If you are a parent of an autistic child who has been hiding or over-compensating for their struggles at school, you may be familiar with the concept of masking. Autism masking refers to suppressing or changing autistic traits and behaviors in order to blend in with neurotypical peers, or just to get by in a neurotypical world.
Many autistic children feel pressure to mask in order to navigate social situations and avoid discrimination. While masking can be a helpful survival strategy in some situations, it can also be emotionally harmful.
Masking requires constant effort and can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection from one’s true self. Researchers have recently begun to study masking in depth and have found that it can take many forms and vary in intensity among individuals. As a parent, it’s important to understand how autistic masking may be affecting your child and how to support them.
What is Autism Masking?
Autism masking, also known as camouflaging or compensating, is a coping mechanism. It’s often used by people with an autism diagnosis (also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD) to fit into a neurotypical society.
Autism masking involves intentionally or unintentionally learning and mimicking neurotypical behaviours in social situations, or suppressing behaviours. Masking can be a complex and costly survival strategy, because it often takes substantial cognitive effort to maintain it.
Why Do Autistic People Mask?
Many children I meet in my clinic “want to be normal” so they act and talk in a way they think will give them this accolade. Often, it works. However, at quite a cost. Often the child has lost their sense of identity or, at the least, they are unsure of who they truly are. Very frequently they are also exhausted and burnt out. The constant analysis and effort that masking requires takes a huge amount of effort.
Autistic masking is a conscious or unconscious suppression of natural autistic responses. It is hiding or controlling behaviours associated with ASD that may be viewed as inappropriate in situations. Autistic individuals may feel the need to present or perform social behaviours that are considered neurotypical or may hide neurodiverse behaviours to avoid judgement or rejection.
Is Masking More Common in Autistic Women and Girls?
There is not enough research to fully establish whether there are gender differences in masking between autistic girls and boys or between autistic men and women. However, one 2017 study suggested that girls are more likely to mask than boys.
In another 2017 study, there were clear gender differences. For example, when researchers observed play time (recess) at school, autistic girls stayed close to their peers weaving in and out of their activities. Autistic boys were more likely to play by themselves, off to the side. In my clinic, I would estimate that more girls than boys engage in masking at school, but a lot of boys mask too, especially in the teenage years.
Future research will do more to establish gender differences and the emotional effects of autism masking.
Different Ways of Masking
There are different ways in which autistic individuals may mask their behaviours. Some of the methods I see most commonly in my clinic include:
Social mimicking involves copying the social behavior of others to blend in and avoid standing out. For example, this might include copying a classmate’s body language, or copying when others in the class sit down even if you weren’t aware of the original instruction to do so. This sometimes means there is a short delay between the rest of the children following an instruction and the autistic child doing so.
Social mimicking can go wrong. I worked with one little girl who tried to dress and act like her best friend, and match her hairstyles. Se found it hard to judge how far to take this and didn’t spot that this made her friend (and other peers) uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the friend became upset by it, and the friendship ended.
I have also worked with young people who use social mimicking but in an exaggerated way, which can appear a little unusual or dramatic to peers. For example, they may use expressive gestures which do not feel proportionate to others involved in the interaction.
While social mimicking can be a helpful coping strategy, it may also be emotionally exhausting for your child. Often children report feeling bewildered and anxious about social norms and expectations. This can have a negative effect on their sense of self and contribute to low self-esteem.
Scripting is when people prepare and rehearse conversations or social interactions in advance, to avoid unexpected situations that may trigger anxiety. It can feel reassuring to children and it can help them feel like they know what to expect. However, in reality social interactions rarely follow a planned script. Scripting may limit your child’s ability to be spontaneous and creative. But it may also inadvertently cause more stress for your child, if they expect things to go a certain way and this doesn’t happen.
Autistic people may force themselves to make eye contact to appear more engaged in social interactions, even if doing so is uncomfortable or overwhelming. Some children and teens can sustain this for short periods but it can cause stress and anxiety. I have seen how this can also lead some children to dread social interaction.
