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Autism from the inside: neurodivergent masking

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Masking is a social survival tool used by people with various differences and conditions to fit into social situations to appear neurotypical or less neurodiverse. Masking is the minimizing of neurodivergent behaviors that are considered problematic, annoyances, or disturbances in favor of neurotypical behaviors. Masking can include altering the content of speech, prosody, suppressing speech, changes in body language, proxemics, facial expressions, eye contact, or any behaviors. The purpose is to avoid being singled out or identified as different to avoid scrutiny, bullying, criticism, abuse, or other negative consequences, and to improve acceptance, the social experience, and to build and maintain relationships.

The act of masking is accomplished through creating a performance and trying to change to conform to perceived expectations. Because neurodivergent people do not always fully understand unspoken social rules or expected behaviors, imitation is a method to achieve conformity.

Whether a person is diagnosed or not, peers, parents, and other adults can identify that they are different. Any (and sometimes all) of these individuals may apply pressure on neurodivergent people to explain themselves and to change.

Conversely, some neurodivergent people are acutely aware of their differences and see the ostracization of others and craft a persona that allows them to fly under the radar while internalizing their struggles.

In either case, masking becomes an ongoing survival skill used until either the person feels safe to drop the mask or faces burnout and can no longer maintain it.

Masking is not to be confused with simply learning a new way to be social. Anyone can learn a new social skill. For example, a person might learn how to provide constructive criticism for other writers in a fiction writer's workshop or how to facilitate a meeting effectively. A neurodivergent person can learn these skills out of personal or professional interest and apply the skill without using masking. Masking is changing one's behaviors for the comfort of others at one's own cost.

Examples of masking:
  • Making eye contact even though it's uncomfortable because you've been told to do so explicitly or because advice on job interviews or dating state that it's required to make a good impression and convey interest.

  • Refraining from using stims to regulate in front of others or adopting less obvious stims in place of your typical ones.

  • Mimicking others in social situations or trying to imitate their appearance, mannerisms, and activities to be accepted.

Many people ask isn't this a good thing? Isn't this what we should encourage? Wouldn't Autistic people have better lives if they fit in more? This is what is often being practiced with some therapies and school based interventions because it may seem from the outside that masking is success, even the very goal of therapies for Autism. However, pretending to be someone you aren't isn't very rewarding or good for one's self-esteem. It is also a great deal of effort to monitor other people's behaviors, interpret them, and then respond in the "right" way. While masking might help in the short term, it's not a long-term solution and comes with consequences.

Masking can feel like trying on roles to play in order to fit in. The "fake it till you make" method of social interaction means studying others and then acting out or imitating what one has seen. Some people's masking attempts look like a copy of a copy while others are able to blend in at least part of the time. Masking can also feel less like being a poseur with a framing of deciding what you want to be and then becoming it. People mask for different purposes and different lengths of time and may have different masks for different settings and people. Masking can feel like putting on your customer service face.

In order to mask in real-time, one must be able to read the situation and other people. Having experience in previous circumstances or having ready scripts to use can make the process more natural in appearance from the outside, but masking is a complex calculus that requires observation, cognition, and physical and spoken responses. It can be exhausting. For many neurodivergent people, social events or even a day of work require recovery time due to the effort exerted in masking and attempting to read others' social cues, body language, and subtext.

So for all of that effort, is worth it? Does masking even work? The answer isn't a unified one. It does work, and it doesn't work. Some people are better at it, and some people are able to mask and "pass" in some instances and not others. Other people are not likely to appear to be non-neurodivergent. An analysis of three studies on neurotypical people's responses to videos of others speaking found that non-neurodivergent people can identify Autistic people within seconds though they often do not know they are Autistic. Instead, they flag them as people they aren't interested in interacting with. This does not change with further interactions. Subjects did not have the same response when they read transcripts of Autistic individuals' speech. It was based on seeing them speak and move. How well does masking work? Results vary.

It's probably the case that all neurodivergent people have engaged in masking. Even those with significant difficulty in controlling their bodies and behaviors. Non-speaking Autistics report trying to control behaviors for social benefit, but their ability to do so is different than other neurodivergent people who have spoken language and do not have motor planning issues.

Should neurodivergent people mask? My first instinct is to say no. It's a harmful practice. Instead, neurodivergent people should be able to be themselves and be accepted. However, we aren't there, so neurodivergent people will likely find themselves in situations where masking is required for safety or survival--even if that's economic survival by masking at work. However, all neurodivergent people should be aware of their own masking behaviors to allow themselves sufficient opportunities to unmask and recover. Recovery is neurodivergent self-care including stimmimg, indulging special interests, and also having a community of accepting others.

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