We all mask or hide our feelings and behaviors to some degree. If we’re in a bad mood, we may try to “tough it out” by faking a smile or appearing calm when we’re angry. While hiding who we are from time to time is exhausting, many people with autism experience this daily. Autism masking involves hiding neurodivergent behaviors to feel accepted in a neurotypical society. In a world where mental health stigma is still a global social problem, many use autism masking to protect themselves, fit in and gain acceptance. Learning about this behavior and its effects will help increase your awareness of those who may rely on it in their everyday lives.
What Is ‘Autism Masking’?
Autism masking, also known as autistic camouflaging, involves hiding certain autistic traits to appear more neurotypical or “normal” to society. It occurs either subconsciously or consciously for various reasons, such as avoiding mistreatment, building connections, boosting careers, gaining a sense of belonging, and attracting romantic partners. Those with autism may analyze the norms for each scenario and try to adapt to expectations such as “What is the appropriate response?”, “What gestures and facial expressions should I convey?” or “What should my tone of voice be?” This balancing act is exhausting and often involves several behaviors to maneuver around norms, assumptions, and biases.
What Are The Signs of Autism Masking?
Autism masking varies from person to person, but common behaviors include;
- Faking eye contact
- Hiding or reducing stims
- Mimicking gestures and social cues
- Ignoring sensory needs
- Copying tones of voice
- People pleasing
- Withdrawing or appearing shy
- Forcing smiles or other facial expressions
- Developing scripts or memorized responses to questions
What Are the Consequences of Autism Masking?
Feeling the need to suppress who you are to fit in with society can lead to severe consequences;
- Autistic burnout. Consistently masking autistic traits can reach an overwhelming point and create a temporary loss of skills, chronic fatigue, and sensory overload. To recover from autistic burnout, many may need extended periods of withdrawal and time to be themselves in a safe and comfortable environment.
- Loss of identity. Some people who mask their responses, behaviors, or interests, intentionally or unintentionally, begin to feel they are losing their sense of self. When this occurs, they often report struggling to feel and express something authentic not based on performance, survival, or social reasoning.
- Mental health concerns. Those who routinely mask may be more vulnerable to increased stress, chronic exhaustion, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression.
How to Help
1. Increase your understanding
If you regularly use masking as a coping strategy, you may reach a point where it’s causing you more difficulties instead of creating a solution to your problems. Indeed, this is the case for many with autism. However, the first step to removing the mask is identifying situations you tend to hide your traits. For example, you can do this by journaling after socializing at work, with friends, or even running errands and jotting down any key behaviors you used to mask and why.
2. What is the impact?
The second step is increasing your understanding of the impact masking has on you. For example, how do you feel after masking? Do you feel exhausted, upset, anxious, or depressed? Making a connection between the situations and your resulting feelings will help you create a stronger foundation for learning how your autism affects you and embracing who you are.
3. Know your boundaries
Another benefit of knowing what situations increase your desire to mask is learning to create boundaries to protect your health. Enforcing clear guidelines and learning to say no reduces people-pleasing and allows you to listen to what your mind and body need instead of what others want you to do. Try to avoid unnecessary social interactions and events if you’re already tired or overwhelmed, especially in situations when people you’re not comfortable with are present. It’s okay to put your needs first.
4. You’re not alone
When you’ve spent your entire life hiding who you are, it can feel challenging and overwhelming to accept yourself and listen to your needs. Knowing this, practicing forgiveness, and giving yourself compassion is a significant step to building self-acceptance. Even if there are parts of yourself you don’t like, try remembering you are not alone and be patient with yourself as you begin taking steps towards authenticity.
5. Spread awareness
Another way to minimize the harmful effects of autism masking is for loved ones to increase their awareness and acceptance. When you consciously make an effort to understand the experiences of a loved one with autism, you begin creating a safer and more inclusive environment that allows them to be who they are without the need to mask.
6. Find value in who you are behind the mask
Getting in touch with who you are and your needs involves also finding value in yourself behind the mask. Many have used it as a survival mechanism for so long that they feel lost when they decide to limit pretending. But if you focus on parts of yourself you do like or engage in something that makes you feel valuable, it allows you to slowly remove the need to mask in unnecessary situations.
7. Start slow
Some people struggle with masking and find it overwhelming. Instead of seeing something wrong with yourself, start learning how to explain certain behaviors if the occasion arises. For example, if someone asks why you are moving your body side to side, explain the behavior. You could say, “It’s a method I use to help calm me down when I’m anxious”. Rather than disliking yourself for not hiding a behavior, explain your traits and coping mechanisms to help people understand you more. Not only will you feel less anxiety when you take small steps to embrace yourself, but you will also increase awareness about autism and your experiences.
8. Ask yourself
While these tips may be helpful, the best way to prioritize your needs is to ask yourself what you need. If you want to unmask, ask, “What would that look like?” You may encounter frequent situations where you imagine unmasking would be more beneficial to your overall health. Start by evaluating what unmasking means to you, why you want to, and how it would help you. Above all, for many people with autism, autism masking is a useful behavior. It helps them cope, blend in, and feel accepted in society. But learning to accept yourself behind the mask is also a valuable skill that creates confidence, internal validation, and self-worth.
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