Autistic masking group of teenagers young girl is isolated from her friends

Behind The Mask – A Guide to Autistic Masking

Last Updated on

April 17th, 2024 12:59 pm

If you’re one of the 2% of Autistic people, you’ll understand the internal struggles with social communication and understanding. This can make it difficult for an individual to know what to say or how to respond in different situations.

For example, neurotypical people might get excited about a new film, but an autistic person might not understand why they’re so excited or how they can feel the same way. This can leave them feeling confused and anxious when trying to figure out what you expect from them.

However, even the most famous and successful Autistic people struggle to read facial expressions or engage in social interaction more than others. Struggles with these autistic traits is due to things that many people experience as children but don’t always understand as adults. Examples include severe social isolation, peer victimization, and in some cases a trauma response from childhood experiences.

If you suspect that your friend or family member has autistic traits and partakes in emotional masking — the ability of some people to show their true feelings — read on for more information about the topic.

What is Autistic Masking?

Autistic masking, sometimes referred to as social camouflaging, is an adoption of social behaviors that go against one’s instinct to fulfil such social norms. Often these include temporary feelings that the person doesn’t want to be present in the moment. They may not be able to tell others what they are thinking or feeling, and they might not always know that they are doing it.

This can make it hard for people with Autism to know how they should respond when interacting with others. In many cases, autistic people will mask their emotions because this helps them feel more comfortable socially. Sometimes, despite trying to not show their true feelings, it happens anyway and this causes confusion for everyone involved (even if just for a short period of time).

Masking most often occurs when engaging with non-autistic people, since they often have different societal expectations of appropriate social skills, which in turn leads to a less empathetic approach with the social behavior of the Autistic individual. That said, masking can occur between two Autistic people as well, since it varies from person to person.

What are the Signs of Autistic Masking?

The signs of autistic masking are subtle. They may include avoidance, poor eye contact, and a lack of social skills and engagement. Other signs may include getting anxious in social situations, not speaking up for yourself in conversations, or making excuses instead of addressing difficult situations directly.

Signs can vary depending on the person. For example, someone who is an introvert might avoid large crowds or small talk with people they’re uncomfortable around. On the other hand, someone who is an extrovert might be more likely to speak their mind when it comes to tough topics.

Why Do Autistic People Mask?

The reasons why autistic people may mask are different for each person. For example, they might exhibit stimming behaviors as a coping mechanism. Others avoid eye contact during conversations to avoid conflict or anxiety that comes with expressing their true feelings.

Many mask because they feel uncertain about what the other person is thinking or feeling. Some also do it to protect themselves from being isolated, rejected, or attacked by others, a common learned autistic behavior influenced by traumatic events such as bullying or social rejection.

Regardless of the reason behind this behavior, you can help your friend or family member recognize and work through these struggles by staying supportive and helping them know that what they’re going through isn’t unusual.

Masking and Sensory Sensitivities

Masking in Autism is closely linked to sensory sensitivities such as loud noises. Many in the autistic community have heightened sensory experiences, which means they may be more sensitive to sensory inputs such as loud noises, bright lights, textures, and smells. These sensory sensitivities can be overwhelming and cause discomfort or distress.

When coping with sensory overload, autistic individuals may engage in masking behaviors. For example, they might force themselves to tolerate uncomfortable sensations or pretend not to be bothered by certain stimuli. This can be exhausting and draining for them, as they are constantly suppressing their natural reactions.

The effort to mask their sensory sensitivities can also lead to increased anxiety and stress. They may constantly worry about being in situations that could trigger sensory overload, which can further impact their ability to socialize and interact with others.

What are the Negatives of Social Camouflaging?

There are many negatives to autistic masking and social camouflaging. For one, it can create a lot of tension between friends and family members who don’t understand what they’re saying. This can be especially difficult when the person is in a vulnerable state because they may not know how to express themselves or respond appropriately to traumatic events.

This can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings that could have been avoided if the individual had been more forthcoming with their emotions. As mentioned before, this can also make it more difficult for an autistic person to connect with others.

Additionally, as a result of these barriers, autistic adults and children are at an increased risk for depression and anxiety disorders as they are unable to express themselves or ask for help when needed.

