Masking Autism: What is it & How to Stop
You may question whether you are autistic and wonder if autism is the reason you feel so different from everyone else, as if you are from a different planet.
The people we encounter can make it difficult for us to accept who we are, especially if we keep being told who we are is wrong.
I am autistic, same as you, so I know about masking from personal experience.
What is Masking?
Masking is when we mimic habits, body language, and language of non-autistic people in order to fit in.
We may feel pressure from others to pretend to be someone we’re not, so we create a version of ourselves that people are more likely to accept.
When we are alone, we are free to stim, self-soothe, avoid all human contact, and be ourselves.
As soon as we get around other people, we have to put on that proverbial mask again to pretend to be a more socially acceptable person.
How Masking Starts
When we are children and teenagers, other kids can quickly bully children and become vicious to those they deem different or “weird”.
We may try to mimic the gestures, clothing, and language of the kids at school so we can fit in, instead of being a social outcast. This is part of where we learn how to mask.
As an autistic child, we know we are different from others, but we are too young to know why, so we internalize that there must be something wrong with us.
Other children may treat us like we are unlikeable, so we force ourselves to learn how to become someone they like, instead of wanting to bully us.
Our efforts may or may not work out for us, and could make things worse instead.
Adults also tell autistic children how important it is to develop good social skills, even though we may be happier by ourselves spending time with our special interest instead.
We learn how to mask, partly from being told we should become someone else, and because we simply just want to have friends.
How Masking Changes as We Age
When we become adults, our masking changes to suit different aspects of our lives.
Once we decide we would like to seek a romantic partner, we learn how to mask while dating so we can find someone who will like us and love us.
There can be a fear in autistic adults of not being loved for who we are, and after spending our childhood believing we must be someone else to have others like us, we may never unmask around our romantic partner.
After we reach the workplace, they may reprimand us for engaging in natural autistic behaviors, and we feel forced to hide ourselves at work.
We feel like we have yet another area of our lives where we have to pretend to be someone else to become more socially acceptable.
Autism & Neurotypical People
Neurotypicals designed the world we must live in and adapt ourselves to.
There are plenty of neurotypical people who love to applaud each other for being nice to autistic people, being forgiving of autistic people’s behavior, or seeking to hire autistic people.
What is a Neurotypical?
Neurotypical is the word for a non-autistic person.
The word neurotypical can also describe someone who is a relatively “normal” person without conditions such as ADHD and Autism, and they fit into society because it is a world for neurotypicals made by neurotypicals.
Autism & Social Masking
When we autistic people mask socially, we do it to avoid the consequences the neurotypical world gives us for existing differently.
There are so many facets of masking, and it becomes this complicated internal web we get trapped in, unable to get out.
One place we can start learning to unmask is to look at why we feel such a strong need to mask.
Why We Feel Pressured to Mask
One of the many reasons we feel pressured to mask is simply fear.
We are afraid they will reject us for being who we are. We worry we could lose our jobs, get treated as less than, struggle to find a romantic partner, and lack the ability to be accepted by our friends and family.
It is unfortunate the neurotypical world has forced us to live with this internal angst while wishing we could just be ourselves for once.
Since we’ve learned how to mask since childhood, we carry this well into adulthood and it affects every aspect of our lives.
Becoming Someone Socially Acceptable
We’ve been told since we were small children how important it is to become socially acceptable.
There are entire “therapies”, such as ABA, built around teaching autistic children how to hide who they are. If we get pressured into submission, perhaps they think we can pretend to be more like a socially acceptable neurotypical person.
We may not fully understand what exactly makes someone socially acceptable to a neurotypical, and they leave us confused while trying to decipher this strange world that is nothing like our own.
Autistic people can communicate love and connection through shared special interests.
If we find someone who shares our special interest with the same intensity, we feel like finally we found someone we can be ourselves with. Perhaps this is our version of becoming socially acceptable.
Existing in a World Not Made for Us
The neurotypical world can be the most confusing place, full of unspoken social rules. It can seem like neurotypicals are obsessed with social interaction. Their entire lives revolve around it.
Sometimes we just want to be left alone so we can unmask and exist peacefully within ourselves.
Even as an adult, our special interests can become our refuge.
We may also have hypo or hypersensitivities to sensory stimuli, which makes navigating the world a lot harder. It’s like it traps us in a whirlwind of sensory overload.
