We spoke to Kieran Rose, who is part of our Autism and Neurodiversity Think Tank, about his recent study on masking, and why it’s an issue we should all be aware of.

At the North East Autism Society, we are committed to listening to and being informed by the very people we exist to serve, which is why we set up our Autism and Neurodiversity Think Tank in 2019.

The Think Tank, which is made up of autistic and/or neurodivergent adults, has previously consulted the Board of Trustees and Senior Management on the likes of recruitment and induction training, language and, crucially, our policy around Positive Proactive Support.

As a founding member of the Think Tank, Kieran Rose has worked closely with many of our staff, challenging our practice and working with us to ensure those we support remain at the heart of everything we do.

But, when he’s not supporting us with delivering our vision, Kieran – who was diagnosed autistic as an adult - also runs his own training and consultancy business and recently co-authored his first academic study.

Written in partnership with Dr Amy Pearson, who lectures in Developmental Psychology at the University of Sunderland, A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking: Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice explores the issue of masking and the negative effects it can have on autistic individuals.

Kieran and Amy describe masking as the “conscious or unconscious suppression of natural autistic responses, and the adoption of alternatives across a range of domains including social interaction, sensory experience, cognition, movement, and behaviour”.

Some examples of masking include making eye contact even though it makes you feel uncomfortable, imitating smiles or facial gestures, or not talking about your interests because you’re worried about what other people may think of you. 

Research has suggested that masking – which is also referred to as camouflaging, compensation or adaptive morphing - may be linked to negative outcomes for autistic people, including late/missed diagnosis, mental health issues, burnout and suicidality.

We wanted to highlight that the Mask is not something that you pick up two minutes before a social interaction, wear through it, then discard afterwards,” Kieran explains.

It is a living, breathing projection of self, a double consciousness, an acceptable closet, a stigma driven suppression of the authentic you, that both controls and envelopes you, that both keeps you safe and harms you, that grows and develops over a life-span forcing you to dissociate from it.

The study suggests that masking is a response to the deficit narrative – which, in simple terms, focuses on the perceived limitations and deficiencies of people, rather than their personal strengths or progress. While Kieran also stresses the belief that it is a developmental learned response to trauma – which, he explains, non-autistic people may not recognise as trauma.

Kieran and Amy also highlight the need for further research around the different ways autism presents in different people and how this could be linked to masking, as well as looking at when masking starts (e.g., in childhood) and what makes people feel like they need to keep up the mask.

Much of what is described as Masking is observational bias and assumption born out of the privilege of existing as a non-Autistic person in a non-Autistic world … as much as you might deny the deficit model, you can’t help knowing unconsciously that Autistic people aren’t like you and judge us on that.

The full study was published in the journal Autism in Adulthood. You can find out more about Kieran’s work by visiting www.theautisticadvocate.com.

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