On Masking

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.

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13 thoughts on “On Masking

  1. As I understand myself better, I put on a mask less and less. The down side means that I am thereby tend to isolate myself more and more. But when I can, I am just me. I admit putting on a mask is thoroughly exhausting. Have you read Mishima’s “Confessions of a mask” written in 1949? It is not about autism but a homosexual during Imperial Japan but still, there is a lot of images that feel familiar. Thank you for this post!

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  2. If you’ve ever heard of the game We Happy Few, it unintentionally portrays the masking experience for autistics rather well, actually. Essentially, if you stand out, the other people around you will become violent toward you until you fit in.

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  3. This is fantastic. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’m going to add it to my resources since I refer to masking (without defining it) so often. 😂 💜 💜

    I’m super frustrated with WordPress because, for some reason, your posts don’t show up in my reader lately. It does this with some other blogs I follow, and I end up wondering why someone has gone silent, only to find out it’s a software glitch and I’m missing everything. ARGH! I’m going to revamp my methods to eliminate the issue. (Just growling out loud in case you ever wonder why I seem to randomly ignore you sometimes when we both know I adore you.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Find profoundly relevant the, ‘voluntary,’ versus, ‘coerced,’ masking, and how it also may relate to LGBTQ Identity. An identity, whether sexual orientation or gender, can become a mask for folks due to oppression. Autistic Masking is itself, when beyond voluntary, a need to conform to rigid societal expectations. Combine that with a Queer Identity, and the stress of such is profound.

    I’m blessed to work where I don’t have to Mask my sexual orientation nor my autism, generally. I’m affirmed for my gifts and given space to voluntarily manage my autism in a healthy way.

    I do conjecture, however, that the general coercive nature of some sexual orienations and non-cisgendered identities by society may have caused me to Mask my orienation so much in my youth that I genuinely didn’t realize I was Queer until my early 30’s.

    One does not have to be Autistic for such to happen, but the true lack of denial, true self-ignorance I experienced of my sexual orientation, I feel is directly related to being forced to concurrently Mask my Autism so much so that I Masked my Identity entirely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can seriously relate to all of that, too. I am still learning things about my own gender and sexual identities well into my 40s (and I only learned about my autism at age 43, too), and a lot of that was due to coerced masking.

      Thanks for your comment; I’m looking forward to reading your blog going forward. 🙂

      Like

  5. Thanks for this one. Nice to see references to Goffman 🙂

    In fact, ever since the whole #TakeTheMaskOff thing came on, I’ve been somewhat puzzled precisely by the Goffman question, namely by “doesn’t everyone do this (somewhat)?” … your article has the clearest response / comment to that point that i’ve found so far.

    that it’s in fact a matter of degree, quantity, that can become qualitative if it goes so far as to obscure your identity.

    i think that definitely has happened to me, although i’m not sure how much of that goes to autism masking (which again, i didn’t realise suppressing my tics and movements and facial and gestural “over”-expressivity is autism masking) and how much to other types of confusion such as being trans without realising (well at least i realised i wasn’t straight pretty early, age 12 🙂 and some intercultural issues. i basically grew up and lived the first 10 years of my adult life passing not just as non-autistic, but also another gender and nationality than i am. take that.

    a lot of weirdness to clear up.

    another helpful point you raise is masking by choice vs. forced.

    i think when masking starts in childhood or adolescence, that boundary is probably blurred. at that age you think rejection / disapproval = annihilation, social death, or something like that (which it may be in some cases). or at least i didn’t have the tools or resilience to withstand the expected backlash on being so different.

    as i’m trying to free myself from that, to the degree that my adult life allows now fortunately, again it’s true that it’s hard to draw the line between the above and minor cosmetic changes to be socially agreeable. it’s possible to stray to both sides of the line i think – for me it’s still not clear how much adaptation is healthy, how much is too much, and at which point i am infringing on other people. the latter seems to be rather further away than i thought though. topic of exploration.

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