Masking Autism: What Are the Consequences of Camouflage?

“Be yourself.” We hear it all the time as the answer to living well and interacting genuinely. Yet, so many autistic people don’t feel they have the option to comfortably be who they are.

Perhaps you feel this way too. As a result, like many neurodiverse people, you may have chosen to cope by hiding your natural behavior and mannerisms. In a world that frequently doesn’t understand your way of operating or relating, you likely thought this way of compensating, known as autism masking, was the key to social acceptance.

Yet, camouflage is hard work. Sometimes you do it to keep yourself safe and included. Sometimes you might not even realize you’re doing it.

You aren’t alone if the resulting internal stress, discomfort, and confusion cause you to question yourself and whether “fitting in” is worth the wear and tear on your mind.

Let’s explore masking and its consequences further below:

What Does Autism Masking Hide?

People with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) exhibit a wide range of neurological differences. Thus, there are a number of neurodivergent behaviors you may be camouflaging for your own reasons. These differences may include but aren’t limited to:

  • limited eye contact or physical contact with other people
  • difficulty identifying or discussing emotions
  • limited awareness of social cues
  • increased stress due to disruption in daily routines
  • repetition of specific gestures or bodily movements
  • rehearsed or repetitive words or verbal expressions

Simply put, if you learned to mask, you learned a way to survive socially. So, instead of engaging in the former list of neurodivergent behavior, where you feel you’d be judged or misunderstood, you might do the following:

  • force eye contact during discussions
  • mimic the facial expressions of other people
  • imitate the mannerisms and gestures
  • conceal or withhold aspects of your own interests
  • rehearse scripted responses to frequently asked questions
  • script possible conversations and interactions
  • power through sensory discomfort and overwhelm
  • conceal self-stimulating or stimming activities

Why is Masking Problematic?

Depending on how well you observe and imitate typical behavior, you might find that you can mask most of the time without being “outed”.  However, masking autism can have a negative impact on your identity and overall mental health. After all, you likely began hiding your differences because you believed something important ( friends, romance, career) hinged on your seeming more typical. Essentially, you felt your natural behaviors weren’t tolerable to neurotypical people and you wouldn’t be supported well. That hurts.

Also, masking is painful because it daily reinforces the idea that a neurodivergent way of naturally existing and interacting is somehow substandard or less worthy of respect. Even more troubling? All the time you spend learning to mimic others and mask to meet neurotypical standards could be spent exploring your own growth and personal evolution.

Some additional consequences of routine masking:

  • Delayed identification and recognition. Some people are such successful maskers that their autism isn’t provided the support required. At school work, or elsewhere, masking can suppress your skills and talents because support and accommodations are delayed.
  • Stress and anxiety. As previously mentioned, stress and anxiety are the first signs that masking is taking its toll. The more often you mask outwardly, the more upset and worry you feel internally.
  • Low energy or exhaustion. Masking requires constant focus and energy to effectively reflect neurotypical standards. The effort leaves little energy for the real you.
  • Loss of identity and personal integrity. How you see and feel about yourself may be significantly impaired by masking. So much time spent concealing your unique qualities and interests can feel deceptive to yourself and others. You may wonder who you really are and feel confused about what really matters.
  • Autistic burnout. Masking taxes the internal resources that make you authentic. Being inauthentic, or  “going along to get along” can lead to such incongruent behavior that you often feel overwhelmed or break down. You may feel the need to disconnect or withdraw completely to recover.
  •  Depression and suicidal ideation Human beings want to belong. Continual masking repeatedly reinforces the sense that being neurodivergent is something to be ashamed of or is unacceptable. Low self-esteem and feeling unwanted or burdensome can lead to dangerous levels of isolation and hopelessness.

What Can be Done?

Clearly, finding ways to live and relate with less masking is the first step. Knowing where you can regularly interact and explore who you are without judgment is crucial. Autism therapy may be the relief you’ve been longing for. A compassionate therapist can help you feel seen, embraced, and empowered instead of boxed in or alienated. Please consider seeking support in an encouraging environment, I’m here to help. Contact me soon for a consultation.

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