Masking is something that has become much more talked about recently as understanding of autism has grown, but what is masking, why do we do it, and what is the impact of masking?
Everyone projects slightly different versions of themselves depending on the situation – the person you present at work is likely to be different from the person you are on a date, or with friends, or even at home.
Some people talk about masking in terms of putting on a persona – ensuring they don’t swear in the middle of a meeting at work for example. They may hide that impulse to do so as it may not be seen as appropriate, even if they want to. So far all well and good you may argue, but the amount that autistic people mask can create all sorts of problems.
When autistic people talk about masking, they are not talking about holding in swear words, generally what they mean is masking their being autistic, trying to pass as socially acceptable. Masking a core part of their being. When someone says to an autistic person that they don’t look autistic, it’s likely because they are masking.
Masking can start at a very early age, particularly for those with a highly developed sense of self awareness. Many autistic people realise even as relatively young children that they are quite different from others. When others notice those differences, this can often lead to not being included in games, not being invited to parties, not being asked to join in in any form. So, the autistic person, upon realising that their differences can lead to exclusions, very often makes the decision to project an image of themselves to show that they do actually belong to that group, or they can feel pressured into hiding how different they are so that people stop calling them “weird” and start including them.
Observing and Copying How Others Socialise
Masking can mean observing others to copy the way they socialise (see also our page on Autistic Communication ), watching how other people interact with each other and attempt to copy that. Observing how to initiate conversations, observing how to keep those conversations going, learning key words and phrases that others respond positively to.
This can be done in several ways – observing others in the playground, classroom, office, or bar. Or it could be through watching TV and movies to see how characters develop their friendships and sustain them.
This can lead to taking on a persona of a socially successful person, projecting confidence when in fact you feel none. It can be adopting their mannerisms, hand gestures. It can mean modulating the tone of your voice more so you appear more animated. Basically the autistic person becomes a psychologist or social anthropologist.
“I’m personally aware of the fact that my need to maintain my masking behaviours as a young woman (who was unaware of being autistic) was pivotal in my study and career choices. I actively avoided stretching myself academically because I instinctively knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep all of the balls in the air. I also limited myself in career choices for the same reasons”
Rony Casement, SWAN Advisory Group Member
Masking can mean feigning interest in something to be included in conversations. Spending time watching TV shows so we can take part in conversations in the office break room, taking up a hobby we have no interest in, watching a sport we don’t care about – these are all things that many autistic people have done in the attempt to fit in with others. Suppressing talking about their actual interests, even suppressing participating in interests, so that they could spend time doing something to generate social interactions and make those interactions easier.
“As a girl growing up in the 80s and 90s I had very little interest in New Kids On The Block, East 17 or Take That, yet I learned the names of the band members and listened to their music so that when the other girls in my class spoke about them I knew who they were talking about and could join in.”
Marion McLaughlin, OSS Manager
Wearing Uncomfortable Clothes
Masking can mean wearing uncomfortable clothes. Due to sensory issues around touch, some fabrics are really difficult for some autistic people, yet if everyone in your social group is wearing them, many autistic people have put up with the discomfort in a bid to fit in and appear like everyone else.
The same goes for wearing make-up – some autistic people love it, but for some autists, the feel of it on the skin and the fact their face looks different can be really difficult.
Yet clothing and make-up can be heavily linked to our identity. Making ourselves physically uncomfortable in order to project that we belong in a group is highly problematic. Given that many autistic people do not stop processing sensory information too, if you are wearing make up or clothing you are uncomfortable in, you can be feeling that discomfort continually until the object is removed, possibly longer.
Giving Eye Contact
Masking can mean giving eye contact when you don’t want to. For many autistic people eye contact is difficult and may actually be painful. For some we cannot concentrate on what you are saying if we are giving eye contact - so we trade off being able to engage properly in the conversation for looking like we belong in the conversation.
Some autistic people can give eye contact quite happily but may not realise the social norms of when to look away and come off as aggressive when they are actually feeling relaxed, or romantically interested when that is not the case. Both those scenarios can then create further social complications.
Ignoring Sensory Needs
Masking can mean ignoring your sensory needs. Pretending that you don’t constantly hear the humming of the electricity in the walls, or that the material is not scratchy, maybe that you are fine with hugging their friends or shaking hands when actually you aren’t. It is ignoring your discomfort so as to appear more agreeable, or not too sensitive.
