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
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’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:
Also published on Medium.