In this article
Autism currently impacts around 2% of the UK population, with an estimated 100,000 children and 1 million adults in the UK with the condition. Studies have estimated that up to 94% of people with autism have or will attempt to mask their symptoms at some point during their lives, which can lead to long-term impacts on those living with the condition.
What is autism?
Autism, also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a term given to a developmental condition with a wide array of symptoms affecting social skills, behaviours and communication. There is not one singular type of autism, hence why it is referred to as a spectrum disorder. Each individual with autism presents symptoms differently and not to the same extremity as each other.
A child will usually present signs of autism by the age of three, and can even be diagnosed sooner. Autism is a lifelong condition, for which there is no cure.
The main symptoms may include:
- Finding it difficult to interact and communicate with others. People with autism may find it hard to interpret verbal language, bodily cues and verbal cues. Some people with more extreme forms of autism are unable to speak at all, and instead rely on other means of communication such as visual aids. However, they very likely can understand in full what has been said to them but do not have the means to respond verbally. Sarcastic, abstract and metaphorical language can be challenging for some people with autism, as they often take words at their literal meaning.
- A set number of interests, or intense interests in one or two particular fields. Some people with autism may fixate their interests in an area that they can process and articulate well. This may be in fields that involve mathematics, data, machinery and other logically led areas.
- Repetitive/ritualistic behaviours. People with autism may repeat words or phrases that they have heard, known as ‘echolalia’. This may make some of their responses in conversations appear random or misplaced. You can read more about echolalia by visiting our knowledge base. Repeated behaviours and actions might be one of the earliest signs of autism during childhood. This may take the form of repeatedly putting toys in a line, opening and closing things, or hand flapping, amongst other behaviours.
- Sensory issues. Factors that impact the senses, such as light, sound, smell, touch and taste, can trigger sensitivity responses. Additionally, there may be a decreased sense of balance, and bodily awareness, within their own bodily functions and in relation to people around them.
Further symptoms of autism may include:
- Avoiding eye contact.
- Not showing interest in conversation, and appearing unbothered by emotions.
- Slowness to pick up on social cues.
- Becoming immersed in a conversation about something they are very interested in, often reeling off facts and opinions, without asking the other person for their input.
- Little enjoyment in imaginative activities.
- Difficulty making friends, perhaps only having one or two friends they have formed an intense attachment to.
- Difficulty expressing validity in another person’s point of view.
- Intense enjoyment in data.
- Intense interest in machinery, and how things work/operate.
- Sensitivity to things such as light, sound, texture, room layout etc.
- Becoming disoriented when routines are changed.
- Repeating actions or behaviours.
- Stimming. You can read more about stimming by visiting our knowledge base.
- Impressive memory retention, with particular attention to dates and times.
- Strongly skilled in mathematics, music and art.
Though there is no known reason why ASD occurs, it is found in people who have a sibling with autism, and there is an increased risk of your child being diagnosed with autism the later you become pregnant. ASD is also more prevalent in children with Down’s Syndrome, and those with an extremely low birth weight (below 3Ibs 5oz).
People with ASD sometimes have many strengths that others do not. Their attention to detail can lead them to many employment opportunities. In its most severe forms, ASD is an extremely challenging condition to live with, and can require a high level of care throughout childhood and adult life.
On the other hand, many people with milder forms of ASD are not as impacted daily, some with symptoms that are barely noticeable. Autism is a hidden condition, meaning that you cannot tell if someone has autism by looking at them, and even if they do display certain symptoms, this doesn’t mean another person with autism will display the same symptoms. You can read more about Autistic Spectrum Disorder by visiting our knowledge base.
What is masking?
Masking occurs in many different forms throughout life. For example, someone might mask their emotions in order to present a strong outward perception, or mask their pain through the use of substances.
Autism masking, or autism camouflaging, refers to the tendency in people with ASD to try and conceal the symptoms. People with the condition, particularly those with milder symptoms, tirelessly try to ensure that their communication and behaviours do not stand out from what is considered as socially ‘normal’.
As autism is a type of neurodivergence, which means that the brain of someone with autism works differently from that of someone without the condition, many people with autism may feel that their brain is not suited to neurotypicality, whether that is in educational or work settings, or socially. Whilst people with autism often have many strengths, there are areas of differences that can cause them to stand out, feel insecure, and even be bullied or excluded.
These areas of difference are usually in the following categories:
- Ability to engage in activities.
- Verbal and non-verbal communication.
- Sensory sensitivity.
Thus, people with autism may knowingly or unknowingly suppress or conceal the elements of their autism that cause them to stand out.
Autism masking generally occurs in people with high-functioning autism. High-functioning autism refers to individuals who may show some signs of autism, but that could be mistaken for someone who is neurotypical, perhaps with social awkwardness.
