Autism Masking/Camouflaging Part 1

Again, this term has interchanged so much so to give you a better understanding of this term let me define this for you as you may have heard it has been used in the autistic community groups that you are with or with autistic people in general. In writing this to you all, I have also made a few topics of discussion for this term on my channel which you can find it here if you are interested to know more: Autism and Masking (Overview) [2018] 

So, what is the term meaning of masking?

Masking is a term where autistics tend to hide or suppress certain behaviours as to each neurotypical to deem as ‘normal” This isn’t only happening with autistic females yet autistic males do this too. Masking also has long-term effects on our mental health as well.
But women with autism tend to mask to a far greater degree than other groups, in order to fit into a world that feels alien in many ways. Misunderstanding social rules, facing criticism for being oneself, becoming overwhelmed and exhausted in social situations, and dealing with sensory overload can all lead to consistent masking behaviours in women with autism.

When you have autism, you may feel as if you are constantly adapting to a situation that doesn’t inherently work for you—often, because it doesn’t make any room for your needs and wants. You may learn that you’re not just “shy”; you’re too shy. You’re not just “direct”; you’re too direct. You’re not just enthusiastic; you’re too enthusiastic. Too tantrummy. Too blunt. Too sensitive. And so the list grows and continues. Can any of these be relatable and so much more of the pet peeves or common statements that we hear most of the time/or almost every day?

KEY POINTS TO REMEMBER:

  • ·         Camouflaging or “masking” behaviours that are deemed inappropriate or strange can lead to low self-esteem in women with autism.
  • ·         Because of criticism received early in life, many women with autism judge themselves as being both “too much” and “not enough.”
  • ·         Identifying the roots of low self-esteem and recognizing one’s strengths can help women with autism move beyond masking to self-acceptance.

 

Although anyone with ASD might feel pressure to mask to adapt to societal expectations, gain acceptance, or cope with social stigma and/or stereotyping from others around them, it’s more likely used by autistic folks who:

  • Require minimal support as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5)
  • Are aware of the presence of social stigma or societal expectations
  • Have had experiences with bullying or social rejection
  • Identify as female
  • Have a specific goal in mind, such as obtaining a job or a romantic relationship

Often, masking behaviours involve hiding specific symptoms of autism, including:

  • Camouflaging sensitivities to sound or other sensory difficulties
  • Reducing self-regulating behaviours such as stimming
  • Covering up expressive and receptive language challenges.

Here is what author, Hannah Belcher has shared and discussed about masking in autistic people, based on research and her own personal experience. 

To ‘mask’ or to ‘camouflage’ means to hide or disguise parts of oneself in order to better fit in with those around you. It is an unconscious strategy all humans develop whilst growing up in order to connect with those around us. 

However, for us autistic folk the strategy is often much more ingrained and harmful to our wellbeing and health. Because our social norms are different to others around us, we often experience greater pressure to hide our true selves and to fit into that non-autistic culture. More often than not, we have to spend our entire lives hiding our traits and trying to fit in, even though the odds of appearing ‘non-autistic’ are against us. Masking may involve suppressing certain behaviours we find soothing but that others think are ‘weird’, such as stimming or intense interests. It can also mean mimicking the behaviour of those around us, such as copying non-verbal behaviours, and developing complex social scripts to get by in social situations. With this comes a great need to be like others, and to avoid the prejudice and judgement that comes with being ‘different’. Over time we may become more aware of our own masking, but it often begins as an unconscious response to social trauma before we even grasp our differences. I was 23 when I received my autism diagnosis, and it was only through learning more about masking that I realised how my diagnosis had been hidden for so long. It wasn’t that my autistic traits weren’t there, they’d just been in disguise for so long.

The strategy of masking shows just how clever and resourceful our young minds are at finding ways of coping. At some points in our lives, like during job interviews, it may have even been useful.

 

Effects of masking

 

  • However, just because a coping strategy was once useful, it doesn’t mean it always will be. Studies are now beginning to find how detrimental to our mental health masking can be (Bradley et al., 2021; Hull et al., 2019). Autistic people who mask more show more signs of anxiety and depression and the strategy may even be linked to an increase in suicidal behaviours (Cassidy et al. 2018).
  • There are several reasons why this could be. Firstly, masking uses up vital resources that we can’t use in other areas of our lives. To put it simply, it is exhausting. I still find myself regularly battling autistic ‘burnt out’ and periods of mental health crisis from the strain of trying to adapt myself to live in a world that just isn’t adjusted to my way of thinking.
  • Also, it stops us from developing our true identities. The pressure to fit in means we rarely have time or energy to do the things we want to do or to behave like our true selves. In my late 20s, I realised how little I knew about myself. As I went into a deeper and deeper mental health crisis I came to the realisation that I had no idea who I was, or even what I liked. Everything I knew was in some way connected to how I thought I should be.
  • Ironically, a study I recently conducted with colleagues found that masking didn’t change the judgements that non-autistic peers made towards autistic people’s social behaviours. Even when an autistic person is masking, non-autistic people will still rate them more harshly than non-autistic peers if they don’t know they are autistic. This unconscious bias is evident throughout society for anyone deemed to behave or think atypically by neurotypical standards.

Awareness and understanding

 

  • The best solution to reducing the need for autistic people to mask is to spread awareness to non-autistic people of different neurodiverse behaviours and thinking patterns. When non-autistic people know someone is autistic, they seem to judge them less harshly. However, this strategy is not an easy one and will take years of effort before it is fully ingrained in our society.
  • Our only other option for the time being is to focus on protecting ourselves and improving our own mental health and well-being. This doesn’t mean stopping masking altogether, it just means becoming more aware of how we use the strategy to cope, and what effect it has on us.
  • Self-awareness is the first key, from that follows self-compassion and kindness to rid ourselves of all the stigma we have internalised. The worse we feel about ourselves the more we mask, and the more we mask the worse we feel. By learning how to change the negative thoughts and feelings we have of ourselves from masking, we may even find the need to be maskless.

 

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