Masking or social camouflaging is something that autistic people do subconsciously and sometimes consciously with the main purpose of fitting in to social interactions, situations and events to avoid judgement, stigma and negative responses/ reactions from others. From my experience children and young people innately learn to become good at masking from a very young age. Autistic people study people and learn what to do what not to do and the impact of certain actions. Autistic people realise that when they mask they fit in better and are more accepted. Masking, however comes at a huge mental health cost. There is ample literature that suggests that when a person masks and has done so for a long period of time, the accumulative effect of this has an impact on their mental health.
Masking makes the individual feel safe and accepted.
Masking is exhausting.
Masking loses a sense of self.
Masking is often a trauma response to learning being yourself is not ok.
Masking leads to autistic burnout.
Masking is not sustainable.
Masking is a safety behaviour.
Masking happens across both genders but is more common amongst autistic females, hence, the delay in recognising they help they require and the difficulty and lateness in diagnosis.
Masking examples include:
Ø Being exceptionally quiet in class
Ø Pretending to have the same interests as peers
Ø Laughing at things everyone else is (when you don’t really understand why)
Ø Mimicking social behaviours
Ø Supressing stimming
Ø Forcing eye contact when uncomfortable
Ø Ignoring own sensory needs.
Here are 5 tips to support an autistic person who masks:
1. Provide safe places and times for that person to unmask, but don’t expect that they will. It is exhausting masking for long periods of time and the opportunity to unmask, be yourself and accepted, helps to recover and recharge energy.
2. Appreciate that sometimes the individual doesn’t have conscious control over it, they cannot switch it on an off on demand. It is a safety mechanism to a social world that is challenging, confusing and where they likely have experienced multiple micro aggressions of stigma, judgement and trauma.
3. Recognise when a person is masking and what this might look like, develop your understanding of that individual and consider/ ask how you might be able to support their needs.
4. Help the individual figure out who they are, their self-identity often gets lost in the efforts and years of masking, that they have concealed their true self to an extent they may not even know who that is any more.
5. Support the individual in finding their safe tribe, their true place for a sense of belonging, where they don’t have to pretend to be someone else to fit in. Don’t force this it may not be desired, or ready but keep in mind this opportunity.