I think I had always assumed that the social communicative differences in autistic people were somehow set in stone, and that, in my own case, with very few exceptions such as when communicating with my spouse or close friends, organic social engagement could only truly be alleviated by masking, to some degree.
But what I have experienced recently has shown me that, by taking into account elements of neuroscience, cognitive behavioural therapies (including Hypno-CBT), polyvagal theory and general personal development, the social engagement ‘schema’ – schema being a pattern in the brain – can be improved in autistic individuals.
My polyvagal research hasn’t been autism targeted
I don’t think I had ever called ‘social engagement’ by this term, until I read about polyvagal theories – see below for a brief explanation and link. (Incidentally, I am aware there’s a book by Holly Bridges targeted specially to the autistic market, called ‘Reframe Your Thinking Around Autism: How the Polyvagal Theory and Brain Plasticity Help Us Make Sense of Autism’ – but I haven’t read it yet – it’s on my list, and I imagine some people will love it, and some people will not.)
My polyvagal research hasn’t been autism targeted – I am in the midst of two non-niche, polyvagal courses currently (one on trauma, and one on psychotherapy), as I have just qualified to be a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, and aim to specialise in helping neurodivergent people make positive changes to their lives, when I launch Arrive Therapy in June/July 2021.
I hoped that my research and studies into this and other theories would enable me to help other autistic people; but weirdly, hadn’t thought about if it would help me, as an autistic woman.
Autists have different levels of social engagement
I have noticed recently that what I would call my ‘social engagement schema’ has improved. Now, I want to make it clear that I understand fully that this will be an ebb and flow – that personal experience, environment and all of the usual challenges will affect how ‘socially capable’ we are (or want to be). If I am out of spoons, if I am overwhelmed, tired or am experiencing all of the usual triggers, naturally this part of my brain will respond differently. I also acknowledge that it is different for all people, and that in the first place, autists have different levels of social engagement (or interest in it!) to begin with. I just feel that my capacity for social engagement in the natural sense, not the masking sense, has developed or expanded. (I imagine that it can also shrink, if left unattended).
Today on one of my professional talking therapy courses, I had to undertake an exercise in ‘free association’ (google ‘Freud free association’, and you will get the gist!) that was so excruciating, it made my cells shudder – and this foreboding was true for many of my neurotypical peers too. As I undertook the ‘talking about myself’ exercise, I felt vulnerable, awkward, scared and all of those other emotions that sit alongside these fragile ones. (‘I am autistic! I like structure! I like control – I don’t do spontaneity!’, my mind whirred.) But I did it, as a person that isn’t a ‘talker’ and an ‘over-sharer’; as a highly sensitive person; and as an introvert – and at the end, I felt a little empowered. It occurred to me afterwards that in the recent days, weeks and months, my social engagement schema has improved, and it ISN’T through masking. It’s through neuroplasticity of the brain, and self-efficacy. (That feeling of ‘I can do this’).
Here are the two main factors that I believe have helped my autistic social engagement system:
1.Learning about polyvagal theory – the parasympathetic nervous system is coordinated by the vagus nerve, and one of its two pathways – the ventral vagal, which responds to cues of social engagement and safety – can actually be influenced by ourselves, via breathing, muscle relaxation and even the reduction of negative thoughts. Because, yes, these thoughts bring physical body changes and sensations.
The graphic on the left is by Justin Sunseri and shows the primary autonomic nervous system states as well as the mixed states.
We can help to ‘shift’ our states to something more helpful (and train ourselves to access our social engagement system) by making choices to do things that release energy in the way that’s needed.
E.g. walking or running, music, art and creativity, using movement like dance or somatic work, humming, chanting and singing, specific skin tapping, meditation and grounding exercises.
