Autism Masking- Unmasked
Most people who have come across autism before probably don’t know what “masking” is.
Even people who know someone- a family member, or friend- who is autistic are unlikely to be aware that they are masking- if they are masking of course.
In this blog, we will briefly cover meaning of masking and why autistic people do mask, and finally, how to tell if your child, family member or friend is masking.
So, What Actually Is Masking?
Well, as suggested by the name, it is someone figuratively putting on a mask so other people don’t notice or can’t see their true personality.
Everyone- including neurotypical people- probably mask at some point in their lives. YOU have probably masked at some point in your life. And ultimately, most people don’t even realise it when they are masking.
So, although masking is not an autism trait, it is more common and frequent that autistic people mask in their day-to-day lives. Later, we will cover the reasons why autistic people mask.
Right now, let’s look at a few examples of scenarios where a person- anyone autistic or non-autistic- might mask.
Harry goes to a job interview. He’s very shy and feels nervous.
This job interview means a lot to him though, so he must hide the fact that he is nervous and shy and put on his mask of confidence.
Harry is not autistic, but he still uses this mask to ensure the interviewers aren’t put off from hiring him by his nervousness. Masking in this scenario is not a frequent habit for Harry as it was just for this one particular job interview.
Jasmine is autistic, and she is highly interested in insects and is always obsessing about movies with Tom Cruise in them. She goes to school and is in year 9. She has two friends who she hangs out with during breaktime and lunch. One of her many autistic traits is not feeling comfortable with wearing tights- but this is the school uniform, and she doesn’t dare break the rules.
So, when Jasmine goes to school, she must put on a happy mask to avoid getting into trouble- if anyone finds out she doesn’t like the school uniform she might get into trouble. She must put on the “social mask” when she’s with her friends. She doesn’t want any of her friends knowing that she is obsessed with insects or Tom Cruise, because they might think she’s weird and stop hanging out with her. Jasmine uses masking in this scenario to “fit in” with the school and her school friends.
Masking for Jasmine in this scenario is a frequent habit, and she does this every day when she goes to school.
What is Masking?- In More Detail
The Process of Masking
Keiran added that the process of masking in autistic people develops as they grow older. Aspects of masking start out as conscious decisions, but there is a lot more unconscious processes that also take place.
“The surface behaviour- that is controlled consciously- can be changed/modified and adapted, but unconscious aspects beneath really need to be identified”– Kieran stressed.
Following recent research, it was found that a huge number of autistic people have experienced victimisation (some of which was classified as childhood bullying), but some of this is also nefarious and personal victimisation that occurs from people who may classify as “friends” or family members.
When victimisation happens in this kind of “closer relationship”, the autistic individual gets the idea that there is something “wrong” or bad about who they are. Autistic people then go on to internalise this ideology and start to believe in it. This belief leads to the person suppressing aspects of who they are to minimise the likelihood of being abused by friends/family members and/or peers. People have described masking as a “survival strategy”.
Masking in Vulnerable People
Amy stated that everyone masks to some extent, whether they’re autistic or not. For example, the senior lecturer said that she appears different at work, different at home and different again in social settings. We all monitor our identities.
However, she pointed out that marginalised people (i.e., autistic people, racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ etc,) mask parts of their identity that are very core aspects.
Rather than to switch context and be more flexible in social situations, people in such marginalised groups mask to maintain safety. Masking core aspects of one’s identity has a bigger impact on their identity and their lives.
Kieran added to this that masking carries on outside of social situations for autistic people. For people who mask as they grow up, masking is something that stays with them more permanently. So even when a person masking comes home from a social setting and would more likely “drop their mask” as they are in a “safe place”, the person who’s masked throughout most of their developmental stages in life has suppressed their identity so much that even at home they continue to mask, and this is the unconscious process of masking.
More importantly, Kieran added that autistic people are often invalidated of their needs. This leads to them suppressing this part of their identity and they stop listening to their own body.
Kieran added that even when the person is in their “safe space” they spend much of this time thinking about what happened when they weren’t in their safe space. They spend time deconstructing the conversations they had, and often berating themselves for the things that didn’t do or should’ve done. An element of self-blame and internalised ableism manifests. More often than not, these people don’t understand what is happening and come to the conclusion that they are “broken”. This reinforces the masking behaviour even further, to cover up the brokenness and faults, or to project aspects of your identity more to meet people’s stereotypical expectations of autism.
Forms of Masking
From the research undertaken by the senior lecturer, masking can take on many forms:
- Modification of facial expressions, mimicking other people’s facial expressions, A
- Altering tone of voice (which can happen unconsciously),
- Wearing the same clothes as other people
- Pretending to have the same interests (i.e., pretending to like the same music)
- Minimising how much you show your interests.
