One of the biggest topics in the autistic community right now is autism masking. Read on to understand why.
What is autism masking?
Autism masking is the act of camouflaging one’s autism so as to appear non-autistic, or less autistic so people won’t notice. It is a trauma response specific to autistic people.
If an autistic person does not seem autistic to you, that is because they are great at masking. In this same context, reconsider the functioning labels:
- high-functioning => high-masking
- low-functioning => low-masking, or none at all
Causes of autism masking
Autism interventions, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) and other behavioral therapies to “treat” autism symptoms, do not do anything to treat autism.
What ABA and other behavioral therapies do for parents of autistic children is “mold” their child into one that seems more neurotypical — a child who is acceptable to society. What autism “intervention” does for autistic kids is actually teach them that they have to hide themselves in order to be accepted and loved.
Symptoms of autism masking
Everyone on the autism spectrum masks differently, but signs of autism masking include:
- afraid to say the wrong thing per neurotypical social standards, so you don’t anything at all
- behaving differently around different people because you don’t feel safe being yourself
- delayed diagnosis
- difficulty feeling comfort and/or socializing in different environments
- extreme exhaustion
- faking or forcing eye contact that feels unnatural, but is expected
- feeling burnt out, but not knowing why
- hiding emotions
- increased need to stim, but holding it in
- giving canned, expected response to “How are you?”
- little to no stimming
- loss of identity
- medication/treatment/intervention does not help
- meltdowns/shutdowns for seemingly no reason
- mirroring facial expressions/social behaviors
- passivity or “shyness”
- perpetuating neurotypical ideologies despite not agreeing with them
- scripted/canned responses
- substance abuse
- tired after minimal social interaction
- worried about appearing “normal” during social interactions, e.g.
- what to do with hands
- if facial expression is okay
- whether the current standing/sitting position is socially acceptable
Autism masking is often confused for anxiety, because non-autistic people do not grasp the concept of autism masking that well.
The question, “How are you?” doesn’t make sense to autistic people because it’s not technically grammatically correct. However, non-autistic social protocols demand a “Fine, how are you?” response back, if that at all. The absolute wrong response is honesty; it’s more of another way to greet someone than to actually catch up.
Consequences of camouflaging autism
Autistic people may lose friends and struggle to maintain existing relationships during the unmasking process, because they are not who they are under the mask. They will also need to spend time figuring out who they even are, as the autism mask has been worn for so long.
Relationships might end because friends liked the masked version of you, but dislike the version of you where you embrace your autism.
The consequences of autistic masking, or camouflaging, is that non-autistic people often perceive the mask as nothing but a lie, even if your brain used it as coping method to survive.
What’s more, the identity struggle in and of itself is enough to create an existential crisis in someone. No wonder autism masking is a direct cause of autistic burnout.
How to recover from autism masking
The only way to recover from autism masking is by working to stop masking, also known as unmasking.
Lifting the autistic mask is a long process that might take a month or several years. The timing depends on how long the autistic person has been masking.
How to embrace your child’s autism
Awareness and acceptance
Autistic people need to know they’re autistic. Not knowing you’re autistic doesn’t make you less autistic — it activates trauma responses in your brain to help you cope so your differences go unnoticed. This is just masking.
Support is not easy to come by if they’re surrounded by non-autistic and/or masked autistic people, but the online autistic community is supportive. To create a safe space for your autistic loved one to unmask, work to be more inclusive and accepting of their neurodivergence.
Autism is what defines an autistic person, as every experience in their life has been perceived through their autistic brain. An autistic person is born with an autistic brain.
If you do not see someone’s autism, or accept that their behavior or experiences happen the way they do because of their autism, you do not see them.
As a parent, your job is to strive towards embracing neurodiversity instead of squashing it down. Be there for your autistic child, and accept them for who they truly are. Who you know them to be is likely not anything like who they are under the mask.
Self-care and solitude
Spending time alone gives autistic people the freedom to explore what they enjoy doing most, without forced consideration of the people in the lives. When autistic people are forced to always remember other people’s opinions and feelings, they develop a need to please everyone. It only adds to the mask.
We create our own environments and “nest” — our basic necessities in the places we spend the most time, occasionally also including snacks. It is a subconscious act of self-care and preservation.
Teens who prefer to spend a lot of time in their room instead of with the family are avoiding certain confrontation and hostility, autistic or not. They also want to be independent. Autistic teens may prefer to spend most, if not all, of their time alone.
Above all, love them for who they are right now and for who they are becoming. Teach them to be aware of whether they are doing something because someone else is (mirroring) or because it’s what they want to do.
Love and cherish them your child for who they are, because you only get one solid chance with them and they grow up so fast.
Have you or your child dealt with autism masking? Share your experience in the comments below.