What is Autistic Masking? The Cost of Camouflaging (13 Questions Answered)

What is masking? Is it a good thing? I’ll do my best to answer all your questions about autistic masking.

It might not sound like that big of a deal at first. But masking (also known as camouflaging and passing) is very real, a very big deal for a lot of people on the spectrum, especially women. It has a big impact on our relationships with others, our likelihood of getting diagnosed, and our mental health.

Hopefully, this helps you learn a little more about it!

autistic masking camouflaging

What is masking?

According to the dictionary, the word “masking” means to cover, conceal, disguise, or hide something. And sure, technically that’s true. But there is a lot more to autistic masking.

 

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Basically, autistic masking is acting the part of someone very similar to yourself – but just different enough. So we will force ourselves to do things that we find very uncomfortable and difficult.

Masking can be both intentional and subconscious.

We try to hide the traits of autism that can make other people uncomfortable and make us stand out.

 

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Being an autistic person, I can tell you that it’s a real struggle. Part of masking is not knowing where to stand in relation to the other person, not knowing how long to look in their eyes, or when to, and not knowing if you’re supposed to laugh.

Why do autistic people mask?

The underlying reason we mask is that it’s a coping mechanism and that we want to fit in. But we may not realize this for years. As I said, a lot of masking is subconscious. So, especially if we grow up without a diagnosis, we are making ourselves be socially acceptable.

We also do it to not only fit in, but blend in. A lot of us don’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to ourselves. I could even do with a little less of the necessary attention. We try to avoid standing out because we don’t really want people to see our struggles, especially before diagnosis when we feel there is something wrong with us.

Read more about my diagnosis story here

How does an autistic person build their mask?

Masks are often the product of many years of feeling misunderstood and put down for the way we are. If you happen to stim (stims are self-soothing behaviors) in public and you get teased for it, for example, you hold onto that comment for the next however many years and that feeling comes to mind every time you feel like stimming in public.

Trauma doesn’t have to be involved, though it is for many people. It wasn’t there for me, so I really can’t comment on how that affects a person, though they have my utmost sympathy.

A big thing that builds our mask is observing others. It’s true, we study people. We watch the way they stand, the way they laugh, the way they keep eye contact. And then we try to do the same thing.

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Something that can result from this is using other people’s expressions, inflection, and even accents.

This is actually something I enjoy about masking. I tend to imitate the people I love, look up to, and that I want to be like, so I have mannerisms and expressions from some of my favorite people. It’s almost like carrying around one of those old wallets full of pictures of your friends and family.

I never really know what mannerisms or expressions are going to stick, but it’s generally things I really like, find funny, or admire. I gesture like my best friend and use her inflections, I say “oh no” like my aunt and uncle. There is so much I do like the people I love and I find this to be really cool and special. It can make me feel kind of warm inside.

I use these scripts every day and each time it reminds me of that person. So if you notice me imitating you, it means I really like you ๐Ÿ˜œ๐Ÿ’•.

One thing that formed my mask over the years was tv and movies. I would always see what characters were teased for on tv, and why characters were thought of as cool or popular.

But, as you know, Disney Channel’s idea of ‘cool’ is kind of nasty. The kids are aloof and horrible to their parents. They make cutting remarks to their friends but it’s just sluffed off. I never liked that, so it was very confusing to me.

I wasn’t allowed to watch much Disney Channel growing up because I would imitate the kid’s bad attitudes towards their parents. Strangely, my parents didn’t like that too much ๐Ÿ˜‚.

The funny thing is though, I didn’t know I was being rude. I was just trying to make them laugh because it worked on tv.

Doesn’t everyone mask?

Yes, actually. Everyone masks to some degree. But it is different for neurotypical people than it is for neurodiverse people.

How masking is different for autistic people

The difference is quite simple when you think about it this way: neurotypicals, for the most part, adapt to their surroundings and dress and act accordingly. This is healthy and good.

For example, they might wear their team’s colors when they go to a sporting event. That’s typical: they are adjusting to the situation, they are enjoying it.

Masking for autistic people, on the other hand, might look more like pretending like they are enjoying the game. When, in reality, they have a headache from all the noise, and their eyes hurt from the lights, and their team sweater itches; they are miserable. This isn’t so healthy.

But we do it almost constantly, especially pre-diagnosis.

What do you do when you’re masking?

It’s different for every person. In general, though, masking can look like this:

  • Forcing eye contact, even though this makes it extremely hard to focus (in my case, trying to come up with some kind of formula for how often to look at their eyes and for how long ๐Ÿ˜‚)
  • Suppressing stims, being still (I tend to bite my tongue or my lip in public because people don’t see it)
  • Saying “I’m fine,” when we’re not fine
  • Trying not to freak out when touched
  • Laughing at jokes we don’t understand or just don’t find funny
  • Pretending to understand sarcasm
  • Pretending to be clued into a conversation that you’re barely able to process
  • Refusing to wear earplugs/sunglasses/headphones
  • Copying the behavior of others
  • Learning about the interests of others to try to fit in and make them like you
  • I follow people around (like my mom or close friend) and let them do the talking while I just observe

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What do you do when you mask? Let me know in the comments!

What does it feel like to mask?

It generally doesn’t feel so good. Especially before you’re diagnosed and not aware that you’re masking, it can be very uncomfortable and actually a little disconcerting.

Some people feel like they’re lying and faking. Putting on a persona of someone they’re not. Other’s feel that they are just doing the minimum to be socially acceptable.

After you understand, it’s still very difficult. But, after you know, you can reduce masking to a minimum. This can do wonders for your mental health!