- Suppressing stims by making them more subtle (i.e., fidgeting with things instead of flapping one’s hands),
- Not responding to sensory input (suppressing a response to a really loud noise) so people don’t realise that you are distressed.
That last point is important, as it leads to ignoring one’s internal signals, which impacts how much energy they can maintain, and this can ultimately lead to experiencing things like burnout.
Back Story of Masking
Having gone deeper into the details of masking, including the process of masking and ways in which it takes form, we will now step back and learn about the history of masking.
The interviewees in the podcast were then asked questions relating to the history of masking.
Masking is something that has been talked about for the last century, especially in regard to specific marginalised groups.
When The Behaviour of Masking Came to Light
The first famous discussion around this subject was when American sociologist- William Dubois- talked about the concept of “double consciousness” when looking at the experiences of black people dealing with racial oppression. This meant that black people had to behave “whiter” which meant changing the way they spoke, suppressing their cultural identities, so that they would be accepted more by white people. This caused a schism in their psyche, and this developed a constant battle between two souls within their body.
The first autistic person to write about autistic masking was Gunilla Gerland- a Swedish writer. The most famous however, was Liane Holliday Willey who wrote “Pretending to Be Normal” and this is where the typical, more archetypal concept of masking is said to originate.
When Research Began
Discussions about masking in literature didn’t came about properly in 2015/16. Sociologists (spearheaded by autistic scholars) researched masking among the autistic community. However, psychologists hadn’t yet picked up on it. The first piece of literature on psychology that began unpacking the experience of masking was “Camouflage: The Hidden Lives of Autistic Women” by Sarah Bargiela. This book discussed late diagnosis in autistic women.
Non-autistic people haven’t quite picked up on these narratives that autistic people have been shouting about.
Kieran stressed the importance that this narrative is more prevalent in academia because people in society follow what’s in academia 10 to 20 years down the line. Academia needs to be looking into this concept for it to soak out into the media and culture of society.
Secondly, he stresses that academia also need to be getting these narratives right, otherwise there are whole new levels of stigma and myth, and misconceptions around masking are already out there in mainstream narrative, in schools and in professional understanding.
Talking About Masking
Talking about masking now is very important, because masking is at the heart of the autism narrative. The way autistic people are dehumanised as human beings and how they’re not treated as human beings is right at the heart of who they are as autistic people, it is what impacts the most on their identity.
When we’re talking about masking, we are also talking about stigmatising, marginalising, and dehumanising and trauma. These are things that autistic people receive from society as they aren’t things that exist within them. We need to change the narrative around autism, because autism training in schools and professionals is currently poor, there is too many stereotypes and tropes, and there is no useful information given about what it means to be autistic. Information currently given is usually written by people who are not autistic and so do not understand it from the inside out and it’s all based on observation. Narratives like social skills, condition autistic people to mask even more.
Some people who mask- like people who are more visually autistic- depend on it to save their lives while it is also paradoxically harming them at the same time.
The following misconceptions around masking were highlighted during the podcast:
- Parents are told that their child can’t be masking because they’re a boy.
- There’s no way that children can mask all day,
- There’s no way they can seem that happy and not be OK.
- Masking is a choice.
- Autistic people who requiring higher learning support don’t mask. If you are more obviously autistic, then you can’t mask.
- Only “high functioning” autistic people mask (i.e., autistic people that can speak, are intelligent etc.)
- Masking is only about hiding.
It is misunderstood that autistic people sometime play into their negative experiences by exaggerating their characteristics more.
Misconceptions In Children
Certain children in different environments are deemed “manipulative”. In this situation, parents are encouraged to challenge their children by pushing them harder but this can be very damaging. There is a massive difference between a child masking to stay safe and a child being manipulative.
Autistic parents are at massive risk of parent blaming, including being accused of Fabricated Induced Illness (FII). Jodie emphasised how frightening it was that the guidelines on FII can easily describe a child that is masking. Such examples of this include:
- The symptoms only presenting around the parent.
- The parent knowing more than the professional.
Kieran finally points out that more autistic people have a greater knowledge of autism than any professional. To begin to unpick all these narratives, professionals must understand that they are not the authority. They are looking from the outside in, so they need to listen and understand, and collaborate with autistic people to gain mutuality.
Why Do We Mask?
We now have a better understanding on masking, what it involves and how it works. Let’s look at the reasons why people mask.
To go into more detail about the common reasons why people mask, we will refer to the same autistic people that were interviewed by North East Autism Society during the podcast on the 4th of August 2022.
