What is autistic masking?
Autistic masking, camouflaging, or compensating is a conscious or unconscious suppression of natural autistic responses. It is hiding or controlling behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that may be viewed as inappropriate in situations. Autistic people may feel the need to present or perform social behaviors that are considered neurotypical or may hide neurodiverse behaviors in order to be accepted and fit in.
An autistic person may mask to avoid being outed or harassed at school or the workplace. It can help a person feel safe from misunderstandings or aggression, but this act of self-preservation takes a toll on self-esteem and self-identity. Masking can contribute to autistic burnout which occurs when the challenges of life exceeds a person’s resources. It can lead to serious health physical and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
What are the signs of autistic masking?
Masking, a social survival strategy, will look different depending on the individual. Here are some signs of masking behavior from the Healthline post Autism Masking: To Blend or Not to Blend:
- forcing or faking eye contact during conversations
- imitating smiles and other facial expressions
- mimicking gestures
- hiding or minimizing personal interests
- developing a repertoire of rehearsed responses to questions
- scripting conversations
- pushing through intense sensory discomfort including loud noises
- disguising stimming behaviors (hiding a jiggling foot or trading a preferred movement for one that’s less obvious)
Why does someone mask?
The motivation to mask can happen for a number of reasons such as:
- wanting to blend in and not stand out from the crowd
- to obtain a job, meet the job qualifications, or improve employment opportunities
- concerns about personal safety and well-being (bullying, verbal or emotional attacks, assault, intimidation)
- to increase connections and relationships with others
- to lessen the risk of failure in social situations by using structured techniques, thereby reducing uncertainty and increasing confidence in the ability to socialize
- to avoid discrimination and negative responses from others
What are the negative effects of masking?
Regular masking can have a profound impact on a person’s well-being. Some of the negative effects of masking are:
- exhaustion and fatigue – masking takes a lot of effort
- change in self-perception or self-identity (not feeling like one’s true self, feeling like a “fake”)
- increased stress and anxiety
- autistic burnout
- a delayed autism diagnosis
- increased risk of experiencing thwarted belongingness and lifetime suicidality
How can we help and support?
The biggest thing we can do is educate ourselves about autism to increase our understanding and acceptance of people who are neurodiverse. No one should have to change who they are to please another person or group. Employers need to learn more about autism in the workplace – there are some good initiatives happening such as Nothing without us – an accessibility strategy for the public service of Canada. Autism training should be a part of every education program. The more we know and understand, the less stigma and pressure autistic people will feel about trying to fit in.
If you want to read an excellent personal viewpoint on masking, please read Judy Endow’s Sucking It Up to Pass as Non-Autistic. Judy says, ” I hope more autistics are able to be the person they are, utilizing the supports and accommodations they need, without society insisting they hide their very essence at every turn. I look forward to autistics having everyday lives with things so many take for granted – going to school, being part of the community, having meaningful jobs with living wages along with meaningful relationships. This is the stuff of a satisfying life. All people should have access without society’s requirement of “sucking it up” before a ticket is extended by the majority to those of us in marginalized groups.”
Editorial Policy: Autism Awareness Centre believes that education is the key to success in assisting individuals who have autism and related disorders. Autism Awareness Centre’s mission is to ensure our extensive autism resource selection features the newest titles available in North America. Note that the information contained on this web site should not be used as a substitute for medical care and advice.
I recently started working at a job that involves being around people, mostly working in two’s but a certain times we come together as a group. I was diagnosed 10 years ago and autism became my special interest for sometime. My insight is that masking only works for a short time, to get you in the door so to speak. I am convinced that underneath the masking people eventually pick up on the underlying ” energy”. As autistics we naturally carry and hold ourselves in a more contained manner, at least inwardly, its about keeping stimulation at bay to maintain a sense of connection to ourselves while being around people. No matter how refined and invisible, you become the object of peer discussions and a clique is formed surrounding you. One to one relationships you can pull it off much longer. Work environments become unsafe rather quickly. It is my experience that NT people find our way of existing to be threatening and why they always find a way to outcast, and often become cruel in the non verbal realm of polished social skills.
Rebekah, thank you for taking the time to write such an insightful post. I have heard this about work environments and am trying to get more information out to workplaces/employers so that they understand how autistic people feel.
Under the category, “Why does someone mask?” you forgot one. Similar to the answer, “to obtain a job,” is the answer, “To find and marry a mate.” In my recent research there are a great number of neurotypicals who inadvertently married an ASD (who masked during the dating period) and had absolutely NO idea who they were marrying. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say 80% of NT people married to ASDs had no idea. (I was one.) You should dip a toe into NT-ND marriage forums and observe the heartache and heartbreak of that.
