiety-related behaviours: how often they used strategies to cope with their social anxiety, such as impression management, avoidance, or self-focused attention.
  • Social anxiety-related cognitions: how often they had negative thoughts or beliefs about themselves, others, or social situations, such as worrying about being judged, rejected, or embarrassed.

 

The researchers used statistical methods to analyse the data and understand the relationship between social camouflaging, social anxiety behaviours, autism traits, and social anxiety symptoms in both groups. They also examined whether the items that measured social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours overlapped or formed distinct factors.

 

Results

 

The main findings of the study were:

  • Social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours were both significantly associated with social anxiety symptoms, but not with autism traits, in both groups. This means that the more the adolescents used these strategies, the more anxious they felt in social situations, regardless of whether they had autism or not.
  • Social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours also had a significant indirect effect on social anxiety symptoms through social anxiety-related cognitions in both groups. This means that the more the adolescents used these strategies, the more negative thoughts or beliefs they had about themselves, others, or social situations, which in turn increased their anxiety.
  • The items that measured social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours showed some overlap and cross-loading between the two concepts. The researchers identified three factors that were similar to the ones proposed by the cognitive model of social anxiety: self-focused attention, social avoidance, and mental rehearsal. These factors included items from both social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours, suggesting that they may share some common features.

Conclusions

 

This study is the first to use a group-matched design to compare social camouflaging in autism and social anxiety behaviours in autistic and non-autistic adolescents. The results suggest that these two concepts are related to each other and to social anxiety symptoms and cognitions in both groups. The study also suggests that there may be some construct overlap between social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours, as they may involve similar strategies or mechanisms.

 

The implications of this study are that assessment and formulation of social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours may inform psychoeducation and adaptation of social anxiety treatment for autistic adolescents. For example, therapists may help autistic adolescents to understand the costs and benefits of using these strategies, to challenge their negative thoughts or beliefs, and to develop alternative coping skills. The study also highlights the need for more research on the similarities and differences between social camouflaging in autism and social anxiety behaviours in both autistic and non-autistic populations.

 

Faq

What are some examples of social camouflaging behaviours?

 

Some examples of social camouflaging behaviours are:

  • Masking: hiding one’s emotions, thoughts, or interests that may be seen as autistic or inappropriate by others. For example, an autistic person may smile or laugh even when they do not feel happy or amused, or suppress their stimming or special interests.
  • Assimilating: copying or mimicking the social behaviours, expressions, or gestures of others. For example, an autistic person may imitate the way someone talks, dresses, or acts, or use scripts or rehearsed phrases to make conversation.
  • Accommodating: adjusting one’s behaviour or expectations to suit the social situation or the needs of others. For example, an autistic person may agree with someone else’s opinion, follow social norms or rules, or participate in activities that they do not enjoy or understand.

 

What are some examples of social anxiety-related behaviours?

 

Some examples of social anxiety-related behaviours are:

  • Impression management: trying to act in a way that makes one look good, competent, or likable to others. For example, a person with social anxiety may compliment someone, exaggerate their achievements, or avoid expressing their opinions or preferences.
  • Avoidance: escaping from or avoiding social situations that cause anxiety or discomfort. For example, a person with social anxiety may decline invitations, make excuses, or leave early from social events.
  • Self-focused attention: constantly monitoring one’s own performance, appearance, or feelings in social situations. For example, a person with social anxiety may check their phone, look in the mirror, or scan their body for signs of anxiety.

 

How are social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours related to each other?

 

Social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours are related to each other in several ways. First, they may have similar motivations, such as fitting in, increasing connections, or avoiding negative outcomes. Second, they may involve similar strategies, such as masking, avoiding, or self-monitoring. Third, they may have similar consequences, such as exhaustion, stress, or reduced self-esteem.

 

How are social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours different from each other?

 

Social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours are different from each other in some aspects. First, they may have different origins, such as autism traits or fear of evaluation. Second, they may have different targets, such as hiding autism or reducing anxiety. Third, they may have different effects, such as challenging stereotypes or reinforcing negative beliefs.

 

How can social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours affect mental health?

 

Social camouflaging and social anxiety behaviours can affect mental health in various ways. For example, they may:

  • Increase the risk of developing or worsening social anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems.
  • Reduce the quality of life, well-being, or satisfaction of the person using them.
  • Impair the development of social skills, relationships, or identity of the person using them.
  • Prevent the person from seeking or receiving appropriate support, diagnosis, or treatment.

 

What are the benefits of social camouflaging in autism?

 

Social camouflaging in autism may have some benefits for autistic people, such as:

  • Increasing their social acceptance, belonging, or opportunities with non-autistic peers.
  • Enhancing their self-confidence, self-esteem, or self-efficacy in social situations.
  • Reducing their exposure to stigma, discrimination, or bullying.
  • Facilitating their access to education, employment, or health care.

 

What are the costs of social camouflaging in autism?

 

Social camouflaging in autism may also have some costs for autistic people, such as:

  • Consuming a lot of cognitive, emotional, or physical resources, leading to exhaustion, burnout, or breakdown.
  • Challenging their sense of identity, authenticity, or integrity, resulting in confusion, alienation, or self-rejection.
  • Impeding their expression of emotions, needs, or preferences, causing frustration, resentment, or dissatisfaction.
  • Preventing them from receiving appropriate support, diagnosis, or treatment, delaying their recognition, understanding, or acceptance of their autism.

 

How can social camouflaging in autism be reduced or prevented?

 

Social camouflaging in autism can be reduced or prevented by addressing the underlying factors that motivate or enable it, such as:

  • Increasing the awareness, understanding, and acceptance of autism and its diversity among the general public, professionals, and autistic people themselves.
  • Providing more opportunities, resources, and support for autistic people to develop their social skills, confidence, and identity in a way that is authentic and respectful of their autism traits.
  • Creating more inclusive, accommodating, and flexible environments and policies that cater to the needs, preferences, and strengths of autistic people in various domains, such as education, employment, or health care.

 

What are the theoretical models of social camouflaging in autism?

 

Social camouflaging in autism can be explained by different theoretical models that propose different mechanisms or processes of camouflaging, such as:

  • The compensatory model, which suggests that camouflaging involves using explicit or conscious strategies to compensate for the implicit or unconscious difficulties in social cognition or communication that are associated with autism.
  • The social identity model, which suggests that camouflaging involves managing or negotiating one’s social identity or role in different social groups or contexts, depending on the perceived norms, expectations, or values of those groups or contexts.
  • The self-regulation model, which suggests that camouflaging involves regulating or controlling one’s emotions, thoughts, or behaviours in social situations, depending on the perceived goals, costs, or benefits of those situations.

 

What are the cognitive mechanisms of social camouflaging in autism and social anxiety?

 

The cognitive mechanisms of social camouflaging in autism and social anxiety are the mental processes or operations that underlie the use or performance of these behaviours in social situations. Some examples of cognitive mechanisms that may be involved in social camouflaging in autism and social anxiety are:

  • Theory of mind, which is the ability to infer or understand the mental states, such as beliefs, desires, or emotions, of oneself or others, and to use this information to guide one’s behaviour or communication .
  • Executive function, which is the ability to plan, monitor, or control one’s thoughts, actions, or emotions, and to switch, inhibit, or update them according to the changing demands or goals of the situation .
  • Metacognition, which is the ability to reflect on or regulate one’s own cognitive processes, such as memory, attention, or reasoning, and to use this knowledge to improve one’s learning or performance .

 

Source:

https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/jcpp.13884

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