Peer pressure to smoke cigarettes

Peer pressure to conform to neurotypical standards can happen at any age, and in any setting

What are the Differences in Gender on the Autism Spectrum?

Autistic masking isn’t just a problem for adults and children. Gender identity and sexual orientation at any age can be a pivotal factor in determining masking behaviors.

Despite the traditional gender roles of male and female, many discuss gender fluidity in binary terms when it comes to Autism, as a parallel to “masculine and feminine energy” seen in Yin and Yang, where everyone possesses a combination of both, only to different degrees.

Different cultural norms often mean that girls in particular may experience social isolation or peer victimization in different ways than boys do. As a result, people with the Female Autism phenotype might be more likely to mask these experiences with other behaviors that could look like neurotypical behavior to others. It’s why so many autistic folks go under the radar and are misdiagnosed with a mental health condition or receive no formal diagnosis at all.

Note that gender differences aren’t solely reserved for children. In fact, gender dysphoria and sexuality in all ages can cause a significant amount of stress as signs of suppressing their true identity through masking in any social setting. That’s most true for those growing up with strict parents, in particular those with strong religious beliefs that influence their own definition of gender.

How Does Masking Differ in Children and Adults with Autism?

In children, Autism masking is more likely to be seen as a type of social communication. They will often use it to get their needs met, and they might not understand the cause for this behavior.

Children with autism may also have difficulty understanding interpersonal cues and emotions, which can make it difficult for them to understand why some people are upset or uncomfortable when they do something that makes them feel good. In children, the use of fidget toys can be a great stress reliever for their social anxiety.

But, in Autistic adults, aspects of masking may be more obvious because they may use an autistic strategy to avoid giving someone information that they don’t think is appropriate or doesn’t fit their mood.

For example, if you ask your friend how she is feeling on a bad day, and she responds by saying nothing, that could be an indicator that she is using her masking ability to avoid the subject of her emotions.

A lot of the time people experiencing a range of different things use this masking mechanism — but it’s important to recognize these changes in behavior in order to help the individual understand what’s going on.

Man eating at dinner table engaging in socially awkward conversation

Social anxiety is a classic sign of Autistic masking, even within understanding families

Should Autistic Masking be Prevented or Encouraged?

Autistic masking is a natural occurrence. There is no “right” way to address the issue, and it can be hard for those that are unfamiliar with it to understand how to help. However, there are ways that you can still help your autistic family members or friends come out from behind their mask.

For instance, you could encourage your friend or family member to hold conversations about what they’re feeling and what others might be thinking. If they feel uncomfortable in a social situation where they have to talk to people they don’t know very well but would like to connect with them, you could suggest talking about whatever interests them on a topic they’ve been thinking about lately or what they want to accomplish in the future.

The key is always remembering that your loved ones are unique individuals with different needs and experiences. They should be approached as such and treated accordingly.

What Can We Do To Support Autistic People?

The first step to becoming an Autistic advocate and supporting an autistic person is to be accepting of all the emotions they are feeling, as well as their more visible Autistic traits. They may not feel comfortable expressing their true feelings, so it’s important that you don’t push them to do so.

Try to understand their autistic characteristics, what they might be going through and the effects of masking on their mental health. It’s also important to show your understanding of the Autistic experience by genuinely listening to what they have to say.

You don’t need to have an Autism diagnosis to be an advocate – Neurotypical people can be allies too. But by taking time to understand Autism Spectrum Disorder and how neurotypical behaviors can trigger Autistic responses and masking, you’re already well on the way to becoming a pivotal supporter of the community.

Two ladies holding hands

Take time to listen and understand why someone is masking

An Understanding of Autism is the Secret to Reducing Autistic Masking

The most important thing to remember is that we should be moulding the environment to accommodate the needs of ourselves and those around us.

Whether that’s because of Autism or another diagnosis, by relaxing social constraints and supporting everyone to embrace their own identity and health, we can ensure that everyone becomes their best self.

Keep reading for more advice on how to support neurodivergent people around you!

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Rob Butler
30-Something Millennial with ADHD and suspected Autistic and Dyspraxic. Thought leader behind this website. Big visions of a better future for everyone, but forgets where he is half the time.Loves Rugby, his kids, and anything silly. Hates U2 and Marmite.

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