What is Autism Masking?

Published September 20, 2021

Masking is a social skill that persons with autism adopt in social settings in which non-autistic people expect non-autistic behavior. Examples include faking eye contact, mirroring, minimizing, and disguising behaviors and feelings. Autism masking has been documented to cause stress, depression, and other mental health and identity issues. 

Many people assume that autistic people have no social or self-awareness, but oftentimes this myth is just that: a myth.

In reality, many autistic people are painfully aware of the expectations others have of them socially. Thus, they accommodate non-autistic people by behaving like non-autistic people would in social situations. This alteration in behavior is called “masking.”

What does masking look like?

As Healthline writer Rebecca Joy Stanborough, MFA, put it, autistic people can mask by “forcing or faking eye contact during conversations, imitating smiles and other facial expressions, and mimicking gestures.”

Stanborough also noted that masking can involve “hiding or minimizing personal interests, developing a repertoire of rehearsed responses to questions, and pushing through intense sensory discomfort including loud noises.” Of course, no autistic person is the same, so different people may mask in different ways.

Why do autistic people mask?

According to a 2019 study by Eilidh Cage and Zoe Troxell‐Whitman, autistic adults most commonly mask their autism to fit in with non-autistic people. They want to avoid other people’s bullying and negative reactions towards them. In addition, they may also mask their autism because they are concerned about how they come across to others when they do not alter their behavior (p. 1905-1906).

Stanborough referenced a 2017 study by Laura Hull et. al. in her description of the masking process. Stanborough explained that:

Masking begins when a neurodivergent [autistic] person recognizes that something important hinges on being perceived as neurotypical [non-autistic]. Maybe it’s friendship. Maybe it’s a job opportunity. Maybe it’s personal safety.

Whatever the motivation, an autistic person may feel they must hide differences or change the way they naturally act — often because their living or working environment doesn’t tolerate, support, or respect neurodivergent [autistic] behaviors.

How does masking affect autistic people?

Masking can help autistic people navigate social situations. However, for many, this benefit comes at a hefty price.

Masking causes a loss of identity

On the milder side of side effects, autistic people who mask can face an identity crisis. Louise Bradley, Ph.D., et. al. held a 2021 study about how autistic masking affects mental health and found that many participants who masked all the time “described needing to ‘constantly monitor’ their behavior, so much so that they did not know ‘how to be any different anymore,’ or how to ‘exist in social situations without masking'” (p. 5).

Bradley, Ph.D., et. al. commented that “many described having lost the ‘real me’ or feeling ‘fake’ which affected their ‘confidence,’ ‘self-worth,’ ‘self-esteem,’ and ‘identity.’” Some reported not knowing "what this concept of ‘self’ really is," and having "little of ‘me’ left’" because they were "a patchwork of acts," leading to a sense of "shame." A participant stated, "[I] often hate myself because of not being publicly acceptable as who I really am" (p. 6).

Masking causes mental and physical exhaustion

The authors of the above study stated that many participants felt masking their autism was exhausting. Autistic participants found meeting non-autistic people’s expectations to be stressful because there are ‘‘so many rules of what to do in each situation.” Due to the complexity of social interactions, their brains are “constantly working and ticking, building patterns and sub-patterns to describe every situation based on every person.” They needed these rules to get “all of the social cues right, have the right facial expression, and respond in the ‘right way.’” (p. 5).

Needless to say, after masking, many autistic people reported feeling “cognitively overloaded, overwhelmed, or burnt-out.” For some, even “seemingly simple things such as eating or washing or brushing hair were difficult because masking took all of their energy.” They needed time to “recover and recharge” after, and if they didn’t get that time, they could shut down. Many participants also described physical side effects from masking, such as “headaches, gut issues, aching muscles,” and generally poor physical health (p. 6).

Masking causes a decline in mental health

Many participants in Bradley, Ph.D., et. al.’s research who masked reported anxiety and depression. They stated that “camouflaging made them more likely to have ‘mental health breakdowns,’ ‘suicidal thoughts,' or to ‘self-injure’ due to the ‘pressure’ of needing to cope in social situations. One participant explained that her mental ill-health was ‘a direct consequence of social rejection when [she] couldn’t mask adequately’ (p. 6).

Masking causes unfulfilled needs for support and autism diagnoses

Participants in Bradley, Ph.D., et. al.’s study “felt there was not enough ‘recognition of [their] difficulties,’ that people ‘expect too much,’ and ‘think [they] are coping when [they] are not.'” They said that "people think I manage my life better than I actually do. Unfortunately, this means that people don’t think I need the help that I sometimes do, or they think ‘You’re capable, why can’t you do that?’’’

Furthermore, “camouflaging was reported to cause a ‘delay in formal diagnosis’" (p. 6). Some autistic people are so good at masking that others do not recognize these people’s need for a diagnosis. When people are formally diagnosed with autism, they often have better access to autism services, supports, and people’s sensitivity.

Why masking is necessary but shouldn’t be

Lavern Rushin, mother of Matthew Rushin, an autistic man who was sentenced and later pardoned for being in a non-fatal car accident, has written about the necessary evil of masking. She argued in a 2020 open letter to parents of autistic children that:

If your child is able to mask, they can’t keep that mask up when they are distressed or exhausted or overwhelmed

Someone will read their autistic traits as menacing or suspicious. It will help them to articulate and own that they are autistic so others can adjust their perception and not interpret things like fidgeting and lack of eye contact as a sign of guilt

Masking is painful. Autistic people want to be themselves in the open. But right now, it’s not safe. We have to work together to change that before more tragedies happen.

People in Bradley, Ph.D., et. al.’s study concurred with Rushin’s statement. One person believed that “when the mask slips, the consequences are massive as the real me is extreme in comparison to the fake me, and people think I’m being intentionally rude or arrogant, or they are offended, shocked, and reject me” (p. 6).

Other participants remarked that ‘‘it’s really not possible to be ‘out’ [as autistic] and natural all the time without incurring stigma and disapproval’’ because people sense "different and withdraw from it" (p. 6).

How can we end masking?

NeuroClastic contributor who goes under the pen name “Autistic Science Person” argued in a 2020 article about autism and job hunting:

Unfortunately, many neurotypical [non-autistic] people are unwilling to assess their own body language, implicit subconscious assumptions, and neurotypical biases that are the very thing preventing autistic people from being in the workforce. Maybe they can change. Maybe they can, just once, consider how exhausting it is to be told, over and over again, that you are the problem

Autistic people are not the problem. Autistic people do not need to fit into a rigid hiring system that involves interviewing [which requires social skills] instead of job trials, when interviewing doesn’t even do a good job of assessing skills even for a neurotypical person. We know that the pandemic has changed the way companies have been working now. We’ve just seen all of this change over the last 4 months. It’s possible

While some non-autistic people may find the writer’s way of communicating this sentiment to be blunt, the writer offers a valid point.

Communication is a two-way street. If autistic people can mask to accommodate non-autistic people’s communication style, then non-autistic people also need to step up. They need to educate themselves, reflect on biases, and accommodate autistic people’s needs in return. Autistic people mask despite the fact that it can make them physically sick or suicidal. The least non-autistic people can do is try to understand and treat autistic people better. If non-autistic people can do this, we can start to build a world in which masking isn’t necessary anymore.

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