Keiran’s answer to this question was along the lines of the following:
The reasons why autistic people mask boil down to the following two things: stigma, and invalidation. There seems to be a mainstream idea around what is socially etiquette. This involves the way we behave, think, and feel.
“When you consider that there are 80 billion human beings in the world, and everyone is slightly different to one another, this idea that we should all be the same is completely ridiculous”
Autistic babies experience invalidation from the very beginning. Autistic people are born with autism, so even as babies they experience sensory discomfort but cannot communicate it verbally and other people will not be able to see this. In turn, the baby’s needs are ignored, and those needs become suppressed as they grow older.
Later, as they begin to communicate those needs, they still get ignored. This is because autistic people communicate in specific ways which non-autistic people regard as “not normal”. People shouldn’t be too direct and honest, and they must wrap everything up in “socially acceptable” behaviours. Over time, this eats into every aspect of that person’s being.
Every aspect of their being is critiqued and corrected by the outside world including:
- The way we eat
- The way we talk
- The way we walk
- The way we think
- The way we sleep
A lot of autistic people will mask because they don’t know why they are not OK. As everyone else is having a different experience to them, they become confused and wonder why they’re finding the situation distressing. So, they don’t want people to know that they’re not OK, because when asked why they don’t have the answers.
Keiran highlights that autistic people have monotropic neurology, meaning they tend to problem-solve and seek answers. Autistic people don’t know why they are not OK- and everyone seems to think “they are the problem”. Therefor the only solution they come up with as that “THEY are the problem”.
They come to the conclusion that they are the problem, and everyone else is fine. They are the one’s causing a disruption because:
- They are having relationship failures
- They can’t make friends
- They struggle to be around people
- They struggle to meet social expectations
This internal narrative of “you are the problem” is reinforced by everything around them including:
- The people around them.
- The media’s representation of autism.
- The cultural research narratives around autism.
- The narratives that talk around the “negative behaviours” that apply to the way autistic people behave.
Amy, the senior lecturer’s personal experience in masking:
“It got to a point where I was like; right, I need to appear a certain way in front of other people. I need to appear cheerful; I will smile all the time because people like people who smile right? People like nice people, so I’ll be nice. And that didn’t help either, it just made people feel annoyed because they thought I was disingenuous”
She thought that fixing parts of one’s identity to appear “less weird” was a universal thing that everybody does. When she realised that she was autistic and began researching around masking, reading through other people’s experiences. She felt more validated when she found out that lots of other people have also been masking. This was a massive shifting point in her life.
Jodie had a different experience:
“My mask became really strong when I became a parent”
Before she became a parent, she was confident with her identity. When she became a parent, she had a special interest around babies and so attended the parent’s coffee groups. Because of her interest in the subject, she found it easy to mimic the other mums.
“When I look back now at pictures of myself when my children were young, I’m cringing! Because I can clearly see that it wasn’t me, but it was how presented myself to fit into that space”
So, she is now reconnecting to how she was before she became a parent.
43-year old Keiran’s experience:
Diagnosed at the age of 23, he remembers feeling scared and wanting to make himself as small as possible, both at school and at home. He remembers growing up feeling detached, living superficially and not allowing himself to go into too much detail on certain things.
“I have a massive interest in science fiction and books, my bedroom was like a library. I only had this very small room where I felt like I could be authentic. But my being authentic was to lose myself in other universes and worlds and being outside of that was terrifying. I knew on a conscious level that was living this superficial life, and I would constantly say to myself- there must be more to this, there’s more to me, I know there’s more to me. But I can’t ever get to a place where I feel safe enough to explore that”.
“My friendships weren’t friendships; they were people that I spent a lot of time with because I was stuck in the same classroom as them and went through school years with them”
Going through his teenage years, he self-medicated on alcohol and drugs. He went on antidepressants because people thought he was depressed. What it really was though, was him suppressing. When he had his first child, he began to seek out other autistic adults and began to realise people’s experiences that were like his. This discovery was stretched out over a very long period. He says that:
“Unpicking your mask is traumatic, because it involves reframing everything that you’ve known, and everything that you’ve grown up with. But my trauma of unpicking was stretched out over a long time. It has given me a unique perspective on this because I am a late-diagnosed person, and I continued my masking well passed my diagnosis. I’ve spent the last ten years writing about this and still cannot put it into words to encapsulate how I felt”
Masking In Children
He went on to talk about his own autistic children and mentioned three key things in acceptancy:
- Enable your children to have agency over their decisions.
- Allow them to have autonomy about their choices.
- They can accept themselves and we accept them.
These three things encourage children to be authentic.
We will delve into autistic masking in children in another blog….
Check out some of our other related blogs about autism here!!