Social pressure when living with autism can make fitting in and succeeding hard. Some autistic folks mask to appear less autistic.
At a masquerade ball, wearing a mask can be a fun way to hide who you are and create the illusion that you’re someone else, if only for a night. You can slip off the mask when the party is over and go back to yourself — no harm done.
However, for autistic people, masking isn’t for fun and can indeed cause harm in the short and long run.
In the short term, autistic masking might help an autistic individual blend in with nonautistic peers, socialize, or create a desired impression at work. Still, if it becomes part of the daily routine, masking could damage mental health.
Although anyone with ASD might feel pressure to mask to adapt to societal expectations, gain acceptance, or cope with social stigma, it’s more likely used by autistic folks who:
- require minimal support as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5)
- are aware of the presence of social stigma or societal expectations
- have had experiences with bullying or social rejection
- identify as female
- have a specific goal in mind, such as obtaining a job or a romantic relationship
Often, masking behaviors involve hiding specific symptoms of autism, including:
- camouflaging sensitivities to sound or other sensory difficulties
- reducing self-regulating behaviors such as stimming
- covering up expressive and receptive language challenges
Standard practice in particular autism therapies such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) has historically been to redirect autistic behaviors and traits to meet neurotypical expectations.
But some autism advocates and members of the autistic community disagree with this strategy. Some research has suggested ABA may cause post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in some autistic people.
Instead, many autistic people prefer other therapeutic options that don’t focus on changing their authentic selves or altering who they are to fit a specific societal mold.
Also, there’s a fine line between trying to improve yourself for overall wellness and attempting to change yourself to meet others’ expectations. Understanding the difference can lead to better self-awareness and improved mental health.
How can you tell if someone is masking autism?
Masking behavior can be challenging to recognize because, by design, it’s intended to blend in with the mainstream.
Masking autism may become more difficult in unfamiliar scenarios. In this case, you may notice that the conversation isn’t flowing smoothly, or the autistic person may fidget more noticeably.
They may also have more difficulty maintaining eye contact as the conversation lengthens.
If you support an autistic person, they may verbalize sentiments like, “I don’t want others to think I’m different” or “I want to fit in.” These statements offer clues that they may be masking or looking to mask.
Do women use masking behaviors more, in particular?
Although autism is about
Research from 2021 suggests that for autistic females, motivations to camouflage autism may include an increased need to meet societal expectations and feelings of isolation that accompany difficulties with maintaining friendships.
The consequences of masking for autistic females may include receiving a late ASD diagnosis or no diagnosis. It can also harm mental health and well-being.
Symptoms that may indicate masking for some could be signs of developing communication and social skills in others.
In addition, autistic folks who need minimal support may have different approaches to social communication than someone who requires more substantial support.
To help determine whether masking is occurring and whether it’s helpful, consider consulting with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional who specializes in ASD. They can offer insight on masking behaviors and help determine the next steps.
Signs you or someone you support may be masking include:
- Mirroring others’ facial expressions or social behaviors
- Rehearsing or preparing scripted responses to comments
- Imitating gestures such as handshakes or initiating eye contact
- Noticeable difficulty with disguising autistic traits in unfamiliar environments
- Shutting down or experiencing emotional dysregulation after lengthy social engagements
Autism masking examples
- When on a date, an autistic person may respond only with specific phrases they rehearsed.
- An autistic person at a college mixer may mimic facial expressions and hand gestures. They may also force themself to maintain eye contact even though it’s challenging.
- During a work meeting, an autistic person tries to control their urge to rock back and forth. Instead, they engage in a less noticeable stim like fidgeting.
Research from 2018 suggests the camouflaging autistic traits questionnaire (CAT-Q), a self-reporting diagnostic tool, can help identify whether masking is present.
Also, it may be useful for identifying individuals with ASD who were previously undiagnosed.
Though there might seem to be short-term benefits of masking, including increased social acceptance and less stigma, there are negative effects of masking, including:
- Autistic burnout: The psychological exhaustion resulting from continually hiding autistic traits from nonautistic people.
- Emotional dysregulation: Emotional breakdown or meltdown due to the intense focus and thought processes required to mask effectively.
- Loss of identity: Autistic folks who continually mask their autistic traits have reported feeling a betrayal of pride in the ASD community.
- Mental health concerns: 2017 Research suggests that autism masking for an extended time may lead to anxiety, stress, and depression, while acceptance of autism may contribute to better mental health among autistic individuals.
- An increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
In addition, unsuccessful masking attempts may result in distress.
If you’re autistic and feel masking is a survival mechanism, you’re not alone.
Many autistic people use this strategy to cope.
In a 2021 study cataloging testimonials of neurodivergent folks who mask, study authors note that:
“…regardless of the coping strategy attempted there is no optimal outcome in which the person is unharmed (either by the exhaustion of maintaining a mask or by the resulting social consequences of not masking). The explanation for this is simple: the problem lies with the external world and not with the person themselves.”
Similarly, Judy Endow, an autistic person, MSW, and a licensed clinical social worker in Madison, Wisconsin, shares this insight:
“I hope more autistics are able to be the person they are, utilizing the supports and accommodations they need, without society insisting they hide their very essence at every turn.
“I look forward to autistics having everyday lives with things so many take for granted — going to school, being part of the community, having meaningful jobs with living wages along with meaningful relationships. This is the stuff of a satisfying life.
“All people should have access without society’s requirement of “sucking it up” before a ticket is extended by the majority to those of us in marginalized groups.”
If you’d like to learn ways to manage interacting with others, these tips may help:
Embrace your uniqueness
Humans aren’t monolithic, and everyone has different ways of communicating. This uniqueness brings refreshing new perspectives and ideas to social interactions.
Even though you may experience difficulties in some areas, you may also have specific strengths and passions others don’t.
Consider practicing self-acceptance
You are worthy of being accepted and self-acceptance in whatever ASD functioning level or shade on the spectrum you are. It’s also OK to be your own personality with your mannerisms and communication style.
Identifying and focusing on your strengths can help you build confidence.
Create a social circle with other autistic or autism-aware people
Being around other autistic folks can help you feel validated.
This can help build confidence and self-esteem. So, consider joining an online or in-person support group, or if you’re a student, finding a school tailored to autistic individuals.
Still, it might be helpful to consult with a mental health professional to determine whether these or other strategies are appropriate for your specific needs. They also might be able to provide other ways to cope with masking and other autism-related symptoms and behaviors.
Although most people mask their true selves at some point, some autistic people may feel the pressure to camouflage completely.
Masking autism may stem from avoiding social stigma, a survival mechanism for professional success, or a desire to be accepted in relationships.
Masking can cause emotional harm such as autistic burnout, emotional distress, and mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety.
If you are autistic and find that you mask your autism in specific situations, it’s helpful to lean into your self-worth and support systems.
If you support a person with ASD, you can help by creating a space of acceptance and understanding so they can feel safe to be themselves in any situation.