2.My knowledge about cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy (Hypno-CBT) and stand-alone CBT techniques. Social engagement issues are closely linked to our belief systems, our negative automatic thoughts: (e.g. ‘They think I am weird – I AM weird! I am not good; I am not enough’ etc), and our self-efficacy. That’s our perceived ability to cope. In learning about behavioural therapy concepts (*see my note below!) such as self-efficacy, assertiveness and disinhibition, and through improving my own personal boundaries and also via better self-esteem via self-development, I have seemingly managed to improve my capacity for social engagement without masking. It feels much more authentic and autonomous. (I am not saying I don’t or won’t mask, far from it. It’s a tool we autists all need to use sometimes, at varying levels; that’s my opinion at least. I am not saying that masking is healthy, but that sometimes it’s a necessary life-tool.)
*I want to make it clear when I mention ‘behavioural therapy concepts’ that I am not alluding in any way to those dreadful coercive techniques that are often labelled similarly to those Swedish songstrels who are famous for ‘Mama Mia’ and ‘Dancing Queen’. You know the field I refer to. I am instead referring to the work of talking therapists like A.T. Beck, Albert Ellis, Andrew Salter, et al. What I mean when I talk about ‘therapy’ for autistic people, in the context of my own knowledge-base, is talking therapy to help autistic people with issues such as anxiety, self-efficacy, confidence, relaxation, self-esteem and social anxiety.
So there you have it, my musings about the fact that our capacity for social engagement as an autistic individual isn’t a card we’re dealt with, that’s finite. It’s malleable, and it’s influenced by areas like reduced anxiety, improved self-efficacy, enhanced confidence, improved relaxation skillsets, boosted self-esteem, and an understanding of the issues of social anxiety, which in turn is often based on negative self-beliefs that we CAN challenge, and change.
I’d love to know your thoughts and experiences in this area! (Read more about the author HERE).
Remember, I don’t claim to be an expert on autism, Hypno-CBT or any other aspect that I discuss in these articles – learning is a journey. Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.
We have written a lot about autistic masking, but haven’t dedicated a single article to it – so here it is.
Autists commonly experience difficulties in key areas including communication, socialisation and sensory challenges. (It’s also common for those on the autism spectrum to experience emotional rigidity and repetitive thought processes or behaviours.)
Many autistic individuals, subconsciously or otherwise, end up masking
Looking at the areas of socialisation and communication, it begins to become clear why many autistic individuals, (subconsciously or otherwise), end up masking – e.g. presenting oneself differently in one’s behaviour, in order to hide certain traits, or mimic neurotypical behaviours.
So it is a way of ‘fitting in’ and meeting people’s expectations.
Autistic masking – getting through the day at work, in school, and at home
Masking may sound quite superficial, but it is in fact necessary to get through the day for many autists; for example, earning a wage in order to feed the family; therefore fitting in at work, meeting social conventions and carrying out the required workplace tasks (often without relevant support).
In places of education, this ‘fitting in’ is usually required in order to access the education on offer without confrontation or revealing one’s struggles, as well as to meet social conventions, potentially avoid punishments, and avoid standing out or being ostracised or bullied.
Masking uses up valuable energy units
In everyday life, masking may be required a lot of the time to simply achieve life’s daily requirements; e.g chatting to a cashier at the supermarket, being friendly towards the neighbours, or mingling at a family function. That is not to say that the autistic individual doesn’t want to be friendly, and chat to the cashier, neighbour or family member – just that this very action takes a lot of mental processing, and energy units.
Autism is after all an issue of processing, so every interaction for the autist takes up energy units. If the autistic individual had a completely full tank of energy units, then chatting to the cashier, family member or neighbour would probably not represent such a problem.
But if most of the energy units have been allocated with daily executive functioning, there’s very little processing data available, making communication of any kind an effort.
Autism – extensive processing effort
Autistic individuals may develop a set of social skills or ‘mask’ that helps them fit in with others,.
Rather than simply seeing Mary the neighbour and having a chat, the energy-depleted autist is likely to be going through a mental tick list as they see the neighbour. ‘Who is that? It’s Mary. I need to say hello to Mary. Should I ask her how her pet is? What’s her pet’s name? Will she say hello to me first?’
Each thought process takes mental and processing effort – the autist may even rehearse the conversation in his or her head as they approach, to make sure it sounds appropriate. Remember, they’re doing this for the neighbour’s benefit, not for their own. How exhausting!