Your child may hide or suppress their emotions to avoid appearing too intense or different from neurotypical peers. Children might be in considerable emotional distress but this is often hidden.
Autistic young people who engage in social camouflaging may try to blend in with their peers by adopting similar interests, hobbies, or mannerisms. They may suppress their own special interests, preferences or quirks in order to fit in and avoid standing out.
While camouflaging can help them navigate social situations more easily, one of the consequences of camouflaging can be loss of it can be identity. It also tends to be an exhausting process.
I should note that camouflaging is widespread amongst neurotypical young people as well. Wanting to be accepted into a social group, many young people change or suppress aspects of themselves.
Some autistic children may mask by becoming an observer. They learn by watching others and closely matching what others are doing. It may be very subtle but you may spot a slight delay in their response. Young people who are observers often enjoy fiction about people their age, or may be interested in dramas or reality TV so that can learn about human interaction.
An autistic person may mask their knowledge or intelligence to avoid standing out or being seen as different from their peers. They may deliberately make mistakes or downplay their achievements in order to fit in. While this can help them avoid negative attention or bullying, it can also limit their potential and prevent them from fully developing their talents and skills.
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The Negative Effects of Autism Masking
Mood and Behaviour Issues
When your autistic child is masking at school, it can lead to mood and behavior issues at home. This is because masking requires a significant amount of effort and can be emotionally exhausting. After a long day of masking at school, your child may feel overwhelmed and drained, which can cause them to experience meltdowns or shutdowns at home. Additionally, if your child is masking in order to fit in with neurotypical peers, they may feel pressure to continue masking at home as well, which can lead to additional stress and anxiety.
It’s important to understand that masking is a survival strategy for many autistic individuals, and it can be difficult for them to turn it off once they leave school. As a parent, the best thing you can do is create a safe and supportive home environment where your child feels comfortable expressing their true selves. You may want to support them to set aside time for sensory breaks and enjoying their hobbies and passions.
Mental Health Issues
Research has shown that the long-term impacts of autism masking can include increased stress, anxiety, and depression in autistic people. It can also contribute to burnout, a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. This is because masking requires so much effort and energy, which can be draining over time.
Over-analysing and ruminating over social situations are very common amongst the young people I see in my clinic. These young people so desperately want to “get it right”. They are very socially aware. They often end up going over past scenarios in a highly self-critical way, or spending hours thinking through what could happen in a future interaction.
As you can imagine, social anxiety is extremely common in autistic children and teens. If this is having a significant impact on your child’s life, then may benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy. As you may be aware, cognitive behavioural therapy can also be highly effective in supporting your child with a range of mental health problems.
Masking can lead to delayed or missed diagnosis of autism, as individuals may not show clear autistic behaviours during assessments and may therefore not meet diagnostic criteria. Or, they may not even get to the point of an autism assessment, because in many settings they appear neurotypical.
Delayed diagnosis of autism spectrum conditions can be highly problematic. Early diagnosis and intervention are often crucial for improving long-term outcomes for autistic people. In my clinic, late diagnoses (in the teen years) are common because a child has masked throughout their school career.
In my experience when an autistic child masks in school, it can be challenging for teachers to understand their true needs and struggles. The child may appear to be coping well and fitting in with their peers, but in reality, their autistic brain is probably becoming overwhelmed by demands and they may be struggling to maintain the façade.
Teachers may not be aware of the effort and energy required for the child to mask their autism, and may misunderstand the child’s needs and behaviors as a result. This can lead to the child being overlooked, misunderstood, or even disciplined for behaviors that are a result of their masking.
Superficial Social Abilities
Some autistic children may appear to have excellent social skills but actually their abilities are only superficial. Ultimately this can result in difficulties making and keeping friends, missing social cues, and feeling isolated. An autistic child who appears to have social skills but struggles with interpreting nonverbal cues may find it difficult to form lasting relationships or understand when they are in danger in certain situations. Some children will learn social rules in one situation but struggle to apply these in different environments.
There is a danger that children who social abilities are superficial could be deeply misunderstood. They may be expected to be able to perform well or cope with certain situations, when in fact they can’t.