Autistic people have their own worlds, full of our own social rules. The world we want to live in is a lot different from how the neurotypical system works, but within our own community, we understand each other.
Autism Masking in Women
When you are an autistic woman, you can struggle to have professionals, and others take you seriously.
Society expects all women to be nice and well behaved. Assertiveness is seen as a masculine behavior, and something women should not display.
Autistic men can say exactly what’s on their mind, live their lives with logic instead of emotion, and it’s seen as a positive trait. However, when autistic women do the same thing, society shames us for being ourselves.
Why Women Hide Their Autism
Autistic women learn to hide their real selves after being dismissed for so long.
We feel more pressure to act as someone socially acceptable than autistic men do.
We may think no one will believe us if we ask for help, so we pretend to be someone else and try to navigate life on our own.
How Masking Affects Getting a Diagnosis
Getting a diagnosis as a woman may be a lot harder for us.
We want the validation so we don’t feel “imposter syndrome” and question if we really are part of the autistic community.
Clinicians see autism traits as strictly male traits, and instead of recognizing we have the same traits, we get labeled with other conditions instead.
They see our sensory overload as just a woman being overly emotional.
Our desire to connect with others through shared special interests gets us labeled as self-obsessed, and they diagnose us with a mental illness instead.
If we were born with a mental illness along with autism, they may dismiss our autistic traits as part of our condition.
All of this makes getting a diagnosis as a woman a lot more challenging.
Autistic Women Can Feel Excluded
As autistic women, we can feel excluded from the conversation about autism.
Even in the media, they write TV shows and movies with autistic male characters. News articles are often about a “man with autism”.
When society shames us for being our autistic selves, clinicians ignore our autism traits, and the media acts like we don’t exist, it leaves us autistic women feeling left out.
Autism Masking & Burnout
When we have to mask our autism for so long, it can lead to autistic burnout rather quickly.
Burnout happens to most of us autistic people, eventually. It can be an unfortunate part of life.
Knowing how to self-soothe can be a challenge in the moment of burnout.
Autistic Burnout Symptoms
When we are falling into an autistic burnout, it can become harder to self-soothe.
All sensory input gets overwhelming and more intense, causing us to become even more exhausted than we already are.
We can feel worn down, like we can’t escape this torturous whirlwind ride we’re on.
Existing in an autistic burnout can cause us to seem socially withdrawn, and others may claim we are irritable. We really just want to be left alone so we can try to calm down before we breakdown.
Wishing we could turn off our senses for only a moment just to get some relief can also be a part of an autistic burnout.
How to Self-Soothe During a Meltdown
Figuring out what helps you self-soothe during a meltdown or breakdown can be vital to your sanity.
We all have different things that help us feel calmer.
Some people find repetitive body movements calming.
Others like stim toys such as chew necklaces, fidget spinners, and many other options.
Another popular way to block out sensory input is to use noise cancelling headphones.
Compression, weighted, or heavy clothing is another way we can self soothe, if weight is something that calms you in those rough moments.
Fortunately, there are many options out there to help us find a way to re-center ourselves back to a place of peace.
How I Self-Soothe
I am comforted by weighted objects and clothing. When I feel overwhelmed, I will put on my heavy loose hooded sweatshirt, put the hood over my head, and listen to a playlist of calming music I named “Calm the Meltdown.”
I am 36 years old and if I get very overwhelmed, I still curl up into a ball and rock until I feel better. The repetitive motion calms me down.
I think the most important part of self-soothing during a meltdown is to not shame yourself for doing what makes you feel better. If I sat there rocking and crying, telling myself it’s weird or that only autistic children do that, I could never get relief.
Instead, I let myself peacefully feel what I need to feel, and when I’m done, I feel calm and like I took a sedative.
Give yourself the permission to self-soothe in whatever way you need to, and when you finally get relief, you can move on.
Autism & How to Stop Masking
The biggest and most common question in the autistic community is, “How do I learn to unmask?”
We all want to know how to feel free of the stress that comes from pretending to be someone else.
It is possible to live truly and authentically as your real self.
Getting to Know Yourself as an Autistic Person
Being in tune with yourself gives you a more in-depth understanding of how being autistic affects you.
Paying attention to your natural reactions to situations throughout the day can provide a clue about who you are.
You may go into an office and immediately feel eye pain from the florescent lights and the buzzing sound they make, or you may interact with someone close to you and feel lost like you are missing something and don’t know what - that is part of your autistic self.