The autist’s natural (and probably preferred) state would be NOT to say hello on this occasion, just to go home and recalibrate after the day’s challenges. But in order to meet social convention, the autist will probably be friendly, and try to ‘pass’ as a neurologically-appropriate individual.
(Hence why autistic masking is also known as ‘passing’. In clinical terms, it is also described as camouflaging.)
Interacting with other people can be draining
Multiply this effort dozens of times each day, and we see that due to the autist’s differences in processing and communication, interacting with other people can be draining. Hence a ‘mask’ is used to appear neurotypical, or to simply pass as a functional individual who’s following social convention.
Remember, this isn’t a reflection on the autist’s desire to interact with the other person – the autist may very much want to communicate with them – it’s simply relative to the amount of mental processing required to do so, when the energy bank is already depleted from processing everything else in the environment that afternoon. (E.g the bright sunlight, the din of background noise on the bus, and the busy neighbourhood.)
Being the best version of one’s self
Autistic masking doesn’t just take place with non-family members – autists may mask around their close friends, spouses, parents, children and other family members too, not because they can’t be themselves, but because they love their close friends and family members so much that they don’t want to cause concern and make the family member worry that there’s something wrong. Maybe the autist, if feeling low, anxious or tired, just wants to appear as the best version of themselves? Like maximising your appearance, putting on a smarter outfit, or putting on make up.
In an ideal world, no masking would be required around loved ones. A family member, knowing their autistic loved one had just done the school run, returned from the office, been shopping or had generally had a tiring day, would knowingly stick their thumb up with a smiling, enquiring face, to silently question, ‘Are you ok?’
And the autist would smile and stick their thumb up to reply, ‘Yes, I’m okay, thank you for understanding and pre-empting my mental exhaustion, spoon depletion and social hangover, but I’m just not up to talking right now, or at least not taking about non essential things.’ And all would be well. But families aren’t all like that, are they! It’s simply a matter of education and awareness, however.
(It’s important to note that young children don’t have that awareness of their parents’ sensitivities, as described above – so the autistic parent is likely to mask, so as not to concern their child.)
Hence, the autist masks to make their families feel happy, often at their own expense, not because they’re unhappy about being themselves, but because they care.
Childhood autistic masking
It is thought that autistic girls ‘mask’ more than boys.
It’s worthwhile mentioning childhood masking, specifically. Autistic women mask more than men, and it would seem that autistic girls mask more than boys. Masking is a way of navigating reality – remember, it may be subconscious – and for autistic girls, it’s a valuable tool to fit in with peers. But successful masking can lead outsiders to be so convinced of the individual’s ‘typicality’ that their autism goes unnoticed. Additionally, it’s common for a child (of either gender) to ‘mask’ at school and ‘let it all out’ when they return home to the safety of their own surroundings, and people who ‘get’ them.
The website Spectrum News, reporting on a study, states: ‘[Researchers found that autistic boys] might be overactive or appear to misbehave, whereas girls more often seem anxious or depressed.’
It is also interesting to note that masking can include the hiding of self-stimulatory behaviours (stims), like fidgeting or tapping. The autistic individual may bite their cheek, clench their fists or flex and relax a muscle – all things that probably go unnoticed, but help to self-regulate the autist.
Masking – good or bad?
In summary, autistic masking in small measures is maybe not bad thing, to help one’s self esteem, and feel like less of an outsider. However, too much masking, which can occur long-term when the autist is not yet diagnosed as being autistic, can be hugely depleting; it is also associated with mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. Once autism diagnosis occurs, it does also throw up the question, who’s the real me? And too much masking can lead to social hangovers, shutdown and autistic burnout.
It could be said that getting the balance right between self-care and being true to one’s autistic-self, and fitting into a predominantly neurotypical society and masking along the way, is the eternal holy grail for most autistic individuals.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!
Why not also read our blog on autistic communication differences:
This page contains the URLs included within the book ‘Autism from A to Z’ by Kathy Carter; a new, practical guide and information resource collating the most popular articles from this website. It has been created for families and professionals, and curates the latest...