Strategies for Supporting Your Masking Child
Understand Autism Masking Yourself
One of the most important things you can do is to learn about autism masking, and spend time observing and chatting with your child about the ways in which they mask. This will help you understand why your child may exhibit certain behaviors or avoid some situations, and how to best support them.
Work Closely With School (Help School Understand Autism Masking)
If your child appears to be masking at school, start by engaging with staff and trying to build a positive, mutually respectful relationship. Close co-operation is crucial so that teachers can begin to spot the subtle signs of masking behaviour.
Many teachers and administrators may not be familiar with the concept of autistic masking, and may misinterpret your child’s behavior as defiant or oppositional. More commonly, they may not even notice that your child is struggling. Your child is doing such a good job of social masking that staff think they’re “fine”. (If I got a pound for every time I heard this word relating to children at my clinic in school when in fact they were very much not fine, I would be rich!).
Discuss Identity Issues
Have ongoing conversations with your child about their self-identity including their true likes and dislikes, strengths and values. Make sure masking doesn’t lead to a complete fog about who they are underneath. Your child may not feel safe showing their peers who they truly are at the moment, but they may feel they can be their true selves one day – even if this isn’t until adulthood.
For now, where can they be their true selves and feel completely relaxed in their own skin and accepted? At home with family members? With one trusted friend? Perhaps at a particular club or whilst engaging in a hobby? It’s really important there is some outlet where they can feel truly relaxed. Somewhere they do not have to mask.
Find a Middle Ground
If your child is masking make sure they are doing it willingly and consciously. Ensure they are clear on where they are choosing to mask, and which are the “safe places” where they don’t need to and can let that mask slip.
Maybe your child loves interacting with their friends, but finds this exhausting. Taking social breaks can be helpful for masking children.
It’s vital for your child to have time to recharge and decompress. Encourage your child to take breaks throughout the day and engage in calming activities, such as reading or drawing.
If your child has a big social event coming up, help them plan their social breaks in advance. For example, it may be helpful for them to have a quiet day the day before and the day after to recover.
Another thing to consider is how long your child socialises for. Maybe they can do brilliantly for the first hour of a party, but after this they become exhausted and overwhelmed. Make sure they know it’s okay to socialise for a shorter time.
One specific technique that may be helpful for masking children is energy accounting. It involves helping children understand their energy levels and how to conserve their energy throughout the day. This can be done through a visual representation, such as a chart or diagram, where children can track their energy levels and identify activities that are draining or energizing. By learning to conserve their energy, children can better manage their stress levels and avoid burnout.
I absolutely love this short video explaining energy accounting as the best way to maintain a balanced lifestyle as an autistic person.
Childhood and adolescence can be tough for autistic children and adolescents. But for autistic adults – even in a world set up for neurotypical people – life often gets much easier. Over time, many autistic adults become more comfortable with their autistic identity and less affected by what others may think or say. This often gives them a freedom to feel they no longer need to mask, or at least not to the same extent. In my experience, adults tend to be much more accepting of people exactly as they are, and celebrate quirks and differences.
Should My Autistic Child Stop Masking?
This is a complex question. In an ideal world your child shouldn’t have to mask. They should be accepted for who they are, quirks and all. Their uniqueness should be celebrated.
The decision of whether or not to mask is a deeply personal one and can depend on a variety of factors, including the child’s comfort level, the social situation, and the potential consequences of not masking. Some autistic individuals may choose to mask to fit in better and avoid negative reactions from others. Others may choose not to mask as a way to stay true to themselves and their authentic identity.
It’s important for all of us to work towards creating a world where autistic people are accepted and celebrated for who they are, without feeling the need to mask their true selves.
Autism masking is a set of coping strategies autistic people develop to fit into a neurotypical world. Autism masking involves intentionally or unintentionally learning and mimicking neurotypical behaviours or suppressing behaviours in social situations.
If your child is masking, self-awareness is the most important first step in deciding whether their masking is serving them or hindering them.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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