Masking is the act of covering up our neurodivergent traits in order to appear “normal”, that is, it is when the autistic person observes and analyzes the behavior of others and imitates them, in order to hide socialization difficulties.
It can be used by both men and women, however, due to the dynamics and expectations of women in society, it is easier for them to mask – this even represents one of the main difficulties in diagnosis.
However, masking our traits is exhausting and can make it difficult for us to recognize constructed versions of ourselves, and the real version, leading to an ill-defined self. Our identity is important, and the lack of it can affect the way we see ourselves and even contribute to psychological symptoms.
It is not a conscious choice, nor is it an attempt to be fake or manipulative. It is a strategy for dealing with the fact that we are different and for integrating into society. With some people we may not feel the need to mask as much, and be more us, as with other neurodivergent people, for example.
We have to make room in society for autistic people to be who they are, without masking or having to apologize.
Saying I’m tired, when I’m overloaded
Avoid stereotyping in public
Looking at the eyebrows instead of the eyes
Copying other people’s clothing style
Reading a book, when I get non-verbal
Pretend I have a lot of work so I can have lunch alone
Pretending to write something down so I don’t have to look people in the eye during a meeting
Having a small talk script
Spend the day trying to “fit in” and come home exhausted
Overthinking previous conversations and analyzing them to know what to say next time
While masking is a very effective way to hide autism, in the long run it is beginning to be associated as a major cause of dysregulation, burnout, mental illness and suicide attempts in adult autistics.
A 2017 British survey showed that burnout is universal in adult autistics, who say they feel totally exhausted – mentally, physically and emotionally.
The few studies on this subject show that masking is proportionally linked to psychopathology, such as depressive disorders and anxiety disorders, as well as an increased likelihood of suicide.
Masking drains our cognitive capacity faster, due to the effort of socializing and masking, and therefore it is common for autistic people to come home from school irritable, tired, and having difficulty regulating. Excessive camouflage, done for years on end, can also cause us to lose sight of our true identity. Identity is essential to the human being, and without acceptance of our identity, either by ourselves, or by others, we can never achieve true inclusion.
Alexithymia is the difficulty in identifying, distinguishing and describing the emotions we feel, using emotive terms, or reading and identifying what others feel. It is thought that at least 50% of Autistics have Alexithymia, and that difficulty reading non-verbal communication and low empathy may be derived from Alexithymia, not Autism. Alexithymia makes it difficult to access emotions, and it may do the same with empathy. However, I show physical signs of empathy, I just can’t identify it, as well as other emotions. Either way we have learned empathy, even if without intuitive empathy. Autistics can be hyper-empathetic, making what others feel too much for them.
The Double Empathy Theory suggests that when people with very different perspectives on the world interact, they have difficulty empathizing and communicating with each other. The Double Empathy Problem, when applied to autism, suggests that communication between autistic people is as efficient as between neurotypical people, since we have similar ways of communicating, and that communication difficulties arise from the incompatibility between neurotypes, that is, between autistic and non-autistic people. These results challenge the diagnostic criteria that autistics lack the skills to interact successfully. This was confirmed by Crompton et al, 2020, where they tested the information passed between autistic, between neurotypical and mixed chains. This study showed equal efficiency when the neurotype was the same and decreased ability to communicate when it was mixed.
So it is not necessarily that autistic people have an impairment in communication, but they have it WHEN they are communicating with someone who is not autistic, and it is just as correct to say that a neurotypical has an impairment in communication IF they are talking to an autistic person. Perhaps, if we don’t see this as a disability, non-autistic people will also make an effort to communicate and accommodate our way of doing it.
Milton, D, 2012, On the Ontological Status of Autism: the ‘Double Empathy Problem’. https://kar.kent.ac.uk/62639/1/Double%20empathy%20problem.pdf
Crompton et al, 2020, “Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly effective”. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1362361320919286