This is in contrast to people with low-functioning autism, who very often display clear signs of impacted verbal communication, behavioural challenges and sensory issues. People with high-functioning autism are more able to disguise their symptoms as they can more easily replicate the behaviours of neurotypical persons.
What are the signs of autism masking?
It can be hard to notice if someone is masking symptoms of autism, as they may have become so skilled at it, thus, the individual has achieved what they consciously or subconsciously intended to do.
Signs that someone is masking their autism include:
- Copying or mirroring the facial expressions, actions and behaviours of others.
- Pre-empting responses to people, perhaps by writing them down or practising them.
- Suppressing their physical symptoms and instead fidgeting.
You may notice that there is a slight or even obvious difficulty in maintaining these processes. They may be fidgety and revert to stimming, and could become unable to maintain eye contact, or find it hard to maintain the flow of a conversation. They may find it difficult to continue masking in settings that they are unfamiliar with, which may present by not being as active in conversations.
They may also eventually be unable to continue masking and have a meltdown. This may mean that they become upset, angry, frustrated or tearful and withdraw from others. This can happen after a day at school or work, or a prolonged period of time spent interacting with others.
Why would someone mask their autism?
People with ASD might attempt to hide their autism in order to try and make more friends, or to be liked and accepted socially. By concealing their symptoms that can make others feel uncomfortable, they can potentially be included more than if they let their symptoms present in their entirety.
They may have also been on the receiving end of bullying or rejection, which has pushed them to try and blend in with others. People may also mask their symptoms of autism because they don’t want to be defined by it or treated any differently by peers, colleagues, teachers, family or friends. They also may not be aware that they have ASD, and instead see themselves as masking behaviours that are simply not the social norm.
Additionally, people may mask their autism because it can help them to progress professionally, though of course, if they are not receiving support with their condition, and they don’t declare their condition, their progress may be hindered at a later stage.
What are the negative effects of autism masking?
Masking autism is not a useful tool in the long term. Whilst it may make others feel more at ease, or help the individual by seemingly attracting less attention, it can have a detrimental negative effect on mental health and self-perception.
Firstly, by masking their symptoms, the individual may not be offered the support and help available for those with ASD. They may be given a tardy diagnosis, or be diagnosed incorrectly, as a diagnosis is given through observation rather than clinical tests. In fact, autism masking may result in no diagnosis at all. Furthermore, autism masking can lead to depression, anxiety and stress, as the process of hiding one’s symptoms is mentally and physically taxing.
Autistic burnout is a term given to the mental fatigue experienced after a long period of masking. The individual may shut down and self-isolate. In some cases, they may feel suicidal.
Research shows that autism masking affects women more than men, as women have more demand on the need for social interaction within society, thus the need to conform is more prevalent. Additionally, women are more likely to be socially isolated by other women if they do not conform.
How can autism masking be prevented?
The most significant way that autism masking can be prevented is by regular training in identifying autism, and identifying the condition as early as possible.
The earlier a diagnosis is given, the more support the child can receive, and the more likely that their experiences throughout school will be positively impacted. If a child is given an early diagnosis, they may come to terms with their condition more quickly, which can aid the development of identity and security in who they are.
When children are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, they are often in a misplaced school setting (a particular table or group, or even school), and given activities that are unsuited to their needs. This can damage their self-esteem, causing them to stand out against their peers, pushing them to try and mask their symptoms, which can be exhausting and mentally damaging.
Learning settings and workplaces need to ensure that they are taking all measures to tackle bullying of individuals who display symptoms of neurodiversity. You can read more about inclusive practice by visiting our knowledge base. Bullying is a significant factor in autism masking, and inclusion and anti-bullying policies should clearly outline the steps taken in cases of bullying.
When people with autism mask their symptoms, it is typically done to try and avoid standing out in a neurotypical environment. It is not helpful to tell the individual to stop masking, as it functions as a mechanism of self-preservation. Instead, there should be training given around acceptance and neurodiversity, so that people with autism and any other condition can feel safe and comfortable in who they are.
You can read more about neurodiversity in the workplace by visiting our knowledge base.
Who can offer support?
- Beyond Autism helps children and adults with autism to live beyond their condition, ensuring that they are able to access a full range of opportunities and experiences. They offer training and support for parents and professionals, and work with young adults to develop their skills without masking their symptoms.
- Ambitious About Autism offers specialist educational services and employment programmes. They also campaign to raise awareness about autism, which is essential for a reduction in autism masking.
- The National Autistic Society helps to support specialist schools, families, employers and other organisations to become autism-friendly. Their mission is to change the attitudes and perceptions towards people with autism.