Benny’s mother knew he was shy. Since he was about six months old, he would need to meet a person several times before feeling comfortable in his or her arms. As a two-year-old, he would stand outside of loud rooms for a few minutes before entering. As a four-year-old, he would only go to friends’ houses if he had met their mother.

However, once Benny warmed up, he wasn’t awkward or socially inept. His classmates loved playing with him, and he had plenty of fun with his siblings. Therefore, his mother never thought there was anything clinically wrong with him.

But after his first week of kindergarten at a new school, Benny’s mother was surprised to receive a call from his teacher:

“I am a bit worried about him. He seems a bit withdrawn.”

“It’s not unusual when he is in new situations. I’m not sure if you remember that I mentioned that to you. But, just give him a bit of time. He’ll warm up.”

“He won’t participate in singing or rhyming activities, or even sit with the other children during story time. He seems to only feel comfortable watching the other children from a distance. I was thinking that perhaps you should take Benny to get evaluated. Maybe we are dealing with something more than shyness… “

The mother was quite alarmed, but she knew her Benny. She was fairly confident that within two weeks, he would be laughing and singing with his classmates. Nonetheless, she set up a meeting with his teacher and a diagnostician in order to determine the root of the problem.

Shyness or Something Else?

When I met with Benny in my office, it was clear that here was a very shy boy who had no social or developmental disorders. However, Benny’s teachers had good reason to worry over Benny’s behavior patterns during the first weeks of school, because they are indicative of Asperger’s Syndrome. This incident is a perfect example of how these two conditions – shyness and Asperger’s – can sometimes appear the same, and why it is important for children with social difficulties to undergo a professional evaluation.

Asperger’s Syndrome

Asperger’s Syndrome was first described in the 1940s by an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who noticed he had many patients with deficient social and communicative skills even though they had normal language development and cognitive abilities. While many children on the autistic scale have trouble functioning socially, they also tend to develop speech and language skills later. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, however, generally have good language skills, though their speech patterns might be unusual or their inflections inconsistent. Furthermore, a child with Asperger’s does not focus on people, preferring instead to play with an object or engage in an activity that would be of little interest to most other children. (Professionals still debate the question of whether Asperger’s Syndrome is “high functioning autism” or constitutes a separate disorder, independent of autism.)

Shyness

As in Benny’s case, children who are shy might appear to share certain characteristics with children with Asperger’s when they are placed into a new situation. However, as opposed to children with Asperger’s, children who are shy are intensely interested in those around them, but they, like Benny, simply prefer to study people for a while before interacting. Shy children do best when given reassurance and time to adjust. They should be allowed to join in when they feel ready. Children who are shy may become more anxious if they are pressured to join in before they are ready.

How can you distinguish Asperger’s from shyness?

Generally, children who are shy are:

Cautious

Socially aware but anxious

Slow to engage

Concerned about others

Uncomfortable with loud or aggressive behavior on the part of others.

Generally, children with Asperger’s:

Prefer solitary play

May have peculiar interests

Lack sensitivity to the feelings of others

Miss social cues, such as facial expressions and gestures.

Different Courses of Action

When dealing with shy children, as mentioned, it is important not to push them beyond their comfort level. It is essential to give reassurance and go slowly in new situations to ease anxiety.

As for children with Asperger’s, a very different course of action is recommended. A professional evaluation is the first step. From there, parents can learn behavioral modification techniques, engage children in activities designed to increase social awareness and interaction, and create tailored social skills programs for their children. With time, though a child with Asperger’s might continue to have some social and behavioral problems, he can become a very successful and fully independent adult.