MASKING

"Putting on my best normal" - Hull et al., 2017

Masking (also known as 'camouflaging') is when an autistic person 'puts on a mask' to appear neurotypical and 'less autistic'. When an autistic person masks, they suppress and hide their autistic traits like stimming, and echolalia, and communication style differences that neurotypicals deem as unacceptable. Masking is VERY common for autistic people. Masking often delays an autism diagnosis being made. Many autistic people have been conditioned to feel like they HAVE to mask due to repeated past experiences of relational trauma whereby they have been bullied, teased, socially excluded and made to feel that they must supress their autistic traits in order to be socially accepted. The drive to fit in and blend in is the prime motivator of masking. 
A person is holding up a piece of paper with a smile drawn on it, in front of their mouth

Examples of masking:

  • Copying people's facial expressions​
  • Forcing eye-contact
  • Mimicking people's behaviour
  • Learning social scripts​
  • Imitating gestures
  • Preparing jokes, rehearsing them
  • Practising conversations
  • Suppressing stimming, echolalia
  • Spending time planning topics, questions

"But everybody masks. Autistic people aren't the only ones who mask - I'm neurotypical and I mask too. It's the same" 

Impact of masking

  • Burnout
  • Exhaustion
  • Sensory overload (meltdowns)
  • Self-injury / self-harm
  • Social isolation / exclusion
  • Unemployment
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicide
Nope. It's not the same. There's a huge difference between autistic masking and neurotypical masking. Almost everyone masks to some extent. For example, a neurotypical person will adapt their behaviour, body language, communication style in certain situations and contexts, like in the workplace such as acting more polite, more 'professional' and more friendly. However, it's less extreme than autistic masking. Autistic people mask as a survival strategy in order to avoid being ostracised for coming across as "weird", "odd", or being made fun of due to years of social exclusion. Autistic masking is scrutinising every interaction and being hyper aware of every facial expression or gesture. And the impact of masking on an autistic person is entirely different than the impact on a neurotypical person. The costs are much higher because of the mental, emotional, physical and sensory labour. Neurotypicals generally do not experience this and don't need to analyse their interactions to the point of paralysis.
A dark skinned boy with black hair is covering his face with his hands and blue t-shirt

Why do autistic people mask?

To fit into social situations

A conditioned response 

To avoid being bullied

To be more accepted by neurotypicals.

It's a coping strategy.

Masking predicts suicidality

Autistic adults who mask have high rates of anxiety and co-occurring mental health problems [1]. In autistic adults, masking significantly predicts suicidality [2]. Autistic people feel obliged to pretend that they're not autistic, particularly autistic people who would traditionally be labelled as 'high-functioning'. This is why functioning labels are misleading and harmful. Being called high-functioning is not a compliment as it invalidates and dismisses the person's difficulties. In "A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking" by Amy Pearson and Kieran Rose (2021), they conclude:
  • Masking is a "response to the deficit narrative and accompanying stigma that has developed around autism". 

  • Masking shouldn't be associated with a "female autism phenotype"

  • Masking takes significant energy and is only sustainable for short periods.

SOURCES

  • A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking: Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice. Amy Pearson and Kieran Rose.Autism in Adulthood.Mar 2021.52-60

  • [1] Cage, E., & Troxell-Whitman, Z. (2019). Understanding the reasons, contexts and costs of camouflaging for autistic adults. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49(5), 1899–1911. Link

  • [2] Cassidy, S., Bradley, L., Shaw, R. et al. Risk markers for suicidality in autistic adults. Molecular Autism 9, 42 (2018). Link