Masking and Autism

Reviewed by:
Hannah Andreasen
M.Ed BCBA

October 18, 2022

What Is Masking?

Masking is also referred to as camouflaging, social camouflaging, or compensating. People who mask hide behaviors associated with autism and try to only show what other people may think are more socially acceptable behaviors to fit in. Some people mask purposefully and other people may do it subconsciously. 

Six Masking Strategies

People with autism use various strategies to hide symptoms associated with autism.  

  1. Mimicking Others

Some people with autism describe masking as playing a different character, often mimicking how other people behave to do so. They can copy people they see in the media or in their lives. 

  1. Forcing Eye Contact

Forcing eye contact or holding eye contact for longer than comfortable is a common method that people with autism use to mask. 

  1. Hiding Interests 

People with autism often have intense and highly focused interests that bring them happiness. These interests can be things like toys, animals, numbers, or music. However, the intensity of their interest or the interest itself may be unexpected to others, so people with autism feel like they have to hide their interests. 

  1. Preparing Social Scripts 

Many individuals with autism make rules for themselves to follow in conversations with others. These rules may include things like making appropriate facial expressions or making sure to ask other people questions. They may also spend time preparing social scripts and topics of conversation before a social situation. 

  1. Minimizing Discomfort Caused by Sensory Sensitivities

Up to 90 percent of children with autism experience differences in their response to sensory information. This can result in oversensitivity or under sensitivity to sensory information. When there is too much sensory information, it can cause sensory overload. People with autism may feel like they have to hide or minimize the effects of sensory overload. These signs may include:

  • Trouble focusing
  • Mood swings
  • Stimming
  • Anxiety
  1. Minimizing Stimming Behaviors 

People with autism may also hide stimming behaviors to appear neurotypical. Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviors, are repetitive or stereotyped behaviors such as hand flapping, rocking, or repeating phrases. 

What Are the Motivations for Masking?

People with autism mask for many reasons. Some people with autism say that masking gives them greater access to social spaces and protects them from harm. 

Most of the research done on masking has involved adults with an autism diagnosis using surveys. One survey in the United Kingdom (UK) revealed that the most common reasons for masking were to blend in, to build relationships, and to be accepted, or as a defense mechanism. 

Masking is more common in people with autism who:

  • Identify as female 
  • Have been bullied 
  • Have high-functioning autism 

The signs of autism in girls are often different than in boys. Research suggests that compared to boys, girls are more interested in social relationships and experience more pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. This may motivate them to mask autism symptoms more often. 

Almost two out of three children with autism have experienced bullying. Children with autism may feel like they have to suppress who they are to fit in and avoid being bullied. 

People with high-functioning autism may appear neurotypical to others because they do not typically require assistance with activities of daily living. These individuals may feel pressure to blend in during social interactions. 

What Are the Effects of Masking?

Most people with autism will say that keeping the mask on to hide their differences is exhausting. Surveys in adults with autism have found common detrimental effects of masking, including:  

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Increased risk of suicidal thoughts 
  • Loss of identity 
  • Autistic burnout
  • Sensory and emotional overload

Masking frequently leads to a later diagnosis of autism. If a child can effectively mask symptoms of autism, parents, caregivers, and teachers may not notice that they are struggling. 

In fact, most females without an intellectual disability are not diagnosed with autism until adulthood. A study in the UK found that in 2012 only one in five girls with autism were diagnosed with autism by the age of 11, compared to more than half of boys. 

How Can You Support People Who Mask Autism Symptoms?

Masking is exhausting and can strip away one’s self-identity. Surveys have found that people with autism feel like they can take the mask down when they spend time with people who embrace their uniqueness. 

The Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire is a self-administered quiz that can help identify people over the age of 16 with undiagnosed autism who have been able to mask their symptoms. 

After a lifetime of often being misunderstood, many people feel a sense of empowerment after receiving an autism diagnosis as an adult. An autism diagnosis can help some people to accept who they are and stop masking. An autism diagnosis can also grant access to services like workplace and student accommodations for people with disabilities.

Conclusion

Masking involves hiding unique aspects of one’s personality to blend in. People with autism often feel like they have to wear a mask in social situations. However, there is often a high cost to masking. Self-acceptance and a support system that embraces uniqueness can help lighten the toll that masking takes on people with autism. 

‍Songbird Therapy is a technology-enabled provider setting a higher standard for children’s autism care. With a deeply passionate team and innovative technology, we’re building a world where every child can access world-class care at home, uniquely tailored to them.

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