Whether we’re familiar with autism masking or not, most of us can relate to the desire to fit in. Connecting with other people is a biological instinct intended to support our survival and overall well-being.
But in autistic individuals, masking to fit in or hide their true selves can cause serious and lasting harm. These social imitation strategies include using learned phrases or pre-prepared jokes, mimicking behaviors, imitating expressions and gestures, and rehearsing and using social scripts.
While autism masking might sound relatively harmless, it’s not. Masking can lead to late or missed diagnosis, damaged mental health, and a loss of self. Plus, the stress of masking can make everyday life feel unnaturally draining and unbearably taxing.
Why Do People Perform Autism Masking?
People perform autism masking so they can be welcomed, accepted, and seen as socially acceptable. Masking is also commonly used to avoid painful social experiences like bullying and rejection. While performing “neurotypical” behaviors and mannerisms, a person might feel that their chances of connecting or making a good impression are vastly improved.
Masking behaviors might include:
- Hiding behavior that is seen as unacceptable
- Imitating gestures
- Preparing topics, phrases, or jokes ahead of time
- Forcing unnatural facial expressions
- Mimicking social behavior
- Imitating eye contact
But at its core, masking is the suppression of someone’s true self in favor of a social script that is deemed more acceptable. As such, this behavior is a rejection of authentic identity that can lead to a loss of self-worth and increased confusion and shame.
How Does Autism Masking Affect People?
Autism masking can have wide-ranging negative effects on people who practice it. While the intentions behind camouflaging are sincere and based on a desire to connect, it always does more harm than good.
Masking Leads to Misdiagnosis:
If someone is very good at reflecting non-autistic traits, it might be difficult to diagnose them properly. This can lead to a delayed or missed diagnosis. Understandably, missed or late diagnoses can have lasting, damaging effects. Knowing that they are autistic helps individuals gain insight and develop confidence around who they are.
Masking Creates an Identity Crisis:
It’s easy for someone to lose their sense of self and their concept of self-worth if they’re constantly pretending to be something they’re not. The stress and anxiety of putting on an elaborate, forced performance every day will eventually have painful consequences.
Masking is Exhausting and Causes Meltdowns:
Whether the masking individual realizes it or not, mimicking and camouflaging take their toll. Because they don’t come naturally, these behaviors can be incredibly draining and eventually lead to meltdowns. As it turns out, substantial cognitive effort goes into continual masking and mimicking, causing significant stress.
Autism Masking: Conclusion
It’s easy to see how autism masking could take its toll on an individual. Trying to contort to fit society’s expectations is something most everyone can relate to, but not on the same level required for autism masking. For an autistic person, masking, mimicking, and camouflaging can become second nature if they believe it’s their only chance at meaningful, fruitful connections.
Mental health is in jeopardy any time autism masking is practiced. As a parent, you can support your autistic child by carefully observing your child’s behavior to the extent that you become an expert on who they are. Understanding autism masking is just one more way you can successfully and fiercely advocate for your child. If it helps, keep a journal and write down specific notes and observations.
Autism Masking FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)