Safia A. Bacchus
During daily social interactions, what if we planned our every word and action? By analyzing the person before us, we interpret their emotions and inner thoughts, and in response we adjust our facial expressions, hand movements, and the inflection of our voice. Perfectly structuring every spoken sentence to respond to that person favorably. Consistently strategizing, scripting, and self-monitoring behavior to not only fit in, but to evade enduring judgment and exist safely in an ableist world. This is a hurdle common to those who have Autism Spectrum Disorder called autistic masking.
Belcher (2022) views masking as an unconscious strategy developed to connect with the people around us. It is normal for anyone to adjust behavior to different environments and circumstances. However, those with autism often face pressure to camouflage self-soothing traits that do not abide by social norms. For instance, individuals may suppress stims (self-stimulation by repetitive physical movements or vocalizations), contain excitement toward special interests, and conceal discomfort toward certain sensory stimuli. Although comfort is continuously and often unconsciously sacrificed to mesh well within various social and professional spheres, individuals who mask still not be able to fit in or fully disguise autistic traits.
It’s important to consider that not all individuals with autism mask, and some mask more than others. It tends to be more common in women than men. People who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder later in life often realize that they have been unconsciously masking autistic traits since childhood. Although masking can potentially improve social outcomes, the social gain can be to the detriment of health. Studies show that high-masking autistic people are more at risk for developing depression and anxiety. This can be attributed to the stress of sacrificing comfort and engaging in high self-criticism to monitor and adjust behavior. Not to mention masking all day can lead to crashing at home and intense burn-outs. High-masking individuals may exhibit more suicidal behaviors, which can be attributed to stressors that feel unexplainable. It becomes tricky when people with autism strongly desire social connections, but experience rejection for their differences, which reinforces the idea that they need to mask to establish relationships. It seems that in every situation, there are benefits and drawbacks to masking and unmasking (not camouflaging autistic traits). Does interacting with allistic people (people who are not on the autistic spectrum) mean concealing your identity?
Some people find masking essential to functioning in their daily lives, whether it’s getting through work, short interactions with strangers, or going to social events. Upon learning about masking, autistic individuals may try to find a balance; choosing which settings they feel comfortable unmasking, and to what extent masking is worth it given comfort and energy levels. This may look like sitting in an unconventional but comfortable position or choosing not to repress stims. Though unmasking can result in being perceived differently, is it really worth your mental health to uphold the social standards of others? Or can we be more accepting and accommodating to our needs?
Belcher, H (2022) Taking off the mask. Practical exercises to help understand and minimise the
effects of autistic camouflaging. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.