Welcome to the third episode of “Autism and The Human.” I’m Limbic Noodle. Today’s episode is called “Autistic Masking.”
“Autism and Masking: How And Why People Do It, And The Impact It Can Have” by Dr. Felicity Sedgewick, Dr. Laura Hull, and Hellen Ellis was an invaluable resource for this week’s subject.
I need to give content warnings for today’s episode. I will discuss mental, physical, and sexual abuse and exploitation today. This will include the effects of masking and ABA therapy, including increased vulnerability to mate violence and sexual exploitation. If these are not things you have the spoons to hear today, I suggest you listen to something else.
I also want to say that I will make sure all my direct quotations and references get up on my blog. Thank you for your patience. Let’s get into it.
These days the term “Masking” has come to represent societal division. It has become a point of contention. Ironically, being asked to wear masks in public makes many people so uncomfortable that they devote large portions of their time protesting mandates. Meanwhile, many autistic people find the necessity of wearing masks places them on even ground with non-autistic people around them. After all, wearing masks offers them a shield from being criticized for their resting expression appearing angry or blank. Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis said, “Ironically, some could argue that by putting the (face) mask on, autistic people are able to take their (social) mask off to a greater extent, as there is less emphasis on facial expressions when talking to other people” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 17).
I also can’t help thinking about the comparisons between the reasons mask mandates were created and the reasons autistic people mask. Mask mandates were designed to save lives. Autistic people mask in public for pretty much the same reason. To them, it feels like their lives depend on it. Unfortunately, there probably are as many people who disregard the reasons autistic people feel the need to mask as there are people who disregard wearing masks to prevent the spread of disease.
Autistic masking does not involve a literal mask, like the masks we’ve had to wear to prevent the spread of disease. In Autistic Masking, the term refers to strategies autistic people use to conceal their differences from non-autistic people or the adjustments they have to make to do things they find difficult because they are autistic (Sedgewick, Hull and Ellis, 15). A personal example for me would be how I find a spot close to someone’s eyes to focus on so they don’t get upset that I am not looking at them when we are speaking. Another example is that some autistic people put their hands in their pockets or hold them at their sides when they feel the need to flap.
For today, I will be focusing specifically on the masking of autistic characteristics. Some other terms used are “Compensation” or “Camouflaging.” According to Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, the term “Compensation” is most often used to refer to successful strategies “which produce a difference in behaviour compared to what other people might expect” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 16). They said that “Camouflaging” generally “refers to all the behaviours involved in changing a person’s autistic presentation – whether they are successful or not” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 16). They also said that “Masking” is the term most often used by autistic people about their strategies.
It is worth noting that non-autistic people mask things about themselves for various reasons, including feeling self-conscious or marginalized because of a specific characteristic. For example, many people try to conceal their sexuality or an invisible disability other than autism. Many of these people are not autistic. The reasons and ways people mask various characteristics are a meaningful discussion to be had later.
It also is important to note that an autistic person who does not know they are autistic can still use masking strategies. In addition, autistic people can mask without knowing they are doing it. An example of these points is described by Liane Holliday Willey in her 1999 book, Pretending to be Normal. I related to Willey’s recounting how she studied the girls around her and copied them to fit in with her peers. Willey said, “She did this even before she knew she was autistic – demonstrating that someone doesn’t need to have a formal diagnosis of autism to mask” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 19).
Researchers and healthcare professionals have been aware of autistic people trying to hide their autism for quite some time. They have also been aware of the negative impacts on their overall well-being. In 1981 Lorna Wing described the “Camouflage Hypothesis” as “the idea that autistic girls might appear to have better social skills than they actually do, because of copying and practising behaviours from other people” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 20). Although researchers and healthcare professionals were aware of autistic masking, they generally agreed that appearing non-autistic was a positive outcome, regardless of its impact on the well-being of autistic people (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 21). Due to researchers and healthcare professionals’ general dismissal of the significance of autistic masking, autistic women and girls have been underdiagnosed. This is because autistic women and girls generally feel more social pressure to mask than autistic men and boys.
