By Patty Laushman
If you are autistic, you have probably experienced masking at some point in your life. Masking is a way of hiding your true self in order to fit in with others whose brain wiring, behaviors, and experiences of life are more similar to the norm (or "neurotypical" people), to avoid feeling out of place or judged.
While this strategy can be helpful in the short term, for autistic people, the need to mask often leads to long-term health issues such as anxiety, burnout, and depression.
Let's take a closer look at what autistic masking is and why it happens.
What is Autistic Masking?
Most autistic people receive social feedback their entire lives that something is “off” about them. They will respond by actively trying to conceal their autism traits in order to fit in with the people around them to the point that the concealment becomes an unconscious but costly effort.
Autism is often associated with certain behaviors or characteristics such as difficulty making eye contact, reacting strongly to sensory stimuli, stimming behaviors like rocking or pacing, and speaking in a monotone voice, among other things.
Autistic masking is when an autistic person suppresses or hides these traits to appear more neurotypical and blend in. For example, they might try to hide their discomfort around loud noises or bright lights in the workplace. They might force themselves to make eye contact even though it makes them extremely uncomfortable, or they might use social scripts that they know are expected in certain situations.
The primary reason that people mask is to fit in with the neurotypical world. They may feel like they need to cover up certain aspects of themselves to be accepted by others. Also, some feel that these traits make them stand out in a negative way and don’t want other people to think of them differently because of their autism.
It’s important to understand that everyone masks to a degree in different scenarios to achieve social success.
When you are out in public, you behave very differently than when you are in private. And when you are at the library, you behave differently than if you are at a social gathering. When taking a class, you may be bored but try to appear more engaged than you are to curry favor with the teacher to improve your grade.
While these may seem like harmless coping strategies, the reality is that the frequency and depth with which autistic people feel the need to mask can take a toll on their mental health and well-being.
For example, when starting a new job, it’s good to observe the company culture and see what behavior is okay and not okay. Working to fit into the company culture contributes to success.
However, if the way you naturally behave and relate to people is discouraged or outright rejected, working to fit in all day long can cause exhaustion from constantly trying to hide your true self and appear “normal” around others.
If regular team lunches are expected, and you need that time to recharge your social batteries, the cost of not participating can be high. It can result in marginalization, lack of promotion, and even job loss.
Not only that, but if someone masks for long periods of time, they may lose touch with who they really are, acting their way through life.
What Are Common Signs of Masking?
Autistic people have a range of responses to masking, sometimes using it as a form of social survival. With masking, an autistic individual may hide or minimize their own personal interests and use scripted conversations or memorized responses to everyday questions.
They may push through intense sensory discomfort, like loud noises or uncomfortable fabrics, in an effort to appear "normal" (though we all know there's really no such thing).
Other common signs of masking include:
Forcing eye contact
Mimicking gestures or imitating facial expressions
Concealing personal interests so as not to appear “weird”
Developing a repertoire of rehearsed responses to frequently encountered questions
Covering up stimming behaviors
There are hidden forms of masking as well that go unnoticed by others, such as hiding specific stimming behavior by substituting a less obvious movement in its place, or forcing themselves to endure uncomfortable sensory situations like loud noises.
Each person is different, so how they interpret and react to masking will vary from person to person.
Why Does Someone Mask?
An autistic person may mask their behaviors for a variety of reasons, including wanting to fit in or blend into the crowd, gain better employment opportunities and qualifications, enhance their relationships with others, protect themselves from bullying and other attacks, improve confidence in social situations, or prevent discrimination.
In many cases, autistic people mask as a way to feel safe and avoid social stigma.
Masking involves suppressing your autistic traits until they are no longer visible to most people. In doing so, autistic people are able to engage in life as non-autistics do. While this can be helpful in some situations where they feel overwhelmed or unsafe, it can also be extremely tiring and lead to burnout if not used strategically.
Who is Most Likely to Mask?
According to multiple studies like this one, women are more likely to mask their autism than men. This may be due to the fact that women are typically better at social imitation and conformity than men. They are told at a much earlier age than boys that certain behaviors are not acceptable. Boys are not as expected to be able to control their behavior, e.g., “boys will be boys.”
What Are the Negative Impacts of Masking?
While masking can provide some benefits, such as safety and reducing social anxiety by minimizing social pressure in the short term, it also has many negative effects that can cause long-term harm.
Feeling exhausted and fatigued from the effort of masking is a common experience. People may also feel like they are hiding their true selves or putting on a persona when engaging in masking behavior, leading to an altered sense of self-identity and even self-loathing.
Stress, anxiety, and depression can all result from masking as well, particularly for those of us who are more sensitive to social cues. Long-term masking can lead to burnout for autistic individuals, increasing the risk of a delayed diagnosis.
Further still, covering up one’s true identity in order to fit in can lead to feelings of thwarted belongingness that can ultimately result in lifetime suicidality. All these impacts must be weighed heavily against any potential benefits when deciding whether or not to engage in regular masking behavior.