Talking Taki-Taki – discussing communication differences between autistic individuals and neurotypicals; and why NT’s find autists ‘different’ (Asperger’s / ASD /ASC)
It’s no surprise there’s some confusion and frustration between the neurodiversity proponents and the parents of autistic children going through assessment.
As an autistic adult who supports the neurodiversity concept, and a parent of a neurodivergent child, this author regularly witnesses a gaping chasm.
The neurodiversity supporters, who are often autistic adults, or parents whose kids ALREADY HAVE a diagnosis of autism, are sometimes further along their journey of education and awareness than many parents of children undergoing assessment. That’s because the language of the clinicians and ‘experts’ in the parents’ lives (e.g. school SENCOS, teachers, Local Authority spokespersons, paediatricians, etc) can be dated.
Monotropism and autistic inertia
Neurodiversity proponents use concepts and language like ‘monotropism’ (atypical patterns of attention that describe issues that doctors would call hyper-focused interests, or obsessions – source: www.tiny.cc/DMurray); ‘autistic inertia’ (to describe issues that doctors would state as including executive function); and words like ‘traits, aspects, facets’ etc, to describe common autistic features; meanwhile, Drs, use medicalised words like ‘symptoms’. Most famously, neurodiversity proponents describe a ‘neurology’, or at worst a condition, while Drs use the word ‘disorder’.
Autism pity memes or ‘warrior mom’ memes
Head on over to social media, and neurodiversity groups discuss issues like monotropism and autistic advocatism. Meanwhile, on the parents’ support groups, families and carers may post about how their son’s ‘strange noises’ are irritating; why their family dinner was a disaster because the child was ‘unbearable’ (read: overwhelmed); or a ‘pity meme’ or ‘warrior mom’ meme about bringing up an autistic child. (The two groups aren’t mutually exclusive – there are many, many parents learning about neurodiversity on these groups and pages, and many, many helpful individuals who support the neurdiversity paradigm helping out the parents on their support group pages, e.g. with info about supporting the kids in question.)
The thing is, we as parents can’t get away from the medicalised language. It’s how our kids (and ourselves) are diagnosed with autism. It is clear why parents at the start of their journey follow the terminology that their (often outdated) doctors use. It’s not only all around them, it is a REQUIREMENT to understand it, and use it when conversing with the so-called experts surrounding a child. No matter how many neurodiversity articles you read and absorb, the dated phrasing is around you at every turn, if you’re within the NHS assessment system, or British social and local authority pathway (UK-centric).
In the course of just two days, I recently had a couple of enlightening experiences (again, this is UK based). A paediatrician told me he could only recommend onward neurodevelopmental assessment for a child if indicative signs were pervasive across all periods, and were witnessed by him at the child’s FIRST paediatric meeting. Have these doctors not heard of autistic MASKING? Literally 10 minutes (which is the time the Dr spent with the child directly, as opposed to with the parents) in a room, and a Dr can decide ‘no signs of autism are apparent’ in a child, and discharge the child, when the parents have waited many, many months to be seen? It is non-sensical.
(Families, remember – these stickler NHS paediatricians usually need to see two examples of ‘autistic behaviours or traits’ to recommend onward neurodevelopmental assessment. If the school aren’t witnessing anything (which could mean the teachers in question aren’t experienced in the field, or don’t realise that what they’re seeing represents autistic processes and traits), and the paediatrician doesn’t see anything at the first meeting, you WILL likely need further evidence. This could include private diagnosis, or presumably could even include supportive letters and evidence from other adults that are responsible for the child, e.g. group leaders or tutors. It is NOT FAIR that a paediatrician can choose not to refer a child on for assessment just because insufficient signs of ‘pervasiveness’ were apparent in the tiny window you were granted on that day.)
(Read more about children’s autism diagnosis HERE).
Haven’t they heard of AUTISTIC MASKING?!