There are different forms of autistic masking: instinctive, subconscious, ingrained, and active masking” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 22). “Instinctive Masking” is a fear-based response similar to how someone who has been traumatized interacts with the world around them. The brain is put into survival mode. Instinctive Masking characteristics include hyper-awareness, hyper-vigilance, and freezing in a similar way an animal would avoid being detected by a predator (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 22-23).
“Subconscious Masking” develops in response to a person’s life history. They are triggered by trauma responses they aren’t aware of having. Autistic people who have been subjected to years of Applied Behaviour Analysis might not be aware of all the triggers it caused. For example, they might be triggered during a disagreement with a coworker. They won’t necessarily realize this trigger was created by ABA teaching them to accept the blame for social interactions that go wrong. Sexual demands might also trigger them, not realizing this results from ABA training them to comply, even at the expense of their bodily autonomy. When an autistic person experiences these subconscious triggers, they react with subconscious masking. They will fight their natural responses, causing their facial expression to become blank and their actions to be stilted (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 23).
“Ingrained Masking” is often mistaken for instinctive masking. Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis describe it as “essentially a learned response – something that was at one point a conscious choice, but which has become an embedded ‘subroutine’ in an autistic person’s brain” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 23). This is the most widely shared form of masking between autistic and non-autistic people. It compels people to say “Bless You” when someone sneezes. There are social expectations of specific actions in response to particular behaviours. If this was the only type of masking an autistic person was forced to do, the overall impact on their mental might not be that drastic. The main thing that makes this masking more challenging for autistic people is not always understanding what social conventions they are expected to follow.
“Conscious Masking” involves actively recognizing the discomfort felt in a situation. It is the discomfort felt at a party when you don’t feel like you can act like yourself. You might adopt a persona to get you through the social awkwardness you feel, whether this is a real person or a personality you invent. This is a common strategy for school-aged children and is why so many parents say their child is a different person at school than at home. Their child comes home and immediately blows up. This is because they are exhausted from consciously masking all day. When they finally feel safe to drop the mask, they are too tired to deal with additional stimuli.
As I pointed out before, autistic people can engage in “Conscious Masking” strategies without having the vocabulary to express what they are doing. My sister used to spend hours practicing expressions in the mirror. My other sisters used to accuse her of doing it to manipulate our mother. It’s just as possible she did it because someone had told her that her expressions were inappropriate. My sister was likely aware of what she was doing and why she was doing it. However, she probably didn’t have the vocabulary to connect what she was doing to autism. This was particularly true because she didn’t get a formal diagnosis until almost two decades later. Suppose someone is unaware of their autistic experiences, specifically how they are different from the median non-autistic experiences. In that case, they are not likely to bring them up to researchers, medical health professionals, or other people in their lives. Conversely, there might be experiences an autistic person has of othering due to autism that people in their lives would not consider of consequence because it isn’t “autistic enough” to be counted as a reason for masking.
Vocal masking is common but less recognized. Autistic people encounter various situations where they must adjust their speech to mask their autistic characteristics. Some of the vocal maskings connect back to the social conventions of Ingrained Masking. For example, many autistic people are aware of a tendency on their part to blurt things out or talk over people. They will mask by doing things like counting in their head after a person appears to be done speaking to avoid interrupting them. They might have been told they spend too much time discussing particular topics or that the things they try to talk about are inappropriate in specific settings. They will try to learn about a “Safe Topic” and stick to that.
Sometimes conversations go wrong for autistic people because they don’t reciprocate engagement in discussion topics they do not find interesting. This extends the last example and involves masking by sticking to mutually engaging subjects. Some autistic people are accused of having a monotonous cadence to their voice that makes them sound like robots. They try to mask this by smoothing out their tone and avoiding emphasizing the wrong syllables. Another form of vocal masking is when an autistic person panics in social situations, causing them to repeat phrases and quote things out of context. They might mask this “by preparing anecdotes, questions for others, or just phrases to respond with” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 32).
