Masking

What is masking?
SIMPLIFIED EXPLANATION

Camouflage is when a person tries to hide the fact that he or she is autistic. They imitate others and prevent themselves from acting as they naturally would. It's uncomfortable, requires a lot of energy and the problem is, if the autistic person does it all the time, they may not know how to be themselves afterwards. Camouflage can be useful for short periods, but using it too much is not good for mental and physical health.

Masking

Some autistic people are said to be chameleons. They’re able to pass almost unnoticed in any environment. And above all, no one could tell by observing their behaviour that they are different. All this is possible because of camouflage, i.e. all the techniques and tricks used by neurodivergent people to resemble neurotypicals. Many autistic people use masking. The masking techniques used are very diverse. A person may be aware that they are masking their differences. But in many cases, the person just doesn’t know it: they think that everyone else uses the same strategies to cope with everyday life. In all cases, masking requires a great deal of energy. Masking has long-term consequences for the people who do it.

Further information

Definition of neurodivergent: Neurodivergent people are all those who are not neurotypical, that is, who have neurological differences. Autism, ADHD, dyslexia and schizophrenia are examples of neurodivergence, but there are many others. In fact, it's quite common to be neurodivergent.

Imitation

Autistic people are often told that their behavior is not acceptable. Many autistic people have been told since they were little that the way they play, move, sit, communicate and even love is not right. The reality is that there is no guide to knowing THE right method for all our daily actions that is THE right one in all circumstances. So, to use the most appropriate gestures possible, autistic people will imitate others.

In the hope of finding THE right answer to every everyday action, some autistic people become masters in the art of imitation. Autistic people may imitate people around them, such as a classmate or sibling. Others may prefer to imitate a celebrity or a character seen in a film. Autistic people can change many details of their behavior in the hope of doing things the right way – some will even change their accent!

When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot. So, to be like the others, I decided to imitate a classmate, copying her every move to do exactly the same thing. Of course, this scared her and the taunts from the others got worse. So I chose to imitate the way one classmate moved his feet and legs, the position of another's arms, the topics of conversation of yet another, and so on. It was exhausting, demanded a lot of my attention, and didn't give me access to who I really was.

Fluttering

Contrary to popular belief, autistic people want to have friends and a social life. It’s just that the way they interact with others is different. Sometimes, this difference means that the autistic person won’t fit in with a group of friends. Some autistic children will move from one group of children to another. These children won’t have a “group” of their own, but they won’t seem alone. Adults may find it hard to notice that the child is having difficulty making friends. These children may feel isolated, like they’re everyone else’s “second choice” in teamwork and sports groups, and don’t know who to count on. Children who flutter often manage to make contact with others very early in life. Most of the time, however, they don’t know how to build deep relationships. When children flutter to protect themselves from the consequences of loneliness (e.g. to avoid being bullied), it’s camouflage. However, fluttering can be healthy if it’s the child’s personal choice. Not every child wants to be part of a stable group.

Planning interactions

Autistic people often have a particular way of understanding social interactions. To avoid being rejected because of an interaction understood differently, many autistic people will plan their social interactions well in advance. Planning is a form of masking. To be effective, planning is often used in conjunction with imitation. Good planning takes years of study and practice. It involves taking mental notes on the social interactions around us, listening to popular TV series, reading psychology books, and practicing different roles. It requires great flexibility, which is exhausting, especially when our equilibrium is based on routine and stability, which is the case for most autistic people.

Playing improv has helped me to improve my social skills and especially to pass for a normal teenager at school and with friends. I wasn't a great player. I had no hope of winning a game star, and I rarely came up with the central idea of the game. My ideas were too offbeat! However, I was an excellent support player. I was able to adapt and make any idea from my teammates flow. In an out-of-competition series, the referee invented a star for me: the chameleon star. I found out 12 years later that I was autistic.

