Understanding Masking in Autistic Individuals

One common behavior observed in many autistic individuals is autism masking, or camouflaging, where individuals hide their natural tendencies and adopt neurotypical behaviors to fit in with non-autistic people. Masking can take a heavy toll on autistic individuals, leading to increased stress, social isolation, and mental health issues.

Understanding Autism Masking

Autistic masking, also known as masking or compensating, is a social survival strategy in which an autistic person intentionally learns and mimics neurotypical behaviors in order to fit into a neurotypical environment. This might include behaviors such as forcing or faking eye contact, mimicking gestures, or hiding personal interests.

People may mask autism for a variety of reasons, such as feeling safe and avoiding stigma, succeeding at work, or making friends and other social connections. Although masking may be helpful at times, it can also have serious effects on mental and physical health, such as stress, anxiety, depression, and exhaustion.

Understanding masking in autistic adults is crucial for improving their quality of life and mental health. This involves recognizing the different forms of masking, the reasons why individuals may mask, and the negative impacts that masking can have. By providing support and accommodations for autistic individuals and creating a more accepting society, we can reduce the need for masking and empower autistic individuals to live as their authentic selves.

As pediatric occupational therapists, we work tirelessly to help a child improve their overall developmental abilities, such as their social interactions and sensory processing abilities. Autistic individuals are sometimes described as “living in their own world”. If this continues then they are not able to learn and grow. But we need to be careful not to teach them to mask how they calm their nervous system, to “fit in” to societal norms.

Our goal is to help them be able to interact with their environments so they can grow and live happy lives, but it is not to teach them how to mask.

What is Masking in Autism?

Masking in autism refers to the act of consciously or unconsciously suppressing or hiding autistic traits in order to fit in or conform to neurotypical social standards. Masking can take different forms and can occur in various social situations, social interactions, and social communication.

In social situations, autistic individuals may mask by controlling their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions to appear more neurotypical. They may also mask by adopting scripted or rehearsed social responses to navigate social events.

In social interactions, autistic individuals may mask by mimicking neurotypical social behavior, such as making eye contact, engaging in small talk, and following social cues. They may also mask by suppressing their special interests or sensory stims that may be seen as socially inappropriate.

In social communication, autistic individuals may mask by adapting their language use and communication style to align with neurotypical social norms. They may also mask by suppressing their natural communication tendencies, such as speaking in a monotone voice or taking longer pauses to process information.

Different Forms of Autism Masking

Masking can take different forms depending on the individual and the situation. Some autistic individuals may mask constantly in all social situations, while others may only mask in specific situations or with specific people.

Examples of Masking in Autistic Individuals

Examples of masking in autistic individuals include avoiding eye contact, faking facial expressions, rehearsing social scripts, suppressing stims, and hiding special interests. Autistic individuals may also mask by avoiding social situations altogether, leading to social isolation and exclusion.

Why Do Autistic Individuals Mask?

Coping Strategy

One of the primary reasons that autistic individuals mask is as a coping strategy for navigating a world that is often hostile to their neurodivergent traits. In order to avoid social isolation and exclusion, many autistic individuals learn to camouflage their autistic traits and adopt neurotypical behaviors in social situations.

Lack of Acceptance

Another reason why autistic individuals may mask is due to a lack of acceptance of their neurodivergent traits by society. Autistic individuals may feel pressure to conform to neurotypical standards in order to be accepted and valued in society, leading to the adoption of masking behaviors.

Fear of Negative Consequences

Fear of negative consequences is another reason why autistic individuals may mask. Autistic individuals may fear that their true selves will not be accepted or understood by non-autistic people, leading to social rejection and exclusion.

Trauma Response

Masking in autism can also be a trauma response for some individuals. Autistic individuals may have experienced negative consequences in the past for exhibiting their natural tendencies, such as bullying or rejection, leading to the adoption of masking behaviors as a protective mechanism.

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The Costs of Autism Masking

While masking in autism can be an effective coping strategy for navigating the neurotypical world and avoiding social exclusion, it also comes at a heavy cost. Masking requires a significant amount of energy and effort, which can lead to exhaustion and burnout.