In 2017, Julia Parish-Morris and colleagues coined “Linguistic Camouflaging,” referring to another form of verbal masking. The term describes “the act of autistic girls using the same type of ‘filler words’ (‘um’ and ‘uh’) when speaking as their female peers, whereas they found that autistic boys used filler words which were far more unique to themselves than similar to non-autistic boys” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 47). They observed this beginning as young as five years old.
Autistic people tend to rely on autistic strengths to help them mask. For example, autistic people tend to be very observant and detail-oriented. They utilize this strength to observe non-autistic behaviour and try to analyze what makes their interactions with each other work. Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis said, “they might then try using some of the strategies previously described, such as mimicry of certain behaviours, developing rules to follow, or putting on certain facial expressions” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 33). Many also have good memories. They use this to sort information from their observations and analyze it to create masking strategies.
Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis said, “The largest online survey so far suggests that up to 94 per cent of autistic people who took part have masked their autism at some point” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 41). There are gaps in this statistic. It does not consider autistic people who do not spend time online or cannot complete online surveys. It does not include autistic people who are not consciously aware of their autistic experiences or how they change things about themselves in the hope of altering these experiences. It doesn’t consider autistic people with intellectual disabilities who are less likely to mask, partly because it is more difficult for them to accomplish effectively. It also doesn’t consider autistic people who are comfortable with not hiding or have chosen not to so they can be more autism-positive. The statistic might include autistic people with limited verbal or written communication. However, how they go about masking might differ significantly from the median. This would not be well represented in a simple survey asking whether or not you use masking strategies. Neither would the differences between the way women/girls and men/boys be well represented in a simple survey such as this.
Some autistic people say they masked for as long as they can remember, even before they were aware of being autistic. It didn’t start with the specific awareness of being autistic for most. The understanding they were significantly different from their peers caused their masking. Many studies have focused on adults, asking them to reflect on their lives. One study by Dean, Harwood and Kasari (2017) examined the masking behaviour demonstrated by autistic children on the playground (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 49). The study showed that autistic boys tended to play alone, whereas autistic girls would play near or with their peers. From personal experience, my inclination was to play alone. I knew I was expected to play with the other children, so I made an effort, resulting in anxiety.
Current research demonstrates an increasing need to mask as one gets older. It might be as simple for children and teenagers as pretending to be interested in the same things as your peers. It was a period when I was obsessed with the Backstreet Boys. The truth is that I could never understand why all these girls were so fixated on them. It pissed me off that they called themselves “Boys” when at least one of them looked like a forty-year-old man as far as I was concerned. Sedgewick, Hull and Ellis said that autistic adults tend to report masking strategies more than children or teenagers, probably at least in part due to being more aware of them. Life becomes more complicated in adulthood, making autistic people feel they have to mask more often. As a teacher, I have learned that my students rarely judge my autistic characteristics, while my colleagues will. I may have gotten lucky on this point. I’ve worked primarily in Indigenous communities. I find most Indigenous people to be very welcoming and non-judgemental. My students mostly seem interested in whether I care about them, not if I whistle like a teapot sometimes or if I smile when I am angry once in a while.
Current research also demonstrates that autistic people tend to retire their masking strategies after a certain age. My first thought when reading this was that they probably get to my age and realize they’ve outlived the standard life expectancy of autistic people, and they realize life is too short to keep making themselves miserable. Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis said, “Some older autistic adults have described how their masks ‘broke’ as they got older, for instance due to physical and sensory changes resulting from menopause” (Sedgewick, Hull, Ellis, 50). It might be as simple as aging bringing the person an increased comfort in being autistic. Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis said, “There is a growing body of work that shows people who identify more strongly with being autistic, and who are part of the autistic community, have better mental health, are more socially connected and have a greater sense of wellbeing” (Sedgewick, Hull and Ellis, 51).
