** UPDATE 10/10/2019 – a new Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire (CAT-Q) has been developed and discussed in a research paper here (actual checklist p. 827).
Autistic Masking – definition/s
- putting on a public face
- “carrying” scripts for conversations
- suppressing stims
- “It’s ultimately the act of making yourself appear as non-autistic as possible in order to protect yourself and fit in, without ever really understanding what’s going.” – Kieran Rose, Autistic Self Advocate
Other terms to describe the same thing:
What are we doing when we mask?
Suppressing our natural tendencies to e.g. stim; use literal and blunt language; as a means to appear non-autistic/neuro-typical
Examples of masking:
- Copying someone’s tone of voice/dress sense/body language
- Giving an “expected” answer to a question (“Yes I had a great time at Dan’s party!”) rather than the truth (“I hate Dan and I hate parties.”)
- Making small talk/attempting to make eye-contact/learning to appear to make eye-contact
- Smiling and laughing (even when not sure what’s going on)
- Pretending to understand and keep up with a conversation
Masking also means not doing things we’d naturally do. For example:
- Not stimming (or stimming in smaller, “acceptable” ways)
- Not expressing emotions physically (like jumping up and down when happy)
- Not talking to ourselves
- Avoiding social interactions
Why do we mask?
To fit in – avoid judgement, criticism, being called names etc. (weird, odd etc.).
Masking is unconscious and learnt as a process of trial and error – when we seem to not fit in, to not do the “right thing” in interactions with others, many of us start to mimic those around us in order to fit in and not be treated differently
Having cognitive scripts for all interactions also helps with processing in real time.
Many of us find it difficult to process all the elements during an interaction with someone/persons – it takes a lot of cognitive resources to process e.g. the sensory environment (sight; sound; smell; touch) as well as making sure we have heard the person we are interacting with; processed what we should say in response; remember the “correct” or expected way to respond and so on.
With learnt scripts we can reduce the need to process in real-time – but this can be exhausting.
What can masking look like to others?
Sitting back and observing others in social situations, not necessarily participating but learning “how to do socialising” – traversing a neuro-typical world
Issues with masking
No matter how good we get at mimicking others behaviours (language, body language and so on) it is never quite right – it appears to non-autistics as out of place.
For example, using phrases from TV shows, books, films etc. as scripts in real-life interactions can come across as out of place.
It makes sense for the cast of Friends to use the phrase “are we exclusive” when in a new relationship, but perhaps this seems out of place when you are 14 years old and ask your first boyfriend the same thing!
Masking = Poor mental wellbeing
- Overly self-reflective and –aware (anxiety-provoking “did I say the right thing?”)
- Many autistic people report that they don’t know who they “really” are – “how do you like your eggs?”
- Feeling of separation – feeling “alien/other”
- Suppressing the urge/need to stim and/or e.g. block out noise etc. reduces our ability to regulate our senses leading to overwhelm etc.
- Overstimulation – overwhelm/meltdown/shutdown/burnout/depression
Autistic in a neuro-typical world…
…things in the world and experiences of it cause us autistics to be sensorially, socially, and emotionally overwhelmed. When this happens we may experience meltdowns, shutdowns, and eventually burnout.
Often we mask our differences and difficulties, which creates and maintains anxiety, and by trying to appear neuro-typical (e.g. people-ing; doing too much; working too hard) we meltdown and experience burnout – and the cycle continues.
When this happens it’s important to know that it’s normal and what you can do to recover from it, and hopefully avoid it happening in the future (or at least reduce the severity of the overwhelm/meltdown/shutdown/burnout).
Masking once realise autistic
Many autistic people and those around them report becoming “more autistic” once they discover they are autistic (learn who real friends are/lose friends/partners when express more authentic self)
- Stim more
- Literal and blunt
- Stop doing things previously masked through e.g. avoid parties; pubs; bars etc.
- Dress how you like/feel comfortable
- Connect with others in a way not done previously (ever)
- Autistic mindfulness –
- Stimming and stim toys/objects/songs etc.
- Headspace – free app
- Brain in Hand – app via DSA/Student Support
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- Exercise – yoga, Pilates, running etc.
- Give yourself permission to withdraw from things/life and decompress – Say “no” to things
- Create your autistic safe haven – bedroom with all your favourite, relaxing things etc.
- Binge watch Netflix/read books unrelated to uni etc.
Taking off the mask – in safety
“Being with other autistic people is easy, it’s stress free, blissful, it is pure freedom.
Freedom to be who we want to be, to talk how we want to talk and about whatever we want to talk about.
Freedom to be who we truly are.
We take off our masks and throw them away, we have no need for them. There is mutual respect for each others differences…
…We Mask to keep ourselves safe and to make non-Autistic people feel comfortable.
So, stop making them feel comfortable.
Show them what it is to be Autistic, literally flap it in their faces and be proud of it.
If you can do it safely, do it as well as you can.
If you can’t do it safely, talk about it where it is safe to do so, join the chorus of people saying “No more!”” – The Autistic Advocate
“Self-awareness impacts masking on a fundamental and deep level, because being aware about yourself, your strengths and limitations allows you to create strategies that you can use, instead of masking and mimicking a neurotypicals behavior. Self-awareness allows you to be more yourself than ever before, although it takes some time to actually achieve. However, once you’ve achieved a certain level of self-awareness, things become a little bit more easy afterwards.” – THE ASIAN ASPERGIRL
We at SYA? will always advocate for you to be your authentic autistic self, but we caution you to think about who you wish to disclose to, and who you can be yourself around. Ultimately, you need to protect yourself, and many of us (Chloe and Annette included) don’t always have positive experiences with others when we disclose that we are autistic. But Annette and Chloe will continue to fight for acceptance where they can, but this is a personal choice – not everyone understands what it means to be autistic, and public understanding and acceptance is an ongoing project.