What is autism masking? Understanding this complex survival strategy in adults

A woman looks away. (Photo by Kate Gundareva.)

Medical professionals have learned a great deal about autism over the years, but there is still a lot unknown.

Autism can be explained medically as a bio-neurological development disability, but to get into the nuanced details is quite a bit more complicated.

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The degree to which a person can show patterns of autism varies by a great deal, so there isn’t truly a “one-size-fits-all” description of how it impacts each individual person who has it.

Autism in adults

To that end, there is a growing number of adults who are learning they have autism.

Perhaps they had traits in their personality they knew made them feel different, or maybe social interactions were always a struggle for them.

For many of these adults, they’ve learned to autism mask, which is a quite complex survival strategy for people with autism, and they’ve likely done it without even realizing what they were doing.

Before we get into that, it’s important to understand some signs of autism in adults. To name a few, they might include:

  • Having trouble holding a conversation.
  • Having trouble interpreting facial expressions, body language or social cues.
  • Finding building and maintaining close friendships and relationships difficult.
  • Being bothered if their things are moved or rearranged by someone.
  • Finding small talk, such as talking about the weather and what others are doing, difficult.
  • Having trouble relating to other people’s thoughts or emotions.
  • Enjoying consistent routine and schedules and get upset or anxious if that routine or schedule is changed.
  • Finding it upsetting when something happens that they did not expect to happen.
  • Having difficulty multi-tasking.
  • Finding it difficult to build and maintain close friendships and relationships.
  • Having a preference for highly specific interests or hobbies on which they spend a lot of their time.

The motivation of autism masking

Autism masking typically happens with high-functioning adults who have autism. It is a suppression of a natural autistic responses that can be done consciously or unconsciously, according to the Autism Awareness Centre.

People who have autism might mask -- also referred to as camouflaging or compensating -- for a number of reasons, such as:

  • Wanting to blend in.
  • To avoid bullying or mistreatment.
  • Avoiding stigma.
  • Succeeding at work (or getting a job).
  • Dealing with family.
  • Self-preservation.

One of the reasons people mask, therapy experts say, could come from trauma they’ve experienced in the past. Perhaps they were bullied or rejected for who they are, leading to self-preservation, and ultimately causing them to mask.

Consequences for those autism masking

While masking can help a high-functioning person with autism to “fit in” or be successful, it takes a lot of effort, according to Autism Awareness Centre, so it can also lead to negative effects on a person’s well-being.

People who mask might experience:

  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Feeling like a “fake”
  • Depression
  • Increased stress and anxiety
  • Burnout
  • Self doubt
  • Isolation or loneliness

But perhaps one of the most important effects is it can lead to a delayed autism diagnosis.

People who spend years autism masking might end up feeling like they’re not good enough, and that alone can be traumatic.

How we can help and support

The best things people can do is to educate themselves about autism so that they may better understand an accept people who are neurodiverse.

Employers can also strive to learn more about autism in the workplace. Autism training can be implemented into education programs.

The bottom line is, ideally, the more we understand about autism, the less likely there is to be any stigma, allowing people with autism to feel less pressure to try to fit in.

About the Author

Dawn Jorgenson, Graham Media Group Branded Content Managing Editor, began working with the group in April 2013. She graduated from Texas State University with a degree in electronic media.

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