It is currently unclear if autistic masking increases mental health issues such as anxiety and depression or whether autistic people already experiencing severe depression and anxiety are more likely to use masking to cope. The question is a little like which came first: the chicken or the egg. There needs to be more research on the matter. Dr. Laura Hull and her colleagues conducted a study based on Lily Levy’s master thesis. One of the findings of this study was that the “amount of masking reported by autistic adults positively predicted their level of anxiety symptoms” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 173). Another study conducted by Eilidh Cage demonstrated that “people who masked across multiple different situations reported more anxiety than people who did not mask” (Cage & Troxell William, 2019; Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 173).
Based on the way I understand it, the conclusions that have been drawn by researchers using the “Discrepancy Approach” bother me. This approach measures masking as the difference between “how autistic person someone feels and how autistic they look to other people” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 173). Studies that have been done with this approach report no association between anxiety and the amount of masking an autistic person does. I feel like the approach emphasizes the perceptions of non-autistic observers, perhaps justifying this by pointing to the Theory of Mind or the idea that a non-autistic person is less qualified to comment on their state of mind than a non-autistic person.
There have not been enough studies on the masking practices of autistic children and teenagers. One study by Lucy Livingston and colleagues supports the idea that children who mask to a higher degree experience more anxiety than those who mask to a lower degree (Livingston et al., 2019; Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 173). On the other hand, a study led by Blythe Corbett “found that children’s self-reported anxiety was the same regardless of how much they masked” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 173). However, the adults observing the study believe the children who masked experienced more anxiety. Given the prevalence of Theory of Mind, I have to assume the observations of the adults were given more weight. I could be wrong. To be fair, children often misreport how they feel to please adults in their lives.
Given the indeterminate correlations found by studies between anxiety, depression and masking, it is very alarming that studies consistently demonstrate the connections between suicidal ideation and masking. In 2020, Sarah Cassidy, Mirabel Pelton, and colleagues showed that masking was one of the strongest predictors of suicidal ideation in autistic adults (Cassidy et al., 2020; Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 174). I agree with their speculation that it might be connected to feeling their relationships are not reciprocal because masking keeps anyone from knowing who they are. It is a lonely experience, not knowing if anyone if your life would still be there if circumstances didn’t force them to be. Whenever someone expresses affection for me, I worry that they don’t know me enough for it to be true.
Sedgewick, Hull and Ellis point out why it is crucial to prove the correlation between depression, anxiety and masking. They said:
“If researchers can find evidence that masking causes mental health difficulties for autistic people, this should make it easier to advocate for support in stopping or controlling masking as part of mental health and wellbeing provision. For instance, counselling or therapeutic support could be provided as part of healthcare provisions for autistic people following diagnosis, and funding could be given for interventions that try to make environments more autism-friendly, to reduce the need to mask” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 176).
Potential long-term consequences for masking include “identity issues, imposter syndrome and many health issues (such as eating disorders, depression, dissonance and self-harming), all of which contribute to the higher-than-average suicide risk in autistic people” (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 177). Applied Behaviour Analysis is another factor in the overall long-term mental health of autistic people. Henny Kupeferstein (2018) noted, “PTSS (post-traumatic stress symptoms) in nearly half of ABA-exposed participants, while non-exposed controls had 72 percent chance of being asymptomatic” (p. 19). Studies have demonstrated that the long-term effects of ABA, as reported by autistic people, include depression, suicidality, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Imposter Syndrome” is the most significant cause of my low self-esteem and has held me back in so many ways in my life. I find it difficult to believe people who tell me I am good at my job or that my research and writing are valuable. People tell me they love and admire me, and I must suppress the urge to look behind me in case they speak to someone else. For those unaware, “Imposter Syndrome” is a term used to describe the doubt I feel about my skills, achievements, and identity. If someone is aware they are masking, they might feel like hiding who they are from people around them makes them an imposter. It’s entirely likely that if they’ve tried to be open about their autistic identity, they’ve been told they aren’t autistic enough. They may have been told to stop advocating for themselves because it draws away attention from people who need it more. This makes them feel like an imposter in their autistic and masked identities.
