Social Anxiety and the Unique Learner

by | May 11, 2018

Social Anxiety and the Unique Learner

Social anxiety in the unique learner can stem from several sources. Many of these causes are common among those who suffer from social anxiety. However, for the unique learner, being slightly out of step with the world around them can make the anxiety worse. This is not the same as social awkwardness. Social anxiety directly impacts an individual’s ability to function effectively in the world.

Missing the needs of a child with special needs, a unique learner, can have profound affects on society. We are all bouncing back from the realization that school campuses are less safe than they once were. Individuals with mental health issues and access to weapons tend to be a prevalent source of blame. Awareness of a unique learner’s needs early in life may help them navigate difficult situations that could arise down the line.

I feel concerned that when the characteristics and personality traits that could really help a unique learner are not allowed full expression, the individual never feels safe and secure enough to explore their own unique and varied responses to the world. Often these children and adults feel compelled to hide their idiosyncrasies from others. They become adept at deflecting problems onto external sources. Complaining, blaming, and externalizing their problems cause others to feel a similar uneasiness. The unique learner may feel an exaggerated sense of victimization and when these problems go unrecognized, social isolation and negative behavior can follow.

It is imperative to reach these individuals before further tragedy has an opportunity for irreversible damage.

Social anxiety in the unique learner can be very troubling for the individual, their family members, and others close to them. To function in relationships with others, psychologists tell us that we must first have a relationship with ourselves. Knowing the self, in this context, implies knowing your body parameters. When a toddler successfully hides in the closet pantry, recognizing that they are too large to hide inside a shoe box, it demonstrates a sense of one’s body parameters. Once an understanding of your size is acknowledged, you can be more successful navigating through doorways, around furniture because you now know how much space you take up. Success in these simple tasks leads to a sense of emotional security and safety within the environment.

In addition to relating to objects and things in the child’s environment, the child relates to other people as well.

The complexities of interacting with other people and functioning in our modern society have been well documented by researchers and authors. Self‑help books are always available on this topic.

Social Anxiety and a Diminished Sense of Self

For the unique learner, however, they are operating at a further disadvantage because their “sense of self” is often poorly formed. Not fully understanding themselves, their size, space, timing, and impact on the world will certainly impact their relationship with others. Relating to other people, objects, school, and work tasks require the building block of good sensory processing so that the individual can obtain accurate data about themselves and, eventually, accurate data about the objects, and/or people, and environment that they are interacting with.

As a child progresses through their physical development and their psychological stages of development, increased mastery results in continued emotional stability. The child with a problematic view of their ability to effectively act on the world, have their needs met, and function in day to day life may be more inconsistent and erratic.

We expect children to have fears. Their world is expanding constantly, and as they explore new areas they will have many feelings of uncertainty and uneasiness. Even as adults, we may become uncomfortable and anxious until a new job or neighborhood becomes familiar. As children grow and learn new things, the nature of their fears and the way in which they handle them will change.

Children frequently use play to help them handle their fears. You may have seen your preschooler play imaginary games with another child or a pet. By making the situation more familiar in this way, children work out some of the fear they feel about the real situation. For example, playing teacher may enable children to master the fear they may feel over the first day of school.

Engaging with Others

The avoidance of face to face engagement, through excessive use of smartphones and social media, can be concerning for older children. Our ability to successfully communicate involves eye contact, touch, and shared laughter. These are social interaction components that have been required in our human society since our early ancestors.

If smartphones interrupt a child or teenager’s ability for these normal human behaviors, that is of significant concern.

Students tell us that they are talking to each other while using their cell phones. They are talking to each other, about each other on their phones. Not all of it is well thought through or friendly. Of course, gossip is nothing new, but research indicates that the internet has a disinhibition effect that leads people to speak in coarser, crueler ways than they would offline. This is similar to the research of drivers in automobiles speaking and acting unkindly to strangers driving in another lane.


The consequences that result can vary but often appear as poor task completion behavior, reticence to participate in tasks, and reticence to participate with other people. They also tend to incorrectly label problems as external to themselves and, thus, are unable to resolve their problems. This “rinse and repeat” behavior can lead to anger and potential violence.

Quote from Unique Learner Solutions:

“Attempting to make a child “normal” creates shame and fear‑based behaviors. It is important to understand that the purpose is not to change the unique learner or somehow make them “normal.” Instead, strategies need to be identified to make life a little easier for themselves and those around them.

Unique learners often feel a sense of shame. Shame can be one of the most painful experiences for unique learners and for the people who love them. Their particular skills and abilities frequently are not relevant to the requirements of traditional education leading to traditional careers.

The irony of this injustice is that these individuals could very well change the world because they have a unique perspective. These essential members of our society are capable of causing change, development, and advancement. Though many unique learners tend to live on the outer fringe, often as a castoff of society, they are truly modern heroes. Our human community depends on these brave individuals to push the margin of our thinking.

Special offer: Assertiveness Training

Unique learners need to be trained to be assertive in order to communicate their needs to others. When frustrated those who don’t know how to be assertive may go resort to aggressiveness to communicate. Additionally, parents and teachers of unique learners also need to know how to be assertive with their child when necessary. I have put together Principles of Assertive Behavior to help both unique learners and those who love and work with them. You can get it HERE.

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