When I was a boy, I was intensely shy, more avoidant than anyone else I met then in any of the schools I attended.
No one in the working-class neighborhood of the North-American steel town where I grew up had heard of ‘autism’, but my behavior fit autism pretty well. If I got myself assessed today, I’d probably get a diagnosis somewhere on the spectrum.
But I could have been diagnosed with other things.
In school, I had many incidents of speech paralysis during the early grades of school, what the experts now call ‘selective mutism’. Asked to answer a question in class, a task for which you were required to stand up so the whole class could stare at you, all the words in my fairly large vocabulary would disappear. It was if I had no words at all. I would stand there completely mute until I was told to sit down.
In my teenage years, my inability to respond to young women would probably be identified today, at least by the followers of psychologist Brian Gilmartin, as “love-shyness”. Another psychologist might choose Asperger’s syndrome/ASD, and a psychiatrist might choose PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified).
I have always fit HSP (highly sensitive person) pretty well too.
But the psychologists who treat selective mutism insist that it is distinct from social phobia, Asperger’s, introversion or shyness. Those who treat social phobia take a similar position, as do the Asperger’s/autism people and those who deal with HSP.
My approach is different. To me, my mutism, my anxiety, my social avoidance and my difficulty with the opposite sex, all felt like aspects of one thing – my shyness. To me, those supposedly different traits all felt like they were part of a whole. Combined with positive things – good memory, strong focus, intense interest in fish, trees, insects, flowers, reptiles, rocks, stars, history, quantum particles, galaxies, even sometimes in people – all of that put together was ‘me’.
Despite my shyness, and with some courage (shy people are not always timid), and a lot of luck that kept me out of trouble, sometimes, I led an adventuresome life as a young man, traveling alone through Europe, Mexico, Guatemala and the USA.
I managed to get jobs too, eventually resulting in a career as an accident investigator and personal injury claims handler. Though I was never capable of ‘dating’, I found ways to connect with women anyway. I even managed to marry a beautiful woman and have two daughters with her.
That’s why I have always been unwilling to assign any single label to myself.
I’m convinced that when shy people voluntarily divide themselves up into categories, waving one identity flag or another over their heads, accepting a psychologist’s or psychiatrist’s diagnosis as a firm wall between themselves and other kinds of shy people, they do themselves a disservice.
I don’t say that those categories/diagnoses are wrong. I just say that they are not the only way to see reality.