The language

Autistic people have a way of communicating that is different from neurotypical people. However, only the neurotypical way of communicating is perceived as “the right way to communicate”. For example, autistic speakers tend to speak literally (without innuendo) and understand messages literally. When an autistic person doesn’t understand an innuendo made in conversation, they will be considered naive. However, if an autistic person speaks without innuendo and neurotypical people understand a non-existent double entendre, we’ll say that the autistic person has made a mistake in the way they speak! In the process, many autistic people memorize a lot of expressions and innuendos. These people will replay interaction sequences several times in their heads to analyze them and make sure they haven’t missed anything. All this is done with the aim of adapting their language and comprehension to the neurotypical type of communication.

Ignoring sensory particularities

Most autistic people have sensory peculiarities. This means that their brain interprets information from the environment in a different way. Autistic people can camouflage these. This means that autistic people with hypersensitivities will ignore pain signals generated by the brain due to sensations that are too strong for them. These people will not use the tools that exist to attenuate sensations, such as noise-cancelling headphones or sunglasses. Autistic people with hyposensitivity may avoid stims (self-stimulation) that help them to situate themselves in space, such as pinching or scratching.

Many autistic people choose their clothes according to their sensory particularities. The size, color and texture of clothes will not be chosen according to fashion or social rules, but according to what is most comfortable. When there is too much social pressure, an autistic person may be forced to change his or her type of clothing. Functioning in inappropriate clothing requires a lot of energy and can impair concentration and general functioning.

The consequences of masking

Loss of a sense of self

By always hiding who you are, you can forget who you are. This is a major consequence of long-term masking. Many autistic people who began masking in childhood will feel they never became who they really are. This negatively affects their self-esteem. Some autistic people even come to believe that they are only their mask, or that they will never really know who they are. Fortunately, this isn’t true: it’s always possible to remember who you are. It just takes time and patience.

Two other points of view

Autistic people can change their mask depending on the situation. However, some autistic people don’t feel they know how to be themselves without a mask. Also, others are skeptical about this feeling, since everyone changes their behavior depending on the situation. We don’t act the same way at the grocery store as we do at the waterslides! However, there’s a difference between adapting to situations and wearing a mask to camouflage a difference.

Masking analogy

Imagine someone who uses a cane to walk because their knee works differently. With their cane, the person can walk as fast as anyone else and without pain. Now imagine that they are forbidden to use the cane and are forced to walk “normally” and as fast as everyone else. The person will quickly become exhausted and at risk of injury. Over time, the injuries may make it impossible for the person to regain their own gait, even with the cane. This is what happens when an autistic person masks.

Exhaustion

Masking requires a lot of energy. Masking can also cause autistic people to avoid using tools essential to their comfort. For example, it’s not very subtle to wear sunglasses indoors. So a person with light sensitivity might avoid wearing them. This has physical consequences, since the discomfort is very real. The extra energy expended and the lack of tools can take the person to the limit of their abilities. It’s very common for a person with autism to meltdown or shut down on returning home. When a person camouflages, they are trying to put aside the body’s needs. When the person stops camouflaging, they get back in touch with their body and these needs. At this point, the person will realize that they have already exceeded their limits.

Masking has negative effects on mental health. People who camouflage are more likely to experience anxiety, autistic or occupational burnout, and depression. As a result, people who mask find themselves in a fragile mental health situation.

Losing support because you “don’t look autistic”

Autistic people who mask often hear that they “don’t look autistic”. But autism actually doesn’t have any particular appearance. It’s simply a brain “type” that’s possible in humans. However, being told “you don’t look autistic” has consequences for people. All autistic people need support, but it’s hard to “prove” you need help if you can manage to pretend you’re capable without support! So it’s common for autistic people to be denied the support essential to their well-being. Camouflage can even delay diagnosis. It then becomes almost impossible to receive the support needed for activities of daily living, academic success or access to employment.

Autistic people who cover up are also told that they are lying or using resources that are not intended for them. It’s just not true!