There’s clearly a massive skills gap with some paediatricians who are generalists (e.g. don’t specialise in neurodevelopmental conditions), or have more experience of individuals that ARE autistic, but also have support needs, e.g. who present differently, with less masking. They NEED to know about autistic masking, and that not all autists display all their traits at once – and they need to stop relying on questions like ‘Does he/she hold eye contact?’ and ‘Does he/she line toys up?’, as if these are the key factors that would allow forward assessment for an autistic child.
The second experience I had in the space of those two days was that a local authority representative mentioned the ‘levels’ of autism, e.g. 1, 2 and 3. (This describes, at level 1, someone with so-called mild symptoms, who doesn’t need much support. Those with level 2 or 3 autism are said to have so-called moderate to severe symptoms, and require more substantial support.)
Autistic functioning labels
Using these descriptions (and the word ‘symptom’) is fine medically/diagnostically, as it relates to the (American) DSM-5’s description, which advises diagnosing clinicians to use the broad term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), for diagnosis, with numbered sub-categories as described. BUT, no autistic adult uses these sub-categories. Neurodiversity advocates campaign for ALL such functioning labels (e.g. also including ‘mild autism’ and ‘severe autism’) to be disbanded.
Read more here – https://spectra.blog/news-views/autism-labels-and-language/
So, the parent trying to find their way along a journey where (they hope) that an autism diagnosis will allow their child support, are barraged with medicalised jargon and dated views on autism. Yet, as they try to self-educate about modern concepts of neurodiversity and neurodivergence, they are faced with yet more language that is confusing, and is the opposite of what their so-called experts use. (Remember, the experts are bound by law and the jurisdictions of their diagnostic manuals.)
The neurodiversity proponents have it right
What’s the answer? In this author’s opinion, the neurodiversity proponents have it right. Their concepts about supporting difference (not disorder), and of celebrating the benefits of neurodivergence along with recognising the challenges it may bring, are no-brainers. Of course it makes sense. But the educators and ‘experts’ are still on their own journey. They’re surrounded by medicalised textbooks and training courses. Some had next to no training on autism in the first place, and may not have had much exposure to autistic individuals who have little in the way of support needs. So education is KEY. But alongside this, it’s important to educate ourselves about the WHOLE PICTURE – the diagnostic guidelines, the medicalised jargon we can’t bear, the dated paediatricians who have no obvious understanding of what it’s like to experience the world as an autistic person.
I wrote the book ‘Autism from A to Z’ to address some of the issues touched on here. I wanted a tome that helped experts and professionals (as well as families and carers, and autists themselves) to understand some of the finer points of modern-autism thinking, from an #actuallyautistic perspective. But equally, I needed to outline the diagnostic facts, for individuals at the start of their journey. It launched at a UK-based SEN event (The Autism Apprentice’s Special Educational Needs (SEN) Information Day at The Appleyard, Sittingbourne, Kent on 20th March 2020). #autism #autismawareness #SEN #Kent
BUY AUTISM FROM A TO Z HERE.
Here are a few reviews:
‘Autism from A to Z is full of information that people new to the autistic world would find extremely helpful when either discovering themselves, or supporting a loved one or client.”
EM, Kent Autistic Trust
“Autism A-Z is easy to digest – I love how its compartmentalised in alphabetical order to find areas easily. The content is the most up to date inclusive of diagnostic changes. Autists are amazing and unique and this book consolidates information and experience supporting this view point. Autists, Parents and Professionals will benefit from having a copy.”
TH, Independent Cornwall Autism Network
‘I recommend this book for anyone new to autism. Autism from A to Z is refreshingly free of ‘politics’; it simply states the facts and points the way towards further study. It is a very positive book, which promotes self-care and mutual respect for differing views. It’s a very good starting point for further study, and is written by someone with personal experience; I found myself hooked.’
LA, autistic adult
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.
I read the recent psychology article on being ‘authentically autistic’ with interest. The current climate seems the most accepting to date, in which to be authentic in this way. The current ‘#bekind’ movement, the increasing acceptance of minority groups, and the increasing awareness of autism as a neurodivergency, certainly means this is the most accepting era that autistics have experienced, to date. But of course, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There is a LONG way to go, in terms of autism education and awareness, although great steps have been taken. (For example, with the recent news about the UK’s NHS mandatorily training of their staff in autism and learning disability. (Isn’t it surprising that this wasn’t in place previously!)
