Blog contributed by Dr Amy Pearson
Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Sunderland

The term ‘masking’ is not a particularly new term for the autistic and broader autism community, but as researchers have started to pay more attention to how masking can affect autistic people, it has become a hot topic for discussion. Masking has been related to poor mental health outcomes for autistic people, including increased risk of suicide.

So what is masking?

‘Masking’ is a concept that goes by many names. Camouflaging, adaptive morphing, concealment, passing, self-monitoring, impression management…the list is almost endless (Pearson and Rose, 2021). At the core, what all of these words are trying to describe is the process of hiding or suppressing aspects of your ‘true self’ in order to present a different self to the world. This is something that all people do to one degree or another, whether trying to maintain a ‘professional’ relationship with a boss, or trying to fit in with a group of friends at school. We all have different parts of ourselves that might become more relevant depending on who we’re with at the time- the ‘sporty’ us, when we’re with our five-a-side group, or the ‘nerdy’ us, when we’re with our cosplay friends. This shifting of self along with context is a form of impression management, or self-monitoring, that allows us to blend in more with our social groups, and promotes harmonious relationships. However for those people who are often socially excluded or stigmatised (Botha and Frost, 2020), like autistic people, or people who are members of the wider LGBTQ+ population (or both!) for example, this process of managing which bits of the self that other people see can be more demanding. 

As research has started to catch up with what autistic people having been saying, we’ve realised that masking (just like being autistic) varies from person to person. One child masking at school might try not to respond to sensory overload from noise in class, or try to make eye contact with their peers when working together. Another might try not to share too much about their interests for fear of being bullied (adults do this too) or might follow/agree with the suggestions of their friend group regardless of whether they agree (sometimes known as ‘fawning’). As adults we might use generic statements in a conversation with an unfamiliar person because we’re not sure of what the ‘right’ thing to say might be, or smile and nod along with something we disagree with. We might wear small, unnoticeable sensory aids, like in ear noise cancelling earbuds, or stim in subtle ways like rubbing our fingers together below the table. Masking isn’t all about ‘hiding’ being autistic, it’s about presenting a version of yourself that is most likely to minimise any possible harm in that moment, something my colleague Kieran Rose refers to as ‘projecting acceptability’. This might mean playing the ‘class clown’ because that is the expectation that other people have of you, or it might mean becoming really withdrawn because then you become less of a target for others. 

Research has so far focussed on masking as more something more associated with autistic women and girls, as a factor that might explain why they are often identified later or diagnosed with something other than autism. However, autistic people of all genders may mask aspects of being autistic. Some of this might relate to their gender expression (e.g. autistic boys trying to appear more interested in ‘typical’ male interests like football, or an autistic non-binary person trying to dress in a way that is expected from their gender they were assigned at birth), but it might relate to other parts of their identity too. Black autistic people (Simmonds, 2021) have spoken about the double (or sometimes triple) pressures they face having to suppress different aspects of themselves, navigating a society that can be frequently racist and ableist (make negative judgements about what it is like to be disabled).  Queer autistic people have spoken about the pressures of managing ableism and homophobia, or transphobia, and finding spaces where queer AND autistic people feel welcome. So we can see that masking is less of an ‘autistic’ thing, and more of a ‘marginalised’ (socially excluded) thing. 

So what do we do about it? 

Firstly, it is important to recognise that it is not always safe for people to ‘un-mask’. Though in an ideal world people would be able to be themselves free of fear of harm or negative judgements, this isn’t currently the world we live in. If people feel like they need to mask to stay safe in certain situations, the best we can do is to respect their decision, and to provide support, and a safe place where they can un-mask to recover their energy. Giving young people space and quiet after school for them to recover some energy before engaging with them about their day. 

Next, we can create environments where the feeling of needing to mask is not as pressing. This might mean creating more sensory friendly spaces in schools (and that doesn’t mean a sensory room, but making sure a classroom is generally not over-stimulating, warning autistic children of planned fire drills, etc), or modifying our expectations of what vague concepts like ‘normal’ or ‘success’ look like. We can also emphasise the importance of boundaries and expectations, like saying no to a social event that you know will be draining instead of exhausting yourself for fear or appearing ‘rude’, or facilitating an activity that you know will bring someone joy instead of trying to nudge them into doing what they ‘should’ be doing.

Finally, we can encourage people to talk to others about difference in a way that emphasises respect and compassion. Recognise that the things that make us ‘weird’ also make us us, and treat people who are different from us in a way that emphasises our shared humanity. Much of the exclusion that autistic people face isn’t because people know that we are autistic, but because we appear to be weird, or different, regardless of whether people know about our label or not (Farahar, 2021)

Since 2008 April has been associated with autism ‘awareness’, but awareness alone is not enough. This April, and every other month of the year lets aim for acceptance

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