Wow. “ No one should have to change who they are to please another person or group.” I sobbed uncontrollably after reading these words. I am 40 years old and was very recently diagnosed with autism. Next week, I have a scheduled family therapy session to disclose this information to my mom and step-dad. I have not anticipated that they will readily…or ever accept/embrace this revelation. So, here I am in the middle of the night combing the interwebs and putting together an outline on 3×5 cards. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for educating and giving me words and terms to better advocate for healthy boundaries for myself.
Oh Kristin! Thank you for taking the time to write. You are showing great courage here and sticking to what feels right for you. A late diagnosis is a life changing event. I am so pleased that this blog post could be of some help to you. Take care and do feel free to write again if you have any questions.
I enjoyed your post. My son has exhibited strong flags of ASD since birth. We have had him assessed in the past but because he masked at school we didn’t get the diagnosis. Now he is 12 and despite lots of work in skill deficits the meltdowns etc at home are escalating but he still masks exceptionally well at school. I don’t know what to do and how to proceed. I can’t afford to spend another $2k on an assessment only to come out with nothing again:( Any suggestions?
Manda, I am sorry that you are having so much difficulty getting your son diagnosed. There are still things you can do to help him manage these meltdowns. I would suggest learning more about the Low Arousal Approach to manage these meltdowns. https://autismawarenesscentre.com/what-is-the-low-arousal-approach-and-how-can-it-benefit-my-family/ and https://autismawarenesscentre.com/addressing-challenging-behavior-and-asd-going-beyond-what-we-see/ and the book for families- https://autismawarenesscentre.com/shop/behaviour/managing-family-meltdown-the-low-arousal-approach-and-autism/
He may also need some tools to help with regulation. I would suggest exploring the subject of interoception. https://www.kelly-mahler.com/ She offers a lot of resources on her site. Interoception is the 8th sense and is connected to being able to interpret one’s emotions.
You may also need to address your son’s sensory needs and look at developing a sensory diet for him – https://autismawarenesscentre.com/what-is-a-sensory-diet/
Nice blog I really like your blog it’s very informative nowadays autism becoming a problem for everyone and it slowly-slowly started to spread to the masses and it is a very serious problem and it is very important that people became more aware so that they can handle this situation properly and able provide required social support for persons with disabilities. The genesis of Manzil was a non-profit support group called ‘Special Families Support’ which was started by our Director Dr Ayesha Husaini on 9th December 1999. The group grew to over 200 members and is one of GCC’s oldest non-profit groups focusing on the social inclusion of people of determination. Please check our website manzil center more.
Hi. Unfortunately I do still feel the need hide my vulnerability, as there’s one or two drug street gang members living in the same supported-living building as me. I don’t want to get involved with county line street gangs. I often walk out of the communal area, when I see one of the bad one’s coming in. I make an excuse to go to my flat, or to go anywhere else. I think autistic people, and ex convicts/street gang members/drug gang members, shouldn’t be allowed to live in the same building of flats as autistic people, because that’s harmful to the autistic people living there, as gang members can take advantage of vulnerable people, who can be easily lured in. By then, it’s usually too late, as the vulnerable person ends up with the wrong crowd, and a dissapointed family. That is asking for it, when gang members or trouble makers are moved into the same buildings as autistic people. I know Britain wants to be diverse, but how can it be, when nothing changes? It’s still the same old Britain it always was. Nothing ever changes, so us autistic people will still be judged or labelled as “Slow”. I don’t appreciate it. It’s so ill-mannered. Especially in a public communal area. People should know better. I did notice, the very first day I moved into the supported-living building that I’m currently in, the very first day, we had a tea party on the afternoon. I wasn’t bothering anyone. I had kept myself to myself the whole day. I had really only talked to the lad who was about to move in right opposite my own flat, in our own corridor. Halfway through the tea party, some lass who I’d never even met before asked me if she could look around my flat. Well, fair enough. We were all showing each other around our new flat’s that day. Suddenly this other lass, says something really skitty and sly to her, under her breath. The woman who I now realize is her girlfriend. And I just thought to myself “What’s going on? I don’t understand”. I could not tell one bit what that was about. I just felt confused. If this Nicola thought that I was after her girlfriend, there’s no way that I could have been. I’m 100% straight, and will never even fe a little bit tempted into wanting to be with a woman. I don’t get what that bit was ever about. I put it down to maybe they both were arguing with each other a bit before then. As I couldn’t even really find any reason for it. Funny how no supported-living staff noticed what was going on there, either. I stay out of the way of trouble causes in this supported-living building, as my parents don’t want me to be influenced by any of them. Neither do I, actually. I have to do what’s right for me as an individual. I don’t want to find myself in the gutter, in about three years time. Life is worth more.
It’s tragic how masking often leads to missed diagnoses in females with autism. Thanks for posting on such an important topic