If the correlation between depression, anxiety, and masking is understudied, the research connecting physical health and masking is even scanter. “Minority Stress Theory” says that marginalized identities experience higher rates of stress. Individuals who fit into multiple marginalized identities such as non-white, non-male, LGBTQIA and Neurodivergent individuals experience even more stress. The “Minority Stress Theory” principles have been applied to autistic people concerning identity, anxiety, and mental health. I don’t need a study to tell me there is a correlation between physical well-being and mental health. Thus, a connection between masking and physical health.
Another impact of masking on autistic people is that it can increase “Risky Behaviour.” I hate going to parties. I tend to leave early and regret it later. I’ve never been tempted to start smoking, but I can understand why an autistic person might smoke at a party as an excuse to step out for a few minutes with less chance of being judged. I could also understand why an autistic person might let their guard down a little at a party where everyone is drinking because they know that everyone says stupid things when drunk, so they probably won’t have it held against them if they say something stupid.
Risky Behaviour extends to bad choices, which I can confirm. I didn’t engage in risky behaviour in high school because it was my job to be a student. I loosened this compartmentalizing when I got to university because I believed the occasional socializing that included alcohol was part of the experience. I never drank more than five drinks in one night and never did it more than once a month.
It did not occur to me in high school or university to date. Once I convocated, I thought it was a mandatory part of the next stage of my life. I took a job in a remote northern community, which meant that is where I started to look for someone to date. I indeed found someone. He was not the right choice. I was told that pregnancy wasn’t a likely possibility for me, so I wasn’t particularly worried about it happening. To my surprise, the getting pregnant part wasn’t that hard. As I was raised, I thought it was mandatory to get married if you were pregnant. Since I’d already failed the lesson about not having sex before marriage, I was determined to ignore the red flags. I wanted to get in my car and drive away on my wedding day, but I dismissed my instincts.
I couldn’t handle the wedding reception. The noise, lights, and drunken behaviour were too much for me, so I had to walk away. The right person for me would have followed me out, regardless of what the guests saw. The right person would have supported me when I said I did not want alcohol at the reception in the first place. He was not the right person for me. He solidly proved that when he came back to our room drunk. I was in the bath. He broke the door off the hinges and slammed my head against the wall. I still didn’t walk away. I didn’t walk away when being beaten became a regular occurrence. I didn’t walk away after he caused me so much stress that I lost my second pregnancy. I didn’t walk away when he missed the birth of our second child because he was getting drunk, and if I’m being honest, I’m pretty sure he was having sex with someone else. The first time he tried to choke me, the second or the third, I didn’t walk away. It wasn’t until he threw keys at my face in front of my sister and she laid a beating on him that I finally walked away. The thing is that once something is done for me, it’s done. The switch flips, and that is it.
I have encountered some offensive content on the internet. I want to describe a blogger who blames her former partner’s autism for the abuse she experienced. I empathized with the pain she went through being abused, but I was abused, and my partner wasn’t autistic. Autistics are far more likely to be the victims of spousal abuse than the perpetrators. This person’s blog focuses on mental health. The things she writes about autistic people are cruel. I can’t help thinking that someone who writes about mental health, but who can write such brutal things about autistic people, probably doesn’t treat any other neurominorities with kindness and understanding. She said that out of all the groups of people she’s written about, only autistic people have attacked her for cruelty. She said these attacks further prove that autistic people are abusive and dangerous. She doesn’t have the empathy to consider that other neurominorities don’t respond to her cruelty because it is dangerous. Social stigma around mental illness means that defending themselves could cost them their jobs if she were to respond by doxxing them.
I want to tell you some things she has said about autistic people, but they are cruel, and I would have to quote her. I refuse to put her name on my work, knowing someone would feel compelled to confront her. I know she would attack anyone that tried to do that. To summarize some of her attacks, she said that autistic people should only date their kind. She suggested we should have to wear a scarlet “A” to warn non-autistic people away. She called us sociopaths and said society should stop legitimizing existence as humans.