Each autistic person has individual needs and wants, so what works for me might not work for you, but that is where paying close attention to yourself each day can help.
It sounds vague to say pay attention to yourself and you’ll figure it all out, but it’s still a great place to start.
Knowing How to Ask for What You Need & Want
When you know how to ask directly for what you need and want, it becomes so much easier in life to unmask.
You may be someone who needs concrete techniques and examples when learning something new, and literal and logical step-by-step instructions, especially when starting a new job.
There is nothing wrong with needing more detailed help, and some people will appreciate you taking the time to make sure you really understand what they are showing you.
Taking the time to explain to people in your life what autism means and how it affects you, can make them more receptive to providing accommodations.
Say what you need directly and clearly to the neurotypical people in your life, because if you don’t tell them, they won’t ever know.
How to Ask for What You Need Examples
We have different inner world experiences than neurotypicals, so they don’t have the experience to understand what we go through. Using autistic terminology like “stimming” when describing your needs might go over their head because they won’t know what that means.
It is better to describe to a neurotypical person exactly what you mean.
As an example, lets say you like to have something in your hand to fidget with. If you say, “Stimming makes me feel better,” they will not know what that means. It can be better to describe stimming as, “When I feel stressed, I will use this fidget toy because it helps calm me down. I like the repetitive motion. It’s an autistic thing.”
Be more descriptive with neurotypical people, because in a way they need autistic things spelled out for them, just like how we need neurotypical people to do that for us.
Knowing who you are as an autistic person, and knowing how to ask a neurotypical for what you need and want, can go a long way in helping you learn to unmask.
What to Do If You Can’t Mask
If you are a person who isn’t very good at hiding your autistic traits, you are not alone.
Some of us, including myself, aren’t very good at masking and think we are better at masking than we actually are.
If you can’t mask, learn to accept yourself for who you really are. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself.
Discovering Who You Are Without Masking
Discovering who you are without pretending to be someone else is possibly the hardest part of learning to unmask.
We may have spent so much time and effort crafting a persona, until we truly believe we are that person, that we can feel lost when we decide to stop pretending.
Once we decide to stop hiding who we are, we may ask ourselves, “I want to unmask. Where do I start?”
The answer to that question is different for everyone.
Sometimes the best place to start is simply telling someone in your life that you are autistic.
What It’s Like to Stop Masking
When you finally stop masking, life feels a lot more peaceful.
You find out who is worth keeping in your life and who isn’t.
Once you finally accept who you really are, and give everyone a chance to accept who you are too, you find out who will truly support you in life.
You may even discover someone you know has also been hiding their autistic selves from everyone, and maybe you’ll give other autistic people the inspiration to do the same. There are more of us out there than you think.
How to Unmask While Dating
In my section above, I described how to ask for what you need and want from a neurotypical. This applies to relationships and dating as well.
Someone who cares about you and is genuinely interested in getting to know you, will find your real autistic self interesting.
Dating a neurotypical doesn’t have to be confusing as long as you both communicate clearly and directly.
When someone you are dating tells you something about themselves, it’s okay to ask questions like, “What situations or behaviors will cause you to feel ___?” If you have concrete examples of what makes them feel good or bad, you will know what to do and what not to do.
They may appreciate your uniquely autistic way of getting to know them by asking detailed questions like this.
This is one way to unmask while dating.
In relationships especially, communication is a major factor in the success of a relationship.
Your unique autistic way of getting to know someone you are dating will create an open communication that a lot of neurotypical couples lack.
Many neurotypicals go years without ever communicating and just continue to build resentment towards each other. Being autistic, you can keep this from happening and not go down the same road as the neurotypicals.
Starting out with open communication can set you on a path to a successful relationship, and it may make them more receptive to being understanding when they witness your autistic meltdown or shutdown.
Surrounding Yourself with the Right People
It can be incredibly important to surround yourself with the right people and let the unsupportive ones go.
If you have someone in your life who makes you feel you shouldn’t be yourself, they will only cause you a great deal of stress.
The truly supportive people in your life will be genuinely happy to see you living authentically.
Thank you so much for this. I’ve had a lifetime of masking. I want to stop. I’m exhausted, drained and demoralised. I thought I was good at it, but I’m not so sure. The people I currently have to work alongside are not supportive, and not interested in being supportive. I cannot keep trying to please them and deal with being continually knocked back. I want yo feel peaceful, I want to be happy being me.
Your article has given me some hope. Thank you.