What is Autism Masking?

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Autism Spectrum Disorder, more commonly known as ASD, is the label used by medical professionals to refer to a developmental disability which is the consequence of a difference in brain make-up. As in the name autism is wide spectrum which encompasses a swath of individuals with It is largely characterised by deficits in social communication which may take the form of reduced eye contact, conveying emotion through facial expressions or an inability to understand relationships; this is by no means an exhaustive list of how social deficits may manifest themselves in autistic individuals.

Other signs of autism include hyper fixation, being overly fixated on a narrow interest; hypersensitivity, acute sensory perception (good hearing, sense of smell, etc.); and hyposensitivity, whereby reaction to sensory input is deemed under-responsive. Autistic Masking, quite simply, refers to an attempt to conceal these and other signs of autism; it’s when an autistic individual attempts to appear neurotypical.

What is Autism Masking and Why Does it Happen?

In further elaboration, masking is akin to filtering the way that you behave in order to appear more ‘normal’- whatever that means. Anecdotally, I am aware of some autistic people who concoct a whole different persona in order to appear ‘normal’: suppressing and learning new behaviours to fit society’s required mould. And on the other side of the spectrum, I know of others who simply make small adjustments to their behaviours to the same end.

Specific manifestations of masking may include forcing eye contact, underplaying the extent to which they enjoy a particular interest or underplaying the discomfort specific noises have on them. Autistic individuals mask for a variety of different reasons: broad external pressures, fear of social ostracism, fear of bullying or judgement are all common reasons. As we all know, society can be a particularly harsh judge on those whose behaviours do not fit within the ‘norm’.

In extreme cases, the judgment can lead some to suicide and in the less severe cases, but by no means unproblematic cases, one may be criticized for simply being themselves. Considering this, one doesn’t need the intellect of Einstein to understand why many autistic people choose to mask instead.

Why is it More Common for Women to Mask their Autism?

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Research suggests it is far more common for females to mask than it is for men, but why? Well, women have been shown to be more social than their male counterparts. This being the case, they face more opportunities whereby their deficits in communications may be seen as opposed to males- a sex which is less inclined to socialise. This poses big problems for women. Namely, this is one of the main reasons as to why so many women go undiagnosed and unable to receive the help that they need: they simply mask all these social deficits. As of present, the DSM-5 (a criteria for diagnosing autism) does not include masking. Much more headway needs to be made in providing the correct diagnostic criteria for women as what we presently have is heavily modelled on autism in males.

Can Autism Masking Lead to Burnout?

Autistic people are extremely susceptible to burnout: filtering oneself and more extremely concocting whole new personas to fit in with the status quo is an extremely taxing task for anyone to undertake. Imagine, having to filter each and every single one of your behaviours in order to conform to some standard that society judges as adequate AND then on top of that having to engage in all of the tasks that society asks of. The mere thought of that is exhausting, let alone actually having too physically do it. It’s no wonder that autistic people are susceptible to burnout, wouldn’t you be?

In a state of autistic burnout, those afflicted are unable to function adequately due to prolonged or a short-intense interval of stress and frustration. In my own experience, I have known of autistic people being rendered completely incapacitated spending days in bed simply to replenish themselves after having to constantly mask themselves. It is up to us, as a society, to make the world a more inclusive and loving place for all; no one should have to feel the need to conform to a specific mould. Diversity is what makes us special.

Useful Links

Signs of autism in women
Signs of autism in men
5 types of autism
Autism test

Blog Author

Nathan Brown