Why it’s hard to stop masking

When you read about the negative health effects of camouflage, it can be tempting to think that masking must be stopped at all costs. But if camouflage exists, it’s because autistic people need to hide who they are in order to be safe. In short, camouflage is all the protective mechanisms a person puts in place to hide their differences.

Avoiding misinterpretation

Failure to mask can have immediate negative consequences. Many normal behaviors in an autistic person can be misinterpreted. Avoiding eye contact and giving detailed explanations can be perceived as a lack of honesty.

Tools to avoid sensory overload can be seen as a way of “getting attention”, a way of “cheating” in class, or rudeness. Stims (self-stimulation) can be seen as an attempt to disrupt a group. Honest, literal answers to questions can be seen as a way of playing the fool.

These misinterpretations can diminish the quality of services an autistic person receives from a health and social services professional. In the worst cases, the person may be denied an essential service. This is especially true when the person is requesting service for the first time, and autism is not known to the professionals involved, or if the diagnosis is not official. These effects may be less pronounced when the autistic person has a clearly established diagnosis with supporting evidence. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get the right diagnosis. What’s more, some people don’t want to mention their diagnosis to strangers.

Warning

In some situations, it's not possible to mask. Fatigue and panic can reveal certain autistic traits. Having an explanatory card to hand to people in the event of a crisis can help avoid misinterpretations. You don't have to use the word "autism" if you're uncomfortable. The card doesn't have to come from an official organization. Think about it, if an interaction with a stranger led to an extraordinary, unexpected, and uncomfortable situation, wouldn’t you like to receive instructions allowing a return to normal? People won't ask where the card came from. People will be relieved to know what to do and to understand what's going on!

One day, during a small crisis that made it difficult for me to move or speak, someone thought I was having a stroke, but I just needed a few minutes to recover from a sensation that had been too overwhelming. The little "I'm autistic" card would have helped a lot.

It may also simply be more practical to mask in a certain situation. For example, an autistic person might choose to mask their autism when picking up a takeaway order at a restaurant. If the autistic person is comfortable masking for short interactions with strangers, there are no negative consequences to doing so. In certain emergency situations, knowing how to mask temporarily will avoid not being taken seriously; it’s exhausting at the time, but very useful in order to be listened to quickly.

Removing the mask

Stopping masking can be an important experience for many autistic people. It’s a process that can take time and requires support. There are many reasons for wanting to stop masking. You may want to do it to take care of your mental health which is very precious. You may want to do it to get to know yourself better. You might want to do it to show that you’re proud to be autistic. It can even be an act of solidarity in certain circumstances. In fact, not all autistic people are capable of camouflage. So when an autistic person who is able to camouflage chooses not to, they are helping to make autistic traits normal!

For example, ten years ago it was frowned upon to have stims (self-stimulation) in public places like school, or at work. It was not acceptable, for example, to take a Tangle or a small stuffed toy with you to calm down. Today, many neurodivergent people still carry their favorite stim object with them. Stims are useful for many neurodivergent people, such as those with autism, ADHD or anxiety disorders. So it’s now normal to carry around an object to calm oneself. This helps autistic people who can’t camouflage their stims to be better perceived in society.

Important

You don't always have to be supportive. It doesn't matter if you choose to cover up at some point to feel safer or to get out of complicated situations. Just because you were able to get by without support at a time when others needed it doesn't mean you're any less autistic, or any less supportive of others.

Negative consequences

Stopping masking also has consequences. For example, it’s not uncommon for an autistic person seeking to stop masking as part of a therapeutic process to lose many friends in the process. This can cause distress. Imagine realizing after many years of warm interaction that the people you considered friends were only friends when protective mechanisms were used. This can create distress and a great sense of loneliness. However, these consequences are temporary. Autistic people are as lovable as everyone else, and there will be other types of people with whom to develop friendships. When this happens, however, it’s very painful. It’s always possible to seek support from workers and psychologists during this period. In addition, there are formal peer support groups at CLSCs (Quebec, Canada) and many post-secondary institutions. There are also informal support groups on Facebook. Not only do these groups offer support, they also provide an opportunity to forge new friendships.