Strategies for Unmasking
It can be hard for autistic people to show their true selves when faced with the pressure of needing to "fit in." Masking is a coping mechanism used by many autistic individuals, but it can be difficult and exhausting.
If masking is what makes you feel comfortable in your social environment and you aren't ready to stop doing it, that's fine -- it's your decision! But if you're ready to break out of that routine, here are a few simple strategies that you can use to unmask yourself and start embracing your uniqueness.
Educate Yourself and Others
The first step in unmasking yourself is educating yourself about autism. Learn about your own experiences and those of other autistic people. Take the time to think about and research why you might be masking and what sorts of things you're doing to cover up various elements of what makes you, you.
You may also find it helpful to educate those around you about autism so that they can better understand what you are going through. The more knowledge you have, the easier it will be for you to recognize why masking can be harmful and how to break out of it.
Embrace Your Uniqueness
Once you've educated yourself, take the next step and embrace your unique traits! Celebrate the things that make you different from others, whether that's an interest in a particular subject or a specific way of communicating. Remember, being different isn't a bad thing; it's what makes us all unique and special!
Seek Support Systems
Don't forget to seek out support systems! Find your “safe people.” These can be family members, friends, or even online communities who understand your struggles and can provide comfort when needed. They can provide encouragement as well as tips on staying true to yourself in social situations. Having someone there who understands where you're coming from can make all the difference in helping you unmask your true self.
Unlearn the "Shame Response"
One of the main causes of masking is feeling ashamed for being different from others. The first step in unlearning masking is to challenge these feelings by recognizing that there is nothing wrong with being autistic.
Autism is just part of who you are and comes with a unique strength and weakness profile like everyone else, including neurotypical people. It’s just that your profile may be a bit more dramatic than others – you probably really struggle with some things, but there are other things you are exceptionally good at. If you don’t know what your strengths are, start now to uncover them and focus on them.
Focus on building up your self-esteem by practicing positive affirmations and doing activities that make you feel good about yourself. This will help you start to let go of any shame associated with being autistic and allow you to be more comfortable expressing your true self.
Lay Out Your Home or Work Environment in a Way That Suits Your Own Needs
It can be difficult to go against social expectations when organizing your home or workspace, but it is important to remember that everyone has different needs.
By creating an environment that works best for you, you can reduce the amount of masking you have to do and make it easier to be yourself without feeling ashamed or embarrassed.
For instance, if you need plenty of space around you when working or studying, try setting up your desk in the corner of a room instead of in the middle so that others won’t feel like they are intruding on your space.
Give Yourself Permission to Enjoy Your Passions
Many autistic people struggle with feeling like they have to hide their passions from others in order to fit in. However, this doesn’t have to be the case! If you enjoy something, whether it’s playing music, watching anime, or collecting vintage toys, it is perfectly okay for you to indulge in that passion without fear or shame. We all need joy in our lives, and you deserve it!
When you give yourself permission to enjoy your passions, it can help reduce the amount of masking you do and make it easier for you to express your true self without feeling like an outsider.
Identify Your Values
Another key component of breaking the cycle of masking is identifying your values and learning how to live them authentically. Take time to think about what matters most to you in life – maybe it's family, creativity, or community service – and make sure all aspects of your life reflect those values. This can help give you a sense of purpose and direction, which will make it easier for you to express yourself without fear or judgment.
Communicate as Clearly as Possible About Your Needs, But Don't Beat Yourself Up Over Miscommunications
It's important to remember that everyone has their own communication style, so don't beat yourself up if there are miscommunications along the way.
Instead, try your best to communicate as clearly as possible about what you need from others so they can better understand where you're coming from.
Practice active listening so that when someone else expresses their needs or feelings, you can respond accordingly and create a safe space for honest dialogue between both parties.
Finally, practice self-care! Self-care is an essential part of breaking the cycle of masking because it helps reduce stress levels, which can lead to anxiety and depression if not managed properly.
Make sure that even amidst busyness or chaotic moments, you take some time every day for yourself to do something that calms your nervous system. Whether it's reading a book, going for a walk outside, or taking a virtual yoga class, do something just for yourself every single day.
Doing this will help build up your resilience over time, so that when you feel the need to mask, you'll have the strength and courage needed within yourself already to do what’s best for you.
Autistic masking is an unconscious act that many autistic individuals do in order to conceal their true selves from the rest of the world.
Masking may seem like a good idea at first glance, as it allows an individual to blend in more easily. There are, however, often serious consequences for those who do so for extended periods of time, such as exhaustion and difficulty accessing parts of themselves again later down the road.
If you find yourself masking, don't be ashamed. There's nothing wrong with you just the way you are. When you deeply understand and learn to accept yourself, you can begin to ask others to accommodate what YOU need to minimize the need to mask.
Learning to accept yourself for who you are is a process, and once you build a community of people who both understand and accept you, this is when you can really thrive in life.