As I said, my initial inclination was to have empathy for the abuse this blogger went through. Based on her sustained cruelty towards autistic people as a group and her resistance to facts, I no longer have empathy for her. The facts are that autistic people are more vulnerable to “Mate Crime.” Autistic people are more likely to believe the lies they are told. They are more likely to have low self-esteem and imposter syndrome. This makes them more likely to be manipulated by those who feed into their self-doubt and low self-esteem. Autistic people have trouble establishing relationships, making them more vulnerable to manipulation from people pretending to be their friends or in love with them. A study by Amy Pearson (Forster & Pearson, 2020) and her team found that the perpetrators of mate crime often target autistic people precisely because of these reasons.
Maxfield Sparrow said that children who go through years of Applied Behaviour Analysis are taught they do not have bodily autonomy. ABA teaches them to comply with authority. Their survival needs, including love and praise, are only met when they comply (Sparrow, 2016). The result is that autistic children subjected to ABA are conditioned to be easier targets for sexual exploitation. Lynch (2019) said, “70% of people with ASD have experienced sexual abuse by the time they are college-age” (p. 11). However, Lynch did not specify who had and had not undergone ABA in this statistic.
Sedgewick, Hull and Ellis said, “Autistic people report higher levels of sexual assault than non-autistic people across the lifespan, including in childhood (Sedgewick, Hull, and Ellis, 183; Ohlsson Gotby et al., 2018; Weiss & Fardella, 2018). Felicity Hull’s study found that “up to 80 per cent of autistic women have been victims of sexual assault, rape or domestic abuse (Sedgewick et al., 2018). Most studies have not differentiated between those who have and have not undergone ABA therapy in their findings. However, it is reasonable to think vulnerable children would be put at further risk by practices designed to teach children to comply. Autistic children are conditioned to be better victims. This vulnerability follows them into adulthood when their risk of abusive relationships increases (Weiss & Fardella, 2018).
A final way that masking affects autistic people that I want to talk about is “Burnout.” I should have more years of teaching experience at my age, if not for autistic burnout holding me back. Over some time, I had several students die from freezing to death. These losses impacted me so much I couldn’t keep teaching, not on top of the stress I was already under as a single parent. I went through a period when I quit being a teacher. I got training as the most non-English teacher thing I could think to try. All I’ll say about that is don’t ask me to run a steam boiler now. That might again be a sign of burnout. A common aspect of autistic burnout is losing skills you once had. My burnout included chronic fatigue, sensory overstimulation, anxiety, depression, loss of memory, and loss of focus. It took years to recover from my autistic burnout enough to feel ready to teach again. Autistic people who mask often burn out because the effort of keeping their mask in place drains their batteries faster. They reach their emotional, physical, and mental limits and simply can’t keep going.
There are many ways one can help around masking. Once again, I suggest you read “Autism and Masking: How And Why People Do It, And The Impact It Can Have” by Sedgwick, Hull, and Ellis.
It is essential for families to remember that just because their immediate family group is aware of the needs of their autistic family member and accommodates these needs to the best of their abilities does not mean their extended family will do the same. Their autistic family member might feel forced to put their mask back on with these extended family members. Although disclosure does not guarantee immediate acceptance and accommodation, diagnosis disclosure allows the family members to educate themselves and change. They would not have this chance if they were unaware of the diagnosis. In the meantime, the family should reassure their autistic member that their feelings matter. If they need to leave a situation or change something about it, you should reassure them that it is alright to express these needs. If you prove that you care about their needs, they are less likely to hide them from you. Sometimes this might require inventing a signal or codeword they can give to let you know they are uncomfortable. If they are not at the stage where they feel comfortable verbally expressing what they need, you should be looking for behavioural cues. This becomes more difficult if they are actively masking.
Some children spend their day at school masking. They might have a meltdown when they get home, as they drop their mask suddenly. If no adults are present, this might result in siblings getting the brunt of this meltdown. Finding authentic ways to lower the mask without a meltdown is better. This might require family counselling to work out what each family member needs to do to avoid hurting each other.
