Is It Shyness or Something on the Spectrum? 

BY Anthony Rao TIMEJanuary 25, 2022 PRINT

Recently I heard from a parent of an almost 4 year old boy, described as smart, but shy at school. The teacher is recommending testing to see if he’s “on the spectrum”. This is a classic case of teachers diagnosing through suggestion – and while trying to be helpful – it can create enormous anxiety in families.

Worse, untrained (good) intentions can send kids down the wrong diagnostic path. That’s because there are no objective tests for “the spectrum”, as there are no objective tests for the most common boy diagnosis, ADHD. The error rate in diagnosing these is high. Yet, getting the right help to kids early who need it is important. What’s the best approach?

As I say in my book, The Way of Boys, don’t rush the diagnostic process. And beware of your anxiety. The more you worry, the more you’ll likely move ahead without considering all possibilities, including a better school environment or different teaching style. If your teacher has a concern, the best place to start is with a trusted professional that knows you and your child – your pediatrician. Also, giving a young child time to grow and develop is very important. If the problem persist five or six months down the line, then it deserves further assessment.

In the case of this shy 4 year old, I’d start by having the parents address the teacher’s concerns head-on. If there are obvious developmental delays in language, great difficulty in making eye contact, playing almost always alone, and over-fascination with only one or two toys or non-play objects, then I’d be inclined to get him tested now. Otherwise, it’s best to teach him the social basics and see if those help address the concerns.

For shy boys, directly coach them on the steps of how best to relate to others. Teach them these basics, and practice over and over.

  1. Walking up to other kids and saying hello.
  2. Looking kids in the eye.
  3. Announcing one’s name clearly, with a nice tone.
  4. Asking the other child his name, with confidence in their voice.
  5. And most important, asking to join in play or inviting other kids to doing something fun.

Go to parks and playgroups and make it happen. Arrange playdates and keep going to small positive group activities where they see some of the same kids everyday or afternoon. Gently push him away from you and into the company of peers. Keep calm and project confidence so he knows there’s nothing to worry about.

If a child comes back to you, hides, or refuses to leave you, step off. Ignore that behavior completely. Don’t console him. Then try again. Push and encourage him, and slowly walk off, fade into the background. Let him have more and more time away from you. Don’t interrupt the play or hover. Let his social life belong to him (mistakes and all) – that’s how he learns.

Shyness is often constitutional. but it can be molded and shaped. and shy kids often rush to their parents at very low levels of anxiety. Don’t pay it attention – if you do, that only makes future shyness worse. Reassuring too much suggests to your child that maybe there is something real and dangerous out there when there isn’t.

This story originally published on Dr. Anthony Rao’s website

Anthony Rao
Dr. Anthony Rao holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Vanderbilt University and trained as a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. For more than 20 years, Dr. Rao worked in the Department of Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital and served as instructor at Harvard Medical School, where he trained psychologists and physicians in the use of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, or CBT.
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