Autism Masking in Children
How Do I Know That My Child is Masking?
Being a parent or carer of a child comes with the greatest responsibility. Your child is even more important than your own life. That is why I have written another blog to discuss autism masking in children.
If you have already read the other blog on masking, you will understand the impacts and devastation it can have on a person’s lifestyle. We all want our kids to live fulfilling lifestyles but masking is a big obstacle. That’s why it’s important to recognize when your son/daughter is masking.
We will refer to another podcast conducted by the North East Autism Society, that involved the same three people, to look at more information around autism masking in children.
Signs of Masking in Children
Jodie- an autism specialist- has quoted on what other parents have said to do with sudden changes in expressions in children:
“It’s as soon as we get to the car”
“It’s as soon as we walk across the playground”
“It’s as soon as we go through the front door”
Each of these scenarios are examples of incidents of a child going into a meltdown or becoming really distressed after being at school all day.
Jodie has seen this in her own children. She said that she would know what kind of day they had at school when she picks them up- “After waving goodbye to his friends on the playground, as he walks towards me his facial expression suddenly changes, I then know straight away that he is not OK”
She says “It’s important that I say this to a lot of parents. Trust your instinct. Because if you are an autistic parent of an autistic child and nobody’s aware of that and you’re not even aware, you will have followed some neurotically guidebooks around your child and your parenting. That goes against your instincts as an autistic parent to an autistic child”
Parents are often led on a pathway to not trust their own instincts or to believe that their instincts are wrong. Jodie urges parents to trust their own instincts and try to “rewire” by unlearning what they have read in guidebooks around parenting autistic kids. She also says that parents should speak to other autistic parents and find out their experiences they’ve had with their children. This is a great way to gain validation.
In conclusion, a major indicator of autism masking in children is when they’re a completely different child at home to when they are not at home. (i.e., From being in a safe place to being in a non-safe space).
It is also important to remember that not all children or autistic people have a safe place. In these cases, the individual will become very internalized and possibly withdrawn, and in extreme cases, not wanting to leave their bedrooms.
Jodie also pointed out that high levels of exhaustion can be picked up in children masking autism.
“My eldest would come in from school and then go straight up to her room, and I would realize that I have not seen her all day. And my youngest, aged 4/5, would not move from the sofa and/or away from the screen after a few days at preschool”
Kieran mentions other signs and/or things to recognize when an autistic child is masking. He adds onto what Jodie said about exhaustion:
“When I was working throughout my twenties, I remember coming in at the end of each day and collapsing, literally falling asleep and waking up late in the evening. If I could wake up, I would have something to eat really late”
The point he makes out here is that exhaustion can vary from very light exhaustion to very heavy- in his case, falling asleep.
The other point he makes here, is that signs of autism masking in children can appear as children being in different states as opposed to children displaying different behaviours.
Going into further detail on this, he goes on to say that differences in a state of a person can appear in so many different ways. He mentions dysregulation around sensory stuff:
“You might find that when you’re on holiday, there is a difference between their sensory perceptions to when they are at school. It might be that noise might cause them more pain when they’re working harder at school, but when you’re on holiday and they’re slightly more relaxed those things aren’t impacting as much as they aren’t regulating as much”
Parents should train themselves by practicing looking out for these key differences which may be very subtle. These are common signs of autism masking.
One important thing that Amy mentions is teenagers and young people masking may actually be self-regulating and this will make it harder to notice when they are masking. Her personal experience of this is:
“When I was at sixth form, I loved it and it was a great environment. But I was still exhausted when I got home, I would immediately get changed, put my headphones on and go straight out for a walk by myself. I would listen to music to decompress, an
d then come back home and change into the exact same outfit that I would put on everyday after college. I would then sit and read and disengage from everything else”
Amy’s routine mentioned here, was her way of decompressing after college. This sign is less noticeable, as they may be able
to self-regulate by coming up with their own problem-solving strategies to decompress. Parent must be aware of these kinds of strategies. The following things could indicate autism masking in children/teenagers:
- Immediately getting changed (especially wearing the same clothes after school/college)
- Going back out as soon as they get home.
- Headphones on every day after school/college.
- Reading a book every day after school/college.
If your child turns up at home, immediately gets changed and then goes back out- that could be their routine for self-regulating.
Children Masking in Schools
Jodie made some discreet observations of children in schools who were reported by parent to have been masking their autism. Her main taking from this was that when teachers would say that the child is fine, it would be because the child was showing a complete lack of expression.
“Masking isn’t always about expressions. The child could be fiddling their fingers under the desk because they know they will get told off if the teacher saw them doing this. Other things like kicking their shoes on and off. There are so many ways in which a child may stim in class”
A child stimming more discretely because they don’t want the teacher or anyone else to notice is linked to double-empathy. This is a definitely sign of autism masking in children and young people in schools/colleges.
