What is masking and what does it look like?

Some people use the term “masking,” others “camouflaging,” but at its core, masking is a social survival strategy that autistic people use to hide their neurodivergent traits in order to fit in or be accepted. While that technique might seem helpful, and sometimes it can be, masking regularly can be extremely exhausting – and can have major costs.

Masking generally starts when someone who is neurodivergent becomes aware of the fact that something is slightly different about them, or when they realize that some things are more easily achieved if perceived as neurotypical. That can be something like making friends, finding a romantic partner, getting a job, connecting with others or avoiding harassment, bullying, and stigma.

“Masking can be done both consciously and unconsciously, and essentially is when someone suppresses certain behaviors in an attempt to fit in and be accepted by others. Many of my autistic clients have described camouflaging as acting or pretending to be ‘normal’ – and this has led to a real loss of identity and sense of self for some of my clients,” said Bryce Gold Psy.D. a clinical psychologist at Georgetown Psychology who conducts neuroaffirming psychoeducational assessments and psychotherapy with ages 6 through adulthood.

Masking can take place in many forms across different people. It could look like faking eye contact – or forcing it during conversations even if making eye contact is something that makes you uncomfortable or unfocused. It can involve imitating gestures or facial expressions to appear engaged – particularly if you’re naturally inclined to showcase interest and your emotions in a different, perhaps less identifiable, way.

Some may find that masking is helpful in certain situations. It can make aspects of the “neurotypical” world easier to navigate, especially for quick encounters like riding an elevator or ordering coffee. For example, many people create scripts and rehearsed responses for specific scenarios so they feel more prepared in unpredictable social settings.

Masking can also look like minimizing personal areas of passion – a term sometimes called “restricted interests” in the psychology field. Dr. Gold likes to frame them as “personal areas of expertise.” Autistic people, she notes, are amazing at deep diving into a topic they love.  But often, autistic people will be told they’re talking too much about one thing and may intentionally minimize and suppress their passions as a form of masking. They may also be taught that typical social skills include a “give and take” in conversation, which might make them feel like they are doing something wrong when sharing information about their passions. This form of communication has a name – infodumping – and infodumping is actually considered to be an autistic love language. It is one way that autistic individuals connect with others and is a vital part of autistic communication patterns.

Camouflaging can also include hiding intense sensory discomfort that you’re experiencing and just pushing through it. Another form includes minimizing stimming behaviors like hand flapping, rocking, or pacing – what Dr. Gold describes as self-regulating behaviors that usually come when someone is experiencing heightened emotions. Even if one might find it really comforting to pace or rock, if they find that behavior is not viewed favorably by neurotypical standards, they may disguise or modify it. Alternatively, they may have been explicitly told to suppress stimming so they appear more neurotypical, which removes a necessary emotion regulation strategy and increases stress. Dr. Gold shared that many therapists unfortunately still recommend ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy, without listening to the harmful experiences expressed by numerous autistic people.

“Hiding who you are all the time can be really exhausting,” said Gold. “Having to invest so much time and energy into trying to pass as ‘neurotypical’ when that’s not how your brain’s wired can be tiring and uncomfortable. There’s nothing wrong with your brain; it’s just different.”

Gold shared that many autistic people feel that ABA was incredibly traumatizing, invalidating, and harmful to them as it tends to focus on making autistic people act or appear neurotypical, which is essentially forcing them to mask. When regularly done, masking can lead to autistic burnout.

Avoiding autistic burnout 

Autistic burnout is the extreme fatigue — mental, physical and emotional exhaustion — that results from constantly hiding your natural traits. The high demands of navigating the expectations of a “neurotypical world,” and the endless thinking, adjusting and camouflaging oneself can have major costs.

It can cause debilitating levels of stress, anxiety and depression, including increased suicidal ideation. It can also lead to a loss of functioning of skills that person once had, or a total shutdown.

For some who are so effective at masking, the technique can also cause delayed autism identification. The suppression of traits is done so regularly and with such precision that some will believe your performance — and all the things underneath the surface like intense sensory or social discomfort will be concealed, even from those closest to you.

Dr. Gold said that some autistic individuals can become incredibly depressed and are unable to tolerate stimuli that they were able to tolerate previously — like being able to go into and stay in a classroom for the entire duration of class.

“You get to a point where you just shut down from doing this too much,” she said.

“Masking all the time without having some sort of period of quiet withdrawal or recovery – that can be problematic,” Gold said.” “You need time to avoid the burden of masking. You need opportunities to withdraw, find restorative rest, and be yourself without performing.”

What support is helpful?

There are things that can help people avoid autistic burnout, Gold said. These can include:

  • Gaining academic accommodations that bring a team of support around the person in a school-based setting. This can also mean supports at work.
  • Practicing proper boundary setting
  • Learning to self advocate; for example, you can say, ‘Just wanted to let you know that I listen better if I look away. When I look directly at you it’s actually harder for me to focus.”
  • Getting connected with groups and interacting with loved ones, peers, and community members who accept you for who you are, and make you feel like you don’t need to mask.
  • Taking time off to rest and recover, and taking breaks when you feel stressed
  • Having ways to manage sensory input, like noise-reducing earbuds (https://www.flareaudio.com/collections/calmer/products/calmer-secure)
  • Ensuring you’re able to engage in your passions
  • Maintaining structured routines
  • Having a neurodiversity-affirming therapist who can help you figure out how to navigate a “neurotypical world” and still be authentically autistic. Your therapist should be able to help work with you in the way you want, without invalidating your autistic identity or encouraging you to mask all the time.
  • Finding a balance of time between using masking as a helpful strategy and being able to be fully yourself with trusted individuals. You want to maximize the moments when you are authentically you and minimize the opportunities when you feel forced to perform through masking.
  • Helping spread more awareness about autism and autistic burnout. Many autism advocates believe that the best way to prevent the negative effects of masking is to reduce the need to mask in the first place. That can happen by making the world a safer and more supportive place for people who function differently.

Georgetown Psychology is here and available if you are looking for more support. Our practice is deeply committed to neurodivergent affirming assessment and therapy practices.