What is masking?
Masking (sometimes known as camouflaging) is when autistic people adapt their behaviour to hide their autistic qualities to fit into a neurotypical world (non-autistic world). Below are some other autistic people’s descriptions of masking.
Why do autistic people mask?
How long is a piece of string? There are many reasons why autistic people mask, but some of the most common reasons are
- Avoid harassment and bullying for not “behaving normally” by neurotypical standards.
- Fit in with their peers.
- Avoid standing out for the “wrong reasons”.
- To hide their true feelings in places where they don’t feel emotionally safe.
- Seeking meaningful connections and relationships with others.
- Be respected by others and avoid infantilisation.
- To get through a job interview and maintain employment.
Not all autistic people mask, but many do from a very young age, meaning their autism doesn’t get recognised until adolescence or adulthood.
What can masking look like?
How each autistic person will mask vary from individuals but common signs an autistic person may be masking are:
- Copying other people’s body language and facial expressions they are interacting with.
- Forcing social behaviours deemed “normal”, e.g. smiling and eye contact.
- Surprising stimming and other behaviours when around other people that they would normally do in private.
- Preparing and practising social conversions in advance.
- Pretending to have similar interests with the people they are interacting with.
- Avoid talking about their interests in depth.
What’s the impact of masking?
In the short term, masking can seem like a positive coping strategy. However, in the long term, masking can have a detrimental impact on emotional well-being, self-esteem, mental and physical health.
Some autistic people had also described masking as a trauma response, as they would only be respected as fellow humans when they took on the persona of a neurotypical. As a result, they were punished for being their autistic selves.
Also, some may experience autistic burnout from consistently masking. Autistic burnout describes the extreme mental exhaustion autistic people experience from living in a neurotypical world.
Do only autistic girls mask?
When researchers first wrote about autistic people masking, they assumed that only autistic girls and women would mask, explaining females’ underdiagnosis. However, autistic people of all genders identify with masking. Although masking is accepted as something we do as autistic people, the community is increasingly questioning why it should only be associated with femme presenting autistics. I’d recommend watching Yo Samdy Sam’s (an autistic YouTuber) video below about why gendering autism is problematic.
How can I support an autistic person who’s masking?
It’s always essential to ask autistic people if they want some support. If they don’t want your help, leave them alone, saviours are annoying!
But if an autistic person wants help, some things that could help
- Make sure there is an easy exit strategy from the social situation.
- Put no expectations or demands on communicating by neurotypical standards.
- Ask us about our interests and give us time to info dump!
- Meet in an environment where autistic people feel comfortable stim freely (if needed).
- Ask if sensory wise everything is okay for them. If not, then move to another location.
As I’ve said before, every autistic person is an individual, so finding out their needs before assuming the above will automatically work. These are just ideas as a starting point.
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