I’ve been thinking about the concept of autistic masking, sometimes also called camouflaging. This is the act of concealing or suppressing one’s autistic traits in order to appear “normal.” Masking may include the suppression of “stimming” movements or sounds, putting up with sensory inputs that are painful, forcing oneself to make eye contact, or following previously-practiced social scripts in order to blend in and appear non-autistic.
Such masking takes a toll on multiple levels. As Laura Hull and her co-authors found in “Putting On My Best Normal,” camouflaging is frequently experienced as mentally and physically exhausting, due to the constant vigilance required. Masking one’s autistic traits can also lead to a lack of support (or a lack of diagnosis altogether) because one’s struggles aren’t evident. Lastly, it can make one feel inauthentic, even to the point of losing touch with one’s own identity. And if you can never truly be yourself, all the connections you make with other people feel false as well.
Now, most people wear masks at least some of the time. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a foundational book about this back in 1956, called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it, he discusses the self as a performance: we try to manage the impressions others have of us by presenting ourselves in a certain light, hoping this will lead them to treat us the way we want to be treated. To do this, we choose what information to present about ourselves, and what to conceal.
This “impression management” is, essentially, masking: we reveal and conceal different parts of ourselves in order to be accepted and seen in the best possible light. Consider, too, how we present different aspects of ourselves in different contexts; the self we present in the workplace or classroom is not the same self we show to our friends at a party. (Theoretically, at least, if you go to parties.)
So, to some degree, masking is a universal phenomenon, and it can be a valuable social skill to have. Then why is autistic masking so often draining and even damaging? I believe the key lies in that opening phrase: to some degree.
Autism is such a pervasive difference in our “wiring” that masking it is a constant effort; it’s not like simply not mentioning some embarrassing incident, or making sure you don’t have spinach in your teeth. It’s more like trying to maintain strict control over every natural instinct you have in terms of how your body wants to move, how you express yourself, and how your mind works. So in trying to appear “normal,” autistics may need to mask a lot more than someone just trying to present themselves “at their best.” So of course it ends up being much more draining.
It’s also important to note that many aspects of masking can cause stress directly. Making eye contact is very uncomfortable, even painful, for many autistic people, but many of us do it to meet social expectations, or to make others more comfortable. Stimming movements such as rocking, finger-flicking, or tapping are often a way of relieving stress and/or burning off energy that has nowhere else to go, so restricting those behaviors then causes stress to increase in an already-uncomfortable social situation. Similarly, forcing oneself to put up with—or even pretend to enjoy—a sensory situation that is causing distress (but which no one else seems to mind) will increase stress as well, and can easily lead to a meltdown or shutdown later.
There is also a difference between voluntary masking and coerced masking. When someone is making a choice about how to present themselves in order to appear at their best, this is a voluntary decision. Sure, it’s stressful to put on your best social presentation during, say, a job interview, but that’s a choice you make to give a good first impression. When, however, you have been told over and over (explicitly or implicitly) that who you are is not acceptable, and yet you still wish to be accepted, your subsequent masking of those unacceptable traits is essentially coerced. In other words, when not masking is met with ridicule, bullying, and ostracism, you end up masking out of fear. So of course this will have negative effects.
This kind of coerced masking can even be completely unconscious, as it was for me before I learned about autism. I simply grew up absorbing the norms other people expected me to follow, even though they were often painful to follow (and when I was younger I probably didn’t follow them very well). Eventually this caused some serious burnout, because the exhaustion and constant vigilance mentioned above were just as real even though I didn’t know I was masking anything. Scratch that: I knew I was masking something, I just didn’t know it was autism. Ultimately, I was simply masking myself.
It’s really hard to get out of the habit of masking, though. For one thing, it does get to be a habit, especially after decades of doing it. For another, it’s sometimes hard to know the difference between the well-adjusted sort of social presentation that everyone does in order to keep good boundaries and maintain professionalism, and the self-negating camouflaging that capitulates to social norms that see autistic traits as inherently deficient. It’s a tricky position to be in, especially when you also want to be able to navigate the non-autistic world while still being true to yourself. And I don’t have a ready answer for how to do that; it’s still a work in progress.