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Autistic Masking – What is it, and why can lead to mental health problems.

Hiding or masking who you are can be an uncomfortable and exhausting experience. For many autistic people and people with ADHD, that experience is a daily reality.

Masking is not always intentional. Masking can be a learned behaviour. Regardless of intentionality, masking can lead to serious physical and mental health consequences; It is essential to understand masking and its effects on neurodivergent individuals.

A neurodivergent individual will often suppress or camouflages their authentic traits

What is masking behaviour?

A neurodivergent individual will often suppress or camouflages their authentic traits. This may be a way of being accepted or blend in with others. This is usually a social survival strategy called masking. It almost always occurs in a social setting.

Making is not always intentional, leading to confusion about a person’s identity. It can lead to neurotypicals doubting a person’s accessibility needs because they seem neurotypical due to continuous masking in public. This is especially true for students who endure school and social rules to fit in. They hide their authentic self during the day and then experience meltdowns at home due to the effort to mask throughout the day.

National Autism directory, assisting with information on autism and neurodiversity.

What does masking look like?

Masking can include but is not limited to:

  • Forcing eye contact.
  • Suppressing stimming behaviour to avoid attention. Such as rocking or leg tapping.
  • Enduring sensory overwhelm due to rules and regulations. Like wearing uniforms and eating food that is not one of their safe foods. Being in a loud and visually stimulating environment
  • Mimicking or copying mannerisms, words, or interests.
  • Rehearsing social interactions or having pre-scripted responses to anticipated social scenarios.

People may mask autism for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • To avoid diagnosis disclosure.
  • To feel safe.
  • To avoid bullying and social stigma.
  • To gain employment or to advance at their current job.
  • To make and maintain friendships.
  • To follow the rules and regulations that are geared toward neurotypical individuals.
  • It may be taught behaviour through therapies or family. E.g., forcing neurotypical behaviours to hide or cure their neurodiversity.

Why is masking can be detrimental to physical and mental health?

The effort required to copy neurotypical behaviours can, over time, lead to trauma. Tragically, it can affect mental and physical health. Below is a list of masking can lead to;

Meltdowns – This is when sensory overwhelm becomes too much. Imagine the individual as a coke bottle.  As they go through the day, suppressing their authentic self, the bottle gets more and more shaken with the pressure building up. Every time the individual is forced to endure sensory overwhelm or “act” like a neurotypical, the bottle gets shaken that little bit more. They hold it all together publicly, which takes a lot of effort.  Then when in a safe environment, BOOM!  All the coke is released from the bottle simultaneously and cannot be contained or controlled.

Depression and anxiety – For many individuals, the constant suppression of their authentic self is exhausting. Continually feeling different can lead to burnout. This is especially true for learned masking behaviour. It is mentally exhausting and not sustainable.

Loss of identity – The constant acting can lead to a loss of identity, and the feeling of not belonging can be overwhelming. Cracks start to form. They may lose their jobs and friendships or even be expelled from school. The person they had been pretending to be can no longer be sustained. Because of the effort involved in maintaining the neurotypical persona, there has been little time to understand and embrace their neurodiversity. It can also lead to a lack of friends who understand their authentic selves or have genuine shared interests.

Reduced life expectancy – According to the recent senate enquiry, autistic individuals have a reduced life expectancy of 25 – 36 years shorter than neurotypical individuals. Masking can contribute to this. Physical health and mental health have been proven to be adversely affected by masking. Acceptance must be encouraged, and authentic neurodivergent behaviours must be embraced. A study released in December 2019 suggests that people with high autistic traits in the general population tend to camouflage these traits in social situations, which may increase feelings of thwarted belonging and, in turn, the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

What can be done?

Masking can be a costly survival strategy for neurodivergent individuals. Because of this, It usually requires individuals to hide their authentic selves and participate in uncomfortable and unnatural behaviours for their neurotype.

Masking may be intentional, unintentional or forced learned behaviour. Either way, we need to make neurodiversity a natural way of being and accept the traits, thoughts and feelings of neurodivergent individuals. Hence, the consequences of not doing so may be dire. It is not a case of if the individual will need help for the trauma inflicted by masking. It is more like, when will the individual need assistance in accepting themselves and managing mental health issues from a lifetime of acting and camouflaging their true selves?

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