In order to support autistic individuals and reduce the need for masking, it is important to create a more accepting and accommodating society that values neurodiversity and provides legal protections and accommodations for individuals with autism.

In the short term, masking can lead to anxiety, stress, and mental health issues. Autistic individuals may also experience sensory overload and other negative effects from suppressing their natural tendencies. Additionally, masking can result in a lack of authenticity and a sense of disconnection from one's true self.

In the long term, masking can have negative impacts on an individual's mental health, leading to depression, anxiety disorders, and even trauma. Autistic individuals may also experience a loss of self-identity and struggle to develop intimate relationships due to the difficulty of maintaining the mask over time.

Negative Outcomes in Social Life

In social life, masking can result in social isolation and exclusion, as autistic individuals may struggle to form meaningful connections and maintain social circles. Masking can also make it difficult for autistic individuals to advocate for themselves and their needs, leading to a lack of legal protections and discrimination in various areas of life.

Many autism advocates and researchers are working to raise awareness about masking and its negative consequences. Recent academic research has highlighted the prevalence of masking in autistic adults and its impact on mental health. The work of diverse neurominority leaders is also helping to bring attention to the experiences of autistic individuals and the need for greater acceptance of neurodiversity in society.

Who Masks in Autism?

Children and Young People

Masking is common among children and young people with autism. In school settings, for example, many autistic children may mask their natural tendencies in order to fit in with their peers and avoid bullying or social exclusion. This can lead to increased stress and anxiety, as well as a lack of support for their unique needs.

Adults with High-Functioning Autism

High-functioning autistic adults may also mask their autistic traits in order to appear more neurotypical and fit in with non-autistic people. This can be especially prevalent in social and professional settings, where there may be pressure to conform to social norms and expectations.

Examples of Masking in Different Groups of People

Masking in autism can take many different forms, depending on the individual and the social context. Some examples of masking include:

  • Avoiding eye contact, which is a common autistic trait that may be masked in social situations.
  • Suppressing stimming behaviors, such as flapping hands or rocking back and forth, in order to appear more neurotypical.
  • Learning social cues and body language to better fit in with non-autistic people.
  • Developing special interests in topics that are more socially acceptable, in order to avoid negative consequences for their unique interests.
  • Adopting a “mask” or persona that is more socially acceptable in order to fit in with different social circles or professional settings.

By understanding who masks in autism and the different forms that masking can take, we can better support autistic individuals and create a more accepting and accommodating society.

How to Unmask in Autism

Accepting Neurodivergent Traits

The first step in unmasking in autism is to accept and embrace one's neurodivergent traits. This means recognizing that autism is not a pathology or disorder, but a natural variation in human cognition and behavior. By accepting one's neurodivergent traits and identity, autistic individuals can start to shed the burden of masking and embrace their authentic selves.

Recognizing the Heavy Cost of Masking

Masking in autism can have significant negative impacts on mental health, including increased stress, anxiety, and burnout. Autistic individuals who mask may also experience a sense of disconnection from their true selves, leading to feelings of depression and low self-esteem. By recognizing the heavy cost of masking, autistic individuals can start to prioritize their mental health and well-being by unmasking and embracing their authentic selves.

Unmasking in autism requires accepting neurodivergent traits, recognizing the heavy cost of masking, advocating for legal protections, and encouraging intersectional approaches. By embracing our authentic selves and advocating for a more accepting and accommodating society, we can create a world where all autistic individuals can thrive and reach their full potential.

Final Thoughts

Unmasking in autism is a critical step towards creating a more inclusive and accepting society for neurodivergent individuals. It is important to recognize the heavy cost of masking and to support the work of autism advocates.

As a pediatric occupational therapist, the term masking was new to me. When I work with a child who is autistic I do look at stims as an opportunity to give the child more sensory input they are craving. But I never “take away the stim”. I look at it and ask “is this stim working for them?” Or is it hindering their ability to live a happy successful life? We should not force eye contact or assume a child who is playing while a teacher is teaching is not paying attention.

We can work towards creating a world where all autistic individuals can thrive and reach their full potential.

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