Masking and Autism
Author: Jane Mantzalas is a PhD candidate within the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre. Her research interests are centred around autism in adulthood and improving the mental health and wellbeing of autistic adults. Her PhD thesis “Characterising Autistic Burnout and its Underlying Mechanisms” aims to identify the core features of autistic burnout, how it may impact the lives of autistic people, and what may be done to assist with prevention and recovery.
What is masking?
Masking (also called ‘camouflaging’) describes different strategies autistic people use to hide their autistic traits during social interactions. Masking differs from impression management which most people use to present a favourable side of themselves (e.g., during a job interview). Masking involves hiding one’s authentic self across multiple contexts for extended periods of time. Many autistic people mask at work, school, with their friends, and even at home.
Why do autistic people mask?
People on the autism spectrum represent a minority group who often face stigma and discrimination because of harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about autism. Autistic people whose differences are more obvious are more likely to experience bullying, victimisation, stigma, discrimination, and social exclusion than non-autistic people. They mask to avoid these negative consequences, help them fit in with their peers, and access work and other opportunities they might otherwise miss out on.
How do people mask?
Masking behaviours can be conscious or unconscious. Common strategies include:
- Pre-preparing scripts before social interactions.
- Faking eye contact (e.g., looking at a person’s nose or forehead instead).
- Monitoring bodily movements and facial expressions (of oneself and others).
- Hiding obvious stimming behaviours.
- Enduring sensory overload (e.g., loud music or bright lights at a party).
- Copying the behaviour, language, or mannerisms of other people, or characters from movies, television, or books.
- Adopting a persona when interacting with others.
Males are more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism in childhood than females, who tend to be diagnosed later in life. One reason for this is that females ‘fly under the radar’ and learn to mask their social difficulties, even at a young age, because they want to fit in with their peers. Research shows that while males and females report similar levels of camouflaging in adulthood, the motivations and consequences of masking may vary. Males tend to find masking easier and report fewer negative outcomes, whereas females are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression.
What is the impact of masking?
Masking involves suppressing natural autistic behaviours and requires a lot of cognitive effort. Autistic people say it is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. Not surprisingly, it can become exhausting over time and lead to negative consequences such as:
- Autistic burnout is a state of extreme mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion.
- Identity confusion. Some people become so used to masking that they don’t know who they are without the mask on.
- An increase in meltdowns and shutdowns to relieve the stress associated with masking (this is common among children after a day of masking in school).
- Feeling that relationships are not authentic which can lead to loneliness, isolation, and a loss of social support.
- Negative impacts on mental health, including depression, anxiety, and feelings of suicidality.
- Risk of delayed or missed autism diagnosis, or misdiagnosis, especially if the person masks during diagnostic assessments.
- Support needs going recognised because the person doesn’t appear to be struggling on the outside.
- Internalised stigma and feeling that their true self is not good enough to be accepted.
Are there any benefits of masking?
Some autistic people report that masking helps them meet people, access the same opportunities non-autistic people have, feel accepted and more resilient.
Why not just ‘take the mask off’?
It’s complicated! Autistic people fear rejection, losing relationships they built while masking or putting their jobs at risk. Unmasking can make autistic people more vulnerable to bullying and victimisation. Some people try to find a balance by limiting masking to some situations and being themselves around trusted family and friends. Ultimately, greater understanding and acceptance of autism would reduce the pressure on autistic people to mask to be included in society.
Want to know more?
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