Autistic people already tend to experience intense imposter syndrome. It can become worse by discovering they have been masking within their relationships. Their partners and children might feel that the person has been lying to them about their true identity. It takes time to learn what your autistic partner needs and how you can support them. It is important not to judge them when explaining what they are experiencing. You don’t want to risk intensifying their imposter syndrome. Believe them over medical professionals if the two contradict each other. Trust that they are the experts of their own experiences because they will have enough people in the world saying they do not have a reliable Theory of Mind to describe their own experiences.
Do not point out how they mask if they have not invited you to do so. They are already experiencing imposter syndrome. They don’t need to be made to think they are projecting a fake front to the world. You could ask them if they want your perspective, but don’t make assumptions about which behaviour is a mask.
Do not expect autistic people in your life to be the experts on all autistic experiences. If you want to learn more about autistic experiences different from those of your loved one, do some research.
Provide your loved one with a safe space to unmask. Let them decide when it is safe. Work together with them to improve the space so that it feels safer.
Young people spend a lot of time in school. It stands to reason that if they mask at a high rate, they are masking a lot in school. A student masking at a high rate in school is less likely to have their needs met. As a teacher, I know how easy it is to leave students who are quiet and unobtrusive to their own devices. This is particularly true when you have other students who are disruptive and off-task. These quiet autistic students often pour their energy into blending with the background. This negatively affects their mental and physical well-being. They are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, mental exhaustion, and physical fatigue. Look out for these quiet students. Keep in mind that a student with many acquaintances but few close friends might also be masking.
As teachers, if we ignore students when they express their needs, we take away the chance that our classrooms will be a safe space. If they tell us the lights are hurting their eyes, and we don’t dim or shut the lights off in response, we are suggesting to that autistic student that their needs are irrelevant. If we force a student to join the loudest and most disruptive group of students in the class for a group project, we are telling them that their well-being is irrelevant. Try to create a safe environment for the student to drop their mask. The first step to creating a safe space for your autistic students is to make yourself a trustworthy and reliable ally. You can’t do this while ignoring their needs when they express them. Don’t expect a student masking to a high degree to give you more than a couple of chances to prove you can be a safe space.
Do not make judgements about who is and is not autistic. I have heard teachers saying they do not believe a student is autistic. I have heard them say they think the student’s problem is that they are spoiled. Do not be this teacher. Collect observations that can help a student get a diagnosis, if you think they need to be assessed. Make sure to refer any student you feel needs more support to the appropriate people within your school system. Again, do some research. It isn’t only the role of special education teachers to know about the various needs in the school.
Healthcare professionals should remember that writing a referral for an assessment based on a ten-minute evaluation is a bad idea. An autistic person who masks to a high degree might be able to hide their neurodivergent characteristics for ten minutes, especially since they likely ramp up their masking around professionals and authority figures.
The best approach for doctors who want to help patients with their masking is to ask them what they need. Some autistic people will wish to help with strategies to drop their masking. The doctor could work with autistic people to identify how and when they mask. From there, they could work on a plan of putting themselves in situations and spaces where they won’t feel as pressured to mask. Other autistic people might want help creating masking strategies for specific situations. The healthcare professional might work with the person to develop these strategies, like introducing yourself when you meet someone new.
Everyone needs to remember that not much research has been conducted about the masking done by autistic people with intellectual disabilities and limited spoken or written language. We shouldn’t make assumptions that they do not mask at all. For example, people with little spoken language might hit themselves when the lights hurt their eyes. As a result, their caregivers might punish them for hitting themselves. This would result in them masking this reaction, having to suffer to pain that caused them to hit themselves in the first place.