Masking can mean spending a lot of energy on hiding your stims (Stimming) – those stims that help you regulate emotions, sensory input, help you concentrate, just to appear more “normal”. Or choosing not to really participate in social situations – you might be there physically but being very quiet, not talking up even if you have something to say.
The Cost Of Masking
Masking can mean working so very hard on projecting the “socially acceptable” version of you that you melt or shutdown as soon as you get home from school or work from the sheer exhaustion of it all. It can also mean that you mask so hard for such a long time, it is hard to work out who is the real you. What does the real you like? What does the real you want to wear? How do they want to spend their time?
To Mask Or Not To Mask?
If you become aware of how much you are masking, perhaps as you are exploring whether or not you are autistic, it is possible you might start thinking about whether the masking is helpful, and what are the benefits of masking, what are the benefits of not masking anymore?
The only person who can answer those questions is yourself. Stopping masking will grab the attention of others. If you have never stimmed by flapping your hands in public before but you start doing so, people will take notice! Changing so that you are giving people less eye contact also gets noticed. Whether you want to discuss this conscious effort to mask less or not, you may end up fielding questions about it.
Raising it in conversation before you ease off the masking may help and can lead to broader conversations about what autism means to you. And it can let you experiment a little about what you are, and you are not comfortable doing in public.
Stimming does come with a stigma attached – it shouldn’t but it does. The stigma will only go once it has been normalised, but not every autistic person is obligated to be an ambassador for their community!
We don’t all have to flap our hands in school and work until it’s seen as commonplace. It is understandable if you don’t want to do something that might make you stand out, especially if you have worked hard for a lifetime trying to show that you don’t stand out. So perhaps you can find other stims that do the same job but are less conspicuous, or perhaps you don’t care and want to flap away, the choice is yours!
There are many different fidget objects, some more discreet than others, and the choice is yours which you choose.
It is also worth noting that for some people, openly being autistic in public is dangerous, especially if you are BIPOC and especially in certain countries. Masking autistic traits helps keep them physically safe from harm – it is absolutely not ok that this is the case, but it is unfortunately true, and something to bear in mind when travelling abroad.
Masking and Crisis Points
At some point if you have been masking for a long time, you may hit a crisis point and not be able to mask any longer. Consistently masking can be very bad for mental health, and when the mask drops it can be a very distressing time as it can lead to all sorts of questions about who you are. When the mask drops, who is left behind it?
The very good thing that can come out of this is that it affords the opportunity to find out who you really are – and live your life in a way that better supports you. It allows the chance to explore those sensory needs and start using aids to help mitigate any difficult sensory experiences (like wearing head phones and sunglasses when shopping), and help sensory seek things that will soothe (like using a weighted blanket or stim toy). It can allow you to indulge in special interests you may have previously kept quiet about.
Dropping the Mask
Dropping the mask can also be a large part of self-acceptance. It is accepting that you react to things differently, that you may socialise differently, that you may be interested in different things, or with a different intensity. It is accepting that maybe you will come across as slightly odd at times. Or very odd. It is accepting that you are uniquely yourself, and that is a good thing.
This is where joining the autistic community and having role models who are autistic themselves can be really useful – people who you can talk to about all the different aspects of you that you are exploring. People who validate those experiences and can say, yes, your differences are really similar to my differences too. Read other articles by autistic adults and you will see many of them saying similar things.
“I’m happy to say that the process of becoming aware of being autistic and exploring then embracing that element of my identity has allowed me to leave most of that self protective masking behaviour behind.”
Rony Casement, SWAN Advisory Group Member
Supporting Autistic People
If you have autistic people in your life, you can support them by allowing them to drop their masks – allowing them to stim, engage in special interests of their choosing, wear clothing that feels comfortable, using things like ear defenders and sunglasses in public.
When people feel valued and accepted as their authentic self, they do not have the same need to supress or hide who they are. It can be really difficult to stop masking as it can become second nature, but the improved mental health, self knowledge and self care can make it worth the effort if it is safe for you to do so, even if only in private.
If you would like more information or support around the subject of masking, or anything relating to autism, please contact us for an appointment by email – firstname.lastname@example.org .