Is masking a good or bad thing?

It can be both. Like I said earlier, everyone masks to a certain degree and that’s a good thing. But we can take it too far.

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What are some of the good things about masking?

Some of the good things about masking is that, in moderation, it can help you become better acquainted with your friend’s interests, because you stayed up obsessively googling them all night and memorizing facts. So you can learn new things.

(By the way, if an autistic person is spewing facts at you about something you’re interested in, it means they care about you and probably stayed up googling facts about it so you’d like them. Hear them out.)

It can force you to try new things because you’re too shy to say no…

Masking help you fit in. You can maintain enough eye contact that no one finds it weird, but not so much that it’s unbearable for you. Observing other people and masking, or camouflaging to them can help you learn and grow as a person.

In moderation.

What are some of the bad things about masking?

The problem is, moderation is difficult! We can mask so much that we lose track of ourselves and what we like and need.

We can forget what kind of music/tv/clothes/movies/games etc that we like because we always just do what everyone else likes.

I’ve stayed at parties or gatherings until I’m on the verge (or over the verge…) of tears, super nauseous, hands are sweaty, head is aching… just because I didn’t want to leave early and draw attention to myself.

Another problem with masking is that you look “high functioning.” People can’t always see you struggling so they might not believe you.

 

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Masking constantly can also make you feel like the way you naturally are is bad and you have to hide it. Say you’re uncomfortable with eye contact and you stim with your hands, for example. When you’re masking, you might be trying to look in people’s eyes and not stim, as if you’re not good enough just the way you are.

I absolutely love this video, it has such a positive message:

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It can make people feel inadequate, especially when they haven’t figured out that they’re autistic yet.

And masking is just plain exhausting! After an afternoon of spending time with just a few people, I’m so tired. I feel ill and I have to go home and sleep. I can come home from a morning with friends, that I enjoyed, and sleep for 3-4 hours no sweat. Then, I get up, have supper in a bit of a daze and go back to bed asap. It is so tiring.

 

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If you’ve been masking for too long, like if you’ve been undiagnosed, you can experience autistic burnout. Which trust me, is not fun. But that’s an article for another day.

Do both men and women mask?

While men and women can both mask, it tends to more common in women. This can cause women to be under-diagnosed, which is not good because we can struggle for longer.

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What are some funny situations that happen because of masking?

I would really love to hear your stories for this one, let me know in the comments!

Something funny that’s always happened to me involves accents. I pick up accents like you would not believe. After an hour of watching British tv, it’s legit hard for me to speak in my normal voice. Like actually difficult. So when I spend time with people from England, Texas, Australia, wherever, I start speaking like them. I don’t mean to, it just happens. I’ve always been terrified that people would think I was making fun of them, but I just can’t help it ๐Ÿ˜‚.

When and how to unmask

This is a big topic, one I feel very unqualified to tackle. All I can do is tell you about my experience and my feelings, feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.

In my opinion, it’s best to mask as little as possible. Since masking is so tiring and it can take away from who you are as a person, it is best not to overdo it.

 

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Now that I know why I mask, I’m trying to reduce the amount of time I stare at people’s eyes lol. You don’t have to maintain constant eye contact; looking up every 10-20 seconds is enough to let them know you’re still listening without exhausting yourself.

I’m also learning that it’s okay to excuse myself from a conversation if I’m overwhelmed.

However, there is a darker side to masking that happens at home where only the people closest to you can see it. I’ve only been officially diagnosed for a couple of weeks, so I’m still working on this and it is very tiring. Your subconscious is working through stuff even when you’re not aware of it.

The more difficult side of unmasking is taking time to figure out who you really are.

What kind of music do you like? Movies? How do you like to dress? Do you really want to do xyz? Or did someone once make you feel like you had to and so you’re still doing it that way?

 

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I’m just now telling my parents that there are certain foods that turn my stomach. I’m throwing out clothes that are uncomfortable. I’m letting myself watch my cheesy kids tv shows without worrying if someone hears the Hannah Montana theme song playing because I like it. I’m telling my family what I struggle with so I can let down the mask around them, at least a little.

As you learn more about yourself, you also begin to realize that just because something you do might make someone uncomfortable, that’s ok. You don’t have to sacrifice your comfort for theirs all the time.

While you need to make sure you’re not hurting anyone, it’s ok to stim. It’s okay to be you. Sometimes all it takes is an explanation for someone’s feelings to change. If they know why you need to do something, they will be more understanding.

It’s a long and difficult process but you feel better with every layer you peel off. It’s silly how good it feels for me to post on Instagram that I don’t even wear socks in the winter because I hate the way they feel.

You need to start accepting yourself, without judgment, and the mask will start to fall off.

 

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Oh boy…

I feel like I just ran a marathon; I’m actually a little out of breath ๐Ÿ˜…. I hope I helped you understand this a little better. Please comment with your experiences and your suggestions!

Love from the autsiverse!

About the author: Hello, Iโ€™m Drew! Welcome to my website. Here Iโ€™ll cover tons of helpful info about what itโ€™s like to be an adult on the autism spectrum, and how thatโ€™s different for women.

2 comments… add one
  • Rose Nov 24, 2019 @ 5:12

    Yay to people I don’t know Info Dumping about Masking!!!

  • Victoria Puglisi Nov 23, 2019 @ 23:01

    This is so relatable! I remember my parents telling me I couldn’t play my favorite video game (Bratz: Rock Angels, or something) because I was getting an attitude like the main characters, when I was just repeating their phrases like “duh” and “whatever”, because I thought they were just playing around and being cool lol. Early 2000’s lingo was so confusing.

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