Masking – the art of camouflage that many (most female) autists spend a lifetime perfecting; the skilled, intentional blending into social surroundings, to become just like those around in order to become invisible & not looked at.
Both my girls are experts at masking. It’s a coping strategy they use in a number of social contexts, including school. But not at home, when it’s just us the masks come off and my girls can rest awhile (once all the pent up emotion, strain, and anxiety has exploded of course).
…”most of our participants are experts in pretending not to have autism — a phenomenon sometimes called ‘camouflaging.’ They said they wear a ‘mask’ or adopt a persona that is carefully constructed from copying the behavior of popular peers or fictional characters, or by studying psychology books.” (William Mandy & Robyn Steward)
The art of masking is pretty amazing really, and my girls achieve so much, and push themselves through so much because they do it so well. Both are fascinated by people, (as well as being bemused and overwhelmed, and anxious about them), and do a lot of people watching and deciphering. Both want to fit in and to build friendships among their peers. Neither like to feel singled out or looked at. Camouflage uses the skills of mimicry and echolalia, planning ahead and practicing phrases and gestures, and facial expressions – often in front of the mirror. It also involves concentrating on surpressing gestures and behaviours that have been noted to stand out or be unacceptable or misunderstood, like stimming for example.
“Most … said they found the effort of passing as neurotypical to be exhausting and disorienting, and many thought it contributed to their delayed diagnosis. There are no tests for camouflaging, and this is a major barrier to clinicians and researchers understanding and helping women on the spectrum.” (William Mandy & Robyn Steward)
As well as surpressing behaviours there is also an element of compensation going on in masking autism too. Learning ways of managing to maintain eye contact for example despite the pain it causes. Or finding out facts about a peer groups interests and role playing being into it too. It all takes constant effort.
“Being both autistic and an autism researcher can be a bit of a juggling act: it feels like wearing 2 very different hats sometimes,” Belcher told Neurology Advisor.
“The most important thing I’d like to convey is that ASD is not just a collection of impairments; it includes lots of strengths and abilities as well, which need to also be taken into account,” she said. At the same time, Belcher drew attention to the dangers of studying ASD as a “disease” and incorrectly regarding the spectrum as moving from “mild” to “severe.”
“A very high functioning woman, for example, who has learnt to camouflage her autism, may be rated by professionals as having very mild autism, when in fact she suffers a great deal with mental health problems as a result of constantly trying to appear ‘normal,’ ” Belcher told said. “There’s a lot more people with autism than we know of, and a lot of those people will be having a very difficult time. Professionals need to be more sensitive in their diagnosis of autism, and move away from these very black and white tick boxes of what autism is.” (Hannah Belcher)
Add into the mix the ongoing sensory demands of the day, and the fact that practiced phrases and gestures cannot guarantee the outcome you have seen happen before – because people don’t behave in a text book kind of way – and the picture is one that so easily becomes frustrating, overwhelming, confusing and exhausting. Masking is so very amazing, so very useful but it comes at a huge cost. In the general population it is estimated that 1 in 4 of us have significant mental health problems at some point, within the autistic community it is estimated at 80%. Anxiety disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts are not intrinsic to autism itself yet are so often present, in part as a cost of trying to blend into a world made for a different way of thinking and behaving. They are a cost of trying to live in a world which seems far less accepting of difference than it declares itself to be. They are also a cost of being perceived as not needing support or accommodations in contexts where autism is being masked.
Despite not wanting to stand out, there is a basic need to be ‘seen’ and understood, to be accepted and loved for our true selves. There is a need for safe people and places where the mask can be put down.