However, alongside this positivity, there is a flip side – for example – there are a great many individuals supporting behavioural therapy to suppress their families’ autistic traits; plenty of people who (inaccurately) describe their autistic children as ‘vaccine damaged’; and a large, ambivalent group whose paths do not cross with autism, who are unsurprisingly uneducated about the neurology.
Examining this author’s ‘authenticity’, I was diagnosed in my 40s, and as an autistic adult, my friends and family know about my diagnosis. In my professional capacity, of course I present as an actually autistic person; but it’s not something I shout about on a day-to-day basis, and yes, there are many people on the peripheries of my social experiences – e.g women I nod and smile to at the school gates, friends of friends – who do not know I am autistic. (Read about the author HERE).
Am I being unauthentic by not sharing it widely? I do not think so. I see some autistic individuals who must have quite extrovert personalities, and seemingly ‘put it out there’ at the first opportunity, e.g. chatting to random people in a queue, or letting staff members at an event or facility know they’re autistic. It’s admirable, and it helps raise awareness of autism, particularly the fact that autism is everywhere; we’re your friends, teachers, friends’ spouses, colleagues, etc.
However, that level of sharing does not come naturally to me; I’m not the sort of person to disclose personal info on a whim, unless it is relevant. And frankly, with the large group of people in the world I mentioned who are still uneducated, I don’t want to have a quick, superficial conversation with them about my own autism when I am buying coffee, or travelling on public transport. I don’t want to wear a funny T shirt with an autism slogan. I don’t see that it promotes acceptance – awareness maybe, but of what? Awareness without understanding isn’t necessarily useful. I’d welcome an actual conversation and will gladly help to educate them if they’re open to this; but a quick, transitional encounter isn’t for me.
With the people in my outer periphery of associates, of course I would discuss my autistic needs at the appropriate time, but I don’t put it out there for no reason; does this make me less authentic? Some people would say so. Likewise, I don’t advertise lots of other personal details to other people, for example my age, my religious tendencies or gender identity. I feel this situation or choice regarding sharing and over-sharing is more to do with extrovert versus introvert, then authentic autistic versus non-authentic autistic.
Here’s how I believe I am being authentic. To this author, being authentic means that the people who need to know, know about my autism. I’ve for example started an adult education course, and of course I am open there about my autisticness, which is very liberating. Although I work for myself, if I were to apply for a job within the workforce, I would definitely disclose it to bosses and colleagues. I definitely prioritise autistic self-care, and if that means not going to a social engagement, leaving a family event early, or explaining to family or friends that I am feeling overwhelmed, facing shutdown or am ‘peopled out’, so be it. As a late diagnosed autistic, I masked for years (unintentionally), it’s what we do to fit in. But now I am conscious of not masking, as much as I can, as it’s too depleting.
One of the problems with being #authenticallyautistic is that this means showing our true feelings and emotional states, as they relate to autism; and if we are late diagnosed, this is not something we are likely to have done previously. The fact we are late diagnosed probably means we have been camouflaging or masking for years, and these behaviours are entrenched. One of my biggest challenges regarding not masking is for example simply keeping up the expected levels of social courteousness when I am overwhelmed or tired. It’s usually strangers; for example the clerk on the end of the phone at your bank; the fellow dog walker; the shop assistant; the bus driver; all of the people we engage with regularly, and sometimes engage in pleasantries and small talk with. Being authentically autistic would sometimes mean I would be seen as being incredibly rude; e.g. not smiling, not looking at their faces, and refusing to talk, if that’s what my emotional state made me want to do. That’s not kind, so I ‘mask’ with them, not to make myself fit in, but so as not to upset others. So in this example, I am not being authentically autistic and showing my true feelings and emotional state, as this may upset others, and spoil their day.
To summarise, I think we should all be as authentic as possible, whatever our neurologies. Some days, that may be more authentic than others! We can only ever do our best.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about autism.
The information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.