Autism Masking: Understanding the Why Behind the Behaviour

Introduction

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects approximately 1 in 70 Australians. While no two cases are the same, some of the hallmarks of autism include difficulties with communication and social interaction, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviours.

One lesser-known aspect of ASD is ‘masking’ — whereby individuals with autism intentionally suppress or hide their autistic traits in order to fit in with neurotypical individuals (i.e. those without autism). In this article, we will explore the phenomenon of autism masking, why it occurs, and the impact it can have on individuals with autism.

The Origins of Autism Masking

Autism masking is a relatively new concept, and as such, there is currently little research on the topic. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that masking is more common in females with autism than in males.

Women and girls are often not diagnosed until later in life due to the ‘male profile’ of autism diagnosis, which centres around more stereotypical ‘male’ behaviours such as being socially awkward and having narrow interests. In contrast, women with autism may be better at masking their autistic traits, which can make it difficult to identify the disorder.

Some researchers believe that the pressure on women and girls to conform to societal norms and expectations may lead to increased masking. There is also evidence to suggest that masking can create additional stress and anxiety, which can further exacerbate symptoms of autism.

The Impact of Masking on Individuals with Autism

The act of masking can have both positive and negative effects on individuals with autism. For example, masking can help individuals to blend in with their peers and make social connections that they may not have been able to otherwise.

However, the long-term effects of masking are less clear. Some studies suggest that constantly suppressing autistic behaviours can lead to mental exhaustion and burnout, which can result in increased anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

In addition, masking can make it difficult for individuals with autism to obtain a proper diagnosis, as they may be overlooked by healthcare professionals who do not recognise the signs of the disorder.

The Cost of Masking

Masking can also come at a significant cost to the individual with autism. Many individuals who mask their autistic traits report feeling like they are living a double life, constantly acting neurotypical in public while feeling like an outsider in their own skin.

Masking can also lead to masking-related fatigue, where individuals become exhausted from constantly suppressing their autistic traits. This can result in a decrease in their ability to perform daily tasks, leading to job loss or decreased academic performance.

Busting the Masking Myth

One of the most insidious aspects of masking is the belief that ‘if you can mask your autism, you must not really be autistic.’ This belief is not only harmful but also completely untrue.

Just because someone can mask their autistic traits does not mean that they are not experiencing the underlying symptoms of autism. It simply means that they have found a way to suppress those symptoms in order to fit in with their peers.

It is important to recognise that masking is not a ‘choice’ or a ‘personality flaw’, but rather a response to societal pressure to conform. No individual with autism should be made to feel like they are ‘less autistic’ because they are able to mask their behaviours.

The Importance of Early Diagnosis and Intervention

One of the most effective ways to reduce the need for masking is through early diagnosis and intervention. By identifying autism early, healthcare professionals can work with individuals and their families to develop coping strategies and support systems that can help to lessen the need for masking.

Early intervention can also help to reduce the negative impacts of autism, such as social isolation and anxiety. With the right support, individuals with autism can thrive and live full and fulfilling lives.

Conclusion

Autism masking is a complex and nuanced phenomenon that requires further research and understanding. While the act of masking can be helpful in certain situations, it can also have negative impacts on individuals with autism.

It is important to recognise that masking is not a choice, but rather a response to societal pressure. By encouraging acceptance and understanding of all individuals with autism, we can reduce the need for masking and create a more inclusive society.

FAQs

What is autism masking?

Autism masking refers to the practice of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) hiding their difficulties in social interactions and communication, as well as their sensory sensitivities and repetitive behaviors. This is often done to fit in with neurotypical peers or to avoid being stigmatized.

Why do people with autism mask?

People with ASD often mask their symptoms due to societal pressure to conform to certain social norms and expectations. They may also fear being discriminated against or ostracized if their differences are perceived as negative. Additionally, some individuals with autism may not be aware of their own symptoms, making it difficult to seek treatment and support.

What are the consequences of autism masking?

Autism masking can lead to exhaustion, burnout, and mental health issues, as individuals expend a great deal of effort trying to pass as neurotypical. It can also delay diagnosis and treatment, as individuals may be misdiagnosed with other conditions or not recognize their own symptoms. Additionally, masking can lead to feelings of isolation and lack of support, as individuals may not feel comfortable disclosing their diagnosis or seeking accommodations.


References

1. Mazurek, M. O., & Petroski, G. F. (2020). Underdiagnosis and Overdiagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Importance of Considering Masking. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 50(10), 3635-3647. doi: 10.1007/s10803-020-04534-4

2. Tierney, S., Burns, J., & Kilbey, E. (2016). Looking behind the mask: Social coping strategies of girls on the autistic spectrum. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 23, 73-83. doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2015.11.011

3. Hull, L., Mandy, W., & Lai, M. (2017). Gender identity in autism: Sex differences in social affiliation with gender groups. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(6), 1635-1648. doi: 10.1007/s10803-017-3075-z