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.”
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