Aug 16, 2023 | Neurodiversity

Group of young businesspeople standing in office

Understanding Masking

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There are many different terms that we want people to become familiar with. Understanding important terms, and what they mean for neurodivergent individuals will result in a more diverse and welcoming environment for everyone. One such term that we would like to discuss today is “masking” and what that means for people living with autism. 

What is masking 

In environments where neurodiversity is not understood, autistic individuals may feel the need to present themselves in a certain way or act a particular way to be considered neurotypical. In some situations, people may also feel that they need to hide who they are, or certain behaviors to be accepted. Masking can lead to negatively impacting the individual, which is why it is vital to understand the behavior and its effects. 

Masking is often a survival tool used by people with autism. Healthline describes the following as common masking behaviors: 

  • forcing or faking eye contact during conversations 
  • imitating smiles and other facial expressions 
  • mimicking gestures 
  • hiding or minimizing personal interests 
  • developing a repertoire of rehearsed responses to questions 
  • scripting conversations 
  • pushing through intense sensory discomfort including loud noises 
  • disguising stimming behaviors (hiding a jiggling foot or trading a preferred movement for one that’s less obvious) 

Effects of masking 

Masking, whether intentional or not, can have a significant impact on individuals such as: 

Mental health challenges 

As you can imagine, masking can be mentally and emotionally draining. It is exhausting to hide who you truly are, or suppressing behaviors that make you feel comfortable and at ease. This can lead to heightened anxiety and stress as well as fatigue. A 2019 study found that “stress and anxiety were higher in people who routinely masked autistic traits, compared to those who used masking less often.” 

Burnout 

Since masking requires work and effort in social situations, individuals are more likely to experience burnout. As a result, they may choose to avoid these situations entirely to avoid feeling overwhelmed. The constant pressure to feel like they must be turned “on” to be accepted and welcomed into a group, whether personally or professionally, is extremely draining. A study found that “women who used masking to satisfy neurotypical standards said they felt exhausted by the constant effort.” 

Delays in support 

Masking can make it challenging to receive an accurate diagnosis or receive necessary support. In some instances, people are so successful with masking that their autism isn’t identified until they are older. This delay can result in mental health challenges because they don’t receive the support or resources they need. 

When people are constantly encouraged or feel it’s necessary to mask, they may feel like they will never be accepted as they are, it’s their responsibility to always mask, ignore their own feelings, or they are less valuable than others. There is an excellent visual from creator, @neurowild_, on Instagram that you can check out to help get a better understanding of masking

We all want to feel valued and seen as the person we are. Therefore, understanding masking and encouraging people to be their true selves can help diminish stereotypes and lead to an inclusive workplace environment.

Learn more on this topic

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