They might also hide things that give them joy because those things are stigmatized. Many autistic people are treated as eternal children. Those around them infantilize them. Given this fact, many of these people are more likely to avoid things that would make this worse. Sadly, non-autistic people get to express their joy in science fiction, manga, and anime (amongst other things) at conventions, yet autistic people are made to feel ashamed of their love for similar things. Heck, they should be able to express love for actual children’s programming without worrying about the stigma. I remember how my siblings used to watch Teletubbies when they were stoned. If my stoned siblings could watch a children’s show without repercussions to their dignity, autistic people should be able to do the same.
Masking in the workplace is very common. Maxfield Sparrow said:
“In the United States, thirty-five percent of Autistic eighteen-year-olds go to college. Of those American Autistics with university diplomas, only 15 percent are employed. This 85% unemployment rate (among college-educated Autistic adults) is massive – the general population’s rate (at all education levels) is only 4.5 percent” (Sparrow, 2018).
More unemployed autistic people per capita exist than any other disabled group. These unemployment rates are lower than the reality because they don’t count people who have never tried to get employment or those who have given up trying.
Masking is a significant drain on an autistic person’s mental and physical resources. Spending their day trying to hide how the lights hurt their eyes, the sound of the air conditioner makes their ears ring, not being able to take off their shoes and scrunch their toes, and a variety of other sensory-related issues leaves them little gas in the tank to do their job well. If you are an employer who is serious about making your place of employment autism-friendly, there are things you can do that will make a difference to the amount of masking your autistic employees feel compelled to do. For starters, consider how much of the job is required to be done in your place of business. If they are doing a job that can just as easily be done at home, you should consider letting them work from home. At least at home, they can control their sensory environment.
When looking for autistic employees, make your job posting as straightforward as possible. Don’t include things that are not a regular part of the job. If an autistic person thinks their entire day will be spent in meetings because the job posting said they should be a good team player, when there is a staff meeting once a week, they might not bother applying. Consider giving autistic applicants the interview questions in advance. Autistic people who are regularly verbal can have an episode of selective mutism when under extreme strain. If an autistic person applying for the job you are posting knows that 80% of autistic people are unemployed, they will be under stress. Before they come in, find out what you can do to make the sensory environment less overwhelming. Don’t judge their body language based on the measure you might use for other applicants. The only thing you can conclude from them not making eye contact is that they are nervous.
Once you’ve hired an autistic employee, be as thorough as possible with the induction process you put them through. Help them meet all the people that will be part of their employment experience. Make sure to tell them why each person is vital to their role. Make sure they see the whole building. Give them clear written expectations. Give them as many tips as possible to transition smoothly into the workplace. Consider pairing them up with a mentor. Give them non-verbal options for communication whenever possible. If other employees can assist in making their sensory environment easier to manage, ask them for their help.
Okay, guys, that’s all I have for you this week. Thank you all so much for clicking on my content. I’m brand-spanking-new to this, but I think this is where I’m supposed to ask you guys to click to subscribe, turn on your notifications, so you know right away when I upload more content, leave a comment, and give a review. I would be very honoured if you were to share this content on your social media, especially within your Autistic circles. You can find me under Limbic Noodle on Twitter. I have an Instagram account, but if I’m being honest, I don’t understand Instagram. I hope I have been sharing things correctly there. I mostly try to share Indigenous advocacy and pride items on Instagram. I also have a Tumblr account, but full disclosure, it’s mostly a spot for my sister to park certain content when her executive function fails, and she has trouble sorting it. II have a WordPress Blog under “Autism and The Human with Limbic Noodle.”
I am working on Youtube content to accompany this podcast. I have commissioned an avatar from @ChibiMagicDiary on Twitter to use for this purpose. This Youtube content is another level of labour, so it will take longer to be available.
Next week I will be talking about the concept of Environmental Bodies versus bodies that are perceived as Environmental Risks. Look for me to post next week on the same day next week.
Until next week
Keep on Noodling.
Sedgewick, F., Hull, L., & Ellis, H. (2021). Autism and masking: How and why people do it, and the impact it can have. Jessica Kingsley.
Sparrow, M. (2016, October 16). ABA. Unstrange Mind. http://unstrangemind.com/aba/.
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