What Is Autistic Masking?

Life can be challenging for autistic people who feel the need to mask their condition in order to fit into the social expectations of society

Whether you want more insight about yourself or know someone else who masks and camouflages, understanding these phenomena and how they impact on the lives of autistic people is key to helping autistic people understand and manage their well being.

So let’s explore what exactly autistic masking and camouflaging looks like and why some autistic people use these strategies.

What is autistic masking?

Autistic masking is the result of observing, analysing and copying the social behaviour of others. It is consciously performing social activity that neurotypicals do without active thought. It is performing neuro-typical social behaviours.

Camouflaging is a conscious suppression of natural autistic responses, an example being bilateral hand flapping.

Why does someone mask?

From very early childhood, parents mould their children into being individuals who fit the idea of an acceptable persona. They encourage behaviours that will allow their children to participate in and be accepted by the social world.

“It’s good to look at people when they speak to you”

“It’s nice to share your toys”

“Play with your cousins when they come to visit”

“Don’t complain when your grandmother hugs and kisses you”

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Why does someone camouflage?

From early childhood parents encourage the suppression of behaviours that are not common in the neurotypical population. This is to prevent others thinking their child is different. These behaviours may include;

  • Bilateral hand flapping
  • Jumping up and down
  • Spinning
  • Leg shaking
  • Twiddling of hair
  • Rubbing of fabric

Who is most likely to mask and camouflage their autism?

Masking and camouflaging are experiences that affect all people, irrespective of gender. Recent reports have suggested that women and girls who are autistic may be more likely to mask and camouflage their autistic traits, than boys or men. This phenomenon has been studied in-depth, with some research indicating that many female autistics are able to form more friendships because of their successful masking and camouflaging.

Most adults who receive a diagnosis of autism in adulthood will have masked and camouflaged for all of their lives. If this was not the case, then their autism would have been picked up sooner.

What are the signs of camouflaging?

Masking is a social survival strategy used by many autistic people. It involves trying trying to ‘fit in’ and, behaving like everyone else. While what masking looks like may differ from person-to-person, there are some common signs of autistic masking which include;

  • Imitating the facial expressions of others
  • Speaking in the same tone or pitch as someone else
  • Overusing polite words or phrases
  • Scripting conversations and answers
  • Inability to say “no” when asked for help

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What are the signs of masking?

Masking is another social survival strategy used by many autistic people. Repetitive behaviours typically bring peace and calmness to autistic people however autistic people are strongly encouraged to refrain from indulging in these behaviours as they look odd to neurotypical behaviours. Common signs of autistic camouflaging can include;

  • Incessant playing with jewelery, hair or beard
  • Leg jiggling
  • Holding self tightly with crossed arms
  • Playing with objects, hidden in pockets

What are the negative side effects of masking and camouflaging?

Having to spend thinking resources on the communication process, reduces the amount of thinking resources that can be used focusing on the message of the communicative exchange. Masking and camouflaging for too long can lead to exhaustion and burnout.

Some common side effects of masking and camouflaging include;

  • Being a people pleaser and becoming involved in conversations and activities through duty rather than desire
  • Feeling like a fraud or not being true to oneself
  • Lack of self-expression and difficulty connecting with others
  • Difficulty with multitasking and loss of focus
  • Decreased self-confidence, frustration and burnout
  • Change in self-identity