Stimming is often used as a form of communication, as opposed to using words and communicating verbally. A child’s anxiety can be reduced by teachers and teaching assistants starting to accept a child’s preferred way of communicating. If they are suffering from sensory overload, they may find verbal communication extremely difficult.
“Just because we are able to be verbal, it means we are expected to be verbal ALL of the time”
A key point taken from Jodie’s observations here, is a child’s preference to not speak (rather stim) is often a sign of sensory overload and this is a sign of autism masking.
A stim is a self-stimulating behavior. It can be a way in which a person moves their body or a way in which they talk. Autistic people use stimming to help them process, especially when words don’t come easily for them. Stimming can also be used to regulate emotions, to help feel calmer.
Double-empathy and stimming can sometimes overlap. So a child may still be masking but also be stimming in a way that is deemed “socially acceptable”. These “socially acceptable” ways of stimming may not be recognized as a child self-regulating themselves during sensory overload.
Kieran pointed out another level to recognizing an autistic child in distress. Through a lens of culture- where specific body language and ways of communicating that are relatable to other autistic people. As an autistic person himself, he says this:
“I can walk down the street and pick out autistic people that don’t even know they’re autistic themselves”
The way in which people are moving, holding themselves and communicating is recognizable among autistic people. Autistic professionals have this extra level of empathy in this way. Non-autistic professionals will therefor miss these signs of distress in autistic children. More and more professionals are becoming “trauma-informed” but even this way of thinking is very mainstream. Highlighting the importance of autistic professionals.
He then goes onto to talk about “power displacement”. Where a hierarchy of non-autistic professionals have more power over parents and carers. This issue can be solved by better training, and more investment and funding, and also by introducing autistic professionals.
From Jodie’s research, the three key things that young people wanted adults to know about autism masking was:
- They want adults to listen.
- To be involved in the decisions about themselves.
- They want empathy.
The Hubris of Humanity
The notion that all human beings have to be the same, adhere to the same social standards, and think and feel the same way. It is natural that no two human beings are the same, we can’t all be the same. Biodiversity means that there are vast differences in the way people behave and communicate throughout humanity.
However, everybody has to be taught the same way, the same things and to come out with the same qualifications. And you get people who do not fit this narrative and that is actually the majority.
Neurodivergent and neurodiversity groups are regarded by schools as having “deficits” and “broken parts”. They are often supported and treated in ways to teach them how to behave in a way that is more “human”.
Through acceptance, schools would be able to recognize that there are people with disabilities and needs. Being autistic IS a disability, but only because of the barriers that society put up that disables autistic people. There are parts of autistic people that are “disabled” because they cannot meet the narratives put in place in schools/society.
“The average perfect human being DOES NOT exist. And this is the problem with western society’s expectations in people”
How Can a Parent or Carer Help a Child Who is Masking?
As a parent, advocating for your child is really important, although it is very difficult.
Begin with having a “safe space”, and with who you allow into it. To normalize the idea that a child needs that “safe space”, at least at home, so they know that you, as a parent, have an understanding and curiosity around their presentation, their meltdowns, etc.
Use the PACE approach- playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy. To show these things around your child means that you are involving them on your journey towards understanding.
So rather than going on a journey to learn about your child, you are going on a journey WITH your child.
Who you allow to enter a child’s safe space is critical. If a specific person doesn’t understand they can be detrimental to building up your child and can even add to their trauma. It is critical that you put your child’s needs first in any case.
Kieran goes on to talk about boundaries:
“As young children, we were taught to do as our told, but we were never taught good, healthy acceptable boundaries”
“We are not bringing up children, we are bringing up people who are going to become adults”
We want adults now and in the future to have healthy relationships with people, good mental health, autonomy and control over their lives and to be authentic (without impinging on other people’s authenticity), and to respect other people’s boundaries as well.
But instead, a lot of adults put boundaries on children that prevent them from doing X,Y and Z.
“When a child is diagnosed, we as parents are also getting a diagnosis of our children”
When explaining a diagnosis to their children, so many parents only know about the negative myths, stereotypes and misconceptions. It all conflicts with how they feel towards their children, as they know they aren’t the stereotype or “badly behaved”. They know that their children are distressed and dysregulated, but the parents aren’t armed with the information needed to support them properly.
Autism masking in children through to young adults is definitely commonplace in schools, colleges and universities across the board. We have highlighted the signs to look out for, a lot of them being very subtle and less noticeable. Now you should be better equipped to notice signs of your autistic child is masking.
We also looked at ways in which we can improve the understanding and acceptance in order to combat the negative impacts of autism masking in children. This included getting more autistic professionals collaborating with current professionals and also with teachers and carers.
So hopefully, you will have a really good understanding of autism masking and how it manifests in younger children.