Going further

Some people are more comfortable with more direct, literal interactions. It's easier to understand the intentions of someone who expresses themselves in this way. This may be because the person has experienced interactions with hypocrisy, or simply because they like simpler, more straightforward dynamics. In such a case, the person may greatly appreciate autistic functioning. The loss of a category of friends may lead to the acquisition of a new category of friends, who prefer an autistic or very straightforward type of person.

Important

Many autistic people choose to stop masking when they receive an official diagnosis of autism or when they go through a difficult mental health moment. If this is the case with someone we know, their behaviours may change. This doesn't mean they're doing it on purpose, or that they're "playing at being autistic". It's important to be welcoming of the person's autistic traits. The person might stop making eye contact, change clothing style, move differently, use sensory barriers, or use a different tone or accent. The person could also be more honest in their responses, for example, sharing their true opinion on questions like "do you like my new haircut?". Unless the autistic person's actions are violent or offensive, it's not a good idea to get angry with or reject the person. Stopping camouflaging in front of someone is a great sign of trust. It's the perfect time to get to know our autistic loved one better and also learn to discover the good sides of autism. If you're sincerely in doubt about your new haircut, you can be sure you'll get an honest opinion from your autistic loved one who doesn't camouflage!

How to stop masking

It’s not easy to stop masking, especially in public, when you’ve learned to do it at a very young age. Sometimes you have to learn to do it for the very first time! Some autistic people who camouflage may feel they don’t know who they are. Some people feel like they’re not themselves. Fortunately, it’s impossible to be someone else AND it’s always possible to get to know yourself better. Here are a few ideas to help you get to know yourself better and stop hiding.

Targeting energy-hungry masking

Start by stopping the masking techniques that require the most energy. When masking requires a lot of preparation time, it’s because the traits you were trying to hide are quite strong. For example, if a person spends a lot of time choosing what to wear, questioning others about what to wear in what situation, forcing themselves to wear uncomfortable clothes to look better, chances are it’s a form of masking that requires a lot of energy. It’s possible to look at wearing clothes differently, by asking yourself: “what’s comfortable for my body?”, or “are there clothes that I manage to ‘forget’ while I’m doing other activities”? Simplifying how you choose what clothes to wear will certainly save energy!

Ask family and friends

Ask loved ones what makes us unique as a person, or what best describes us. Not every characteristic given by loved ones will be an autistic trait, but chances are it’s a good description of us as a person. It’s true that masking serves to hide autistic traits, but it can also serve to mask what makes us unique. Asking people close to you what makes you unique can give you clues about how to stay yourself. Be careful, though: you need to ask people you’re most comfortable being yourself with. Otherwise, we’ll get a description of our best camouflages!

Try

Try it out! Sometimes, the best way to stop masking is to try out behaviors that we like, but that we don’t dare use for fear of being judged. Mind you, these behaviours must be respectful of others and of the law, of course! Here are a few examples of behaviors you can try.

  • Wear the same model of sweater every day (as long as it’s clean!): this allows you to check whether it’s easier to function with a particular comfortable garment.
  • Bring the same lunch for a week: some autistic people forget to eat during the day. Having the same meal planned for the middle of the day makes the need to eat less of a challenge.
  • Try stims: you can either buy stim toys or imitate stims seen elsewhere.
  • Mention to someone you trust that you’d like to try a conversation without eye contact: this lets you see if it’s easier to concentrate without maintaining eye contact.
  • Try sensory barrier methods.

Last word

Everyone has the right to happiness, and stopping masking is one of the steps towards achieving it. Whether you’re an autistic person, someone close to an autistic person, a caregiver or an ally, it’s possible to make a difference. Being yourself and allowing others to be themselves can have a powerful positive impact.

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer