What is masking?
‘To ‘mask’ or to ‘camouflage’ means to hide or disguise parts of oneself in order to better fit in with those around you. It is an unconscious strategy all humans develop whilst growing up in order to connect with those around us. For people with autism, the strategy is often much more ingrained and harmful to wellbeing and health.’ (Definition from the National Autistic Society)
Masking is causing me (or my child) some issues. What can I do?
- Identify one or more safe places and/or people where you feel more comfortable acting naturally. Many people find online communities helpful, especially those with other neurodiverse people, to share experiences and helpful strategies. Remember to keep safe online (link to Childline guidance).
- Understand that masking is a trauma response and a way of trying to keep safe. It is often unconscious (not something you choose to do), although it can also involve conscious decisions. It can be really helpful for other people to understand this, e.g. parents and professionals.
- Masking takes a lot of energy. When you are in situations where you feel you have to mask to stay safe, make sure to build in time and space afterwards to rest and replenish your energy, ideally by doing things that make you feel safe and that make you happy.
Masking isn’t just about wanting to fit in and changing your behaviour to be more like that of others. Everyone changes their behaviour sometimes, in different places or with different groups of people. Masking goes beyond this – it is about feeling that your natural way of being is unacceptable to others, and that you have to change everything about yourself to be accepted.
Masking often involves trying to change or reduce natural behaviours (e.g. stimming, rocking, pacing) and responses to sensory stimuli (e.g. going to parties despite the noise and physical proximity being painful).
Masking is often wrongly associated just with neurodiverse females. People of all genders show masking behaviours for all sorts of reasons, and perceived differences between genders are probably linked to other gender stereotypes and gender-based expectations.
Teenage Masking suggestions
Take the time to explore the things that bring you joy. It can be tricky to take off the mask and uncover your authentic self after years of masking. Ask the people who know you best to help you explore this – your family and friends, and any professionals who you feel you have a good relationship with. Other neurodiverse people are often great for these conversations as well!
Find places/spaces where you feel safe to unmask and be ‘the real you’. For some people this is clubs such as dance, drama or sport, for others it’s neurodiverse spaces such as online forums, or it might be somewhere you can be on your own.
What things make you feel safe? Build up a real or virtual toolkit of resources and ideas that you can take with you to different places.
Where possible, find an adult in school/college that you trust and ask if you can talk to them about how things really are for you. You could write it down or send them an email if you find this easier. Often school staff are really surprised when they hear children are struggling because ‘they seem fine’. If your school or college has an Autism Champion, this could be a good place to start (even if you don’t have an autism diagnosis), but any adult you have a good relationship with should be able to support you.
Keep a record in a journal of situations in which you mask, and how that makes you feel. Try consciously unmasking in safe environments, and record whether your fears were met and how it made you feel. More often than not your worst fears of being judged or embarrassing yourself, will not be met.
How schools can help
Provide safe and accepting environments where neurodivergent people (both children and adults, including staff members) can safely and authentically be themselves. This could include understanding and embracing stimming for its benefits for neurodiverse people, educating others (adults and children) on different neurotypes, behaviours and communication styles, and providing support for sensory differences.
Support different communication styles and help children/young people advocate for their communication preferences.
Provide safe, sensory-friendly environments for children/young people who need to escape the sensory overload common in the school setting. These spaces should never be used for punishment.
Work with parents/carers/families to understand why a child/young person’s presentation might be different at home and at school, e.g. ‘the coke bottle effect’ of a child being shaken up all day and then exploding when they get home and open the lid. This pattern of behaviour is often a sign that the child does not feel safe in school to be their authentic self.
Work with the child/young person to RAG rate their school timetable and wider aspects of the day (journey, assemblies, corridors, breaktimes, etc.). The School Stress Survey is a useful tool for this. What changes can be made to things marked as red? Come up with a plan together to enable the child/young person to manage trickier times. This could include things like changes to seating plans, moving between lessons earlier to avoid busy corridors, building in breaks throughout the day to enable them to rest and recharge, supportive sensory strategies such as wearing noise-reducing earbuds, a quiet area to eat lunch, etc.
Avoid setting goals that encourage masking (on EHCs, IEPs, behaviour plans, etc.). Where possible, ask a neurodiverse adult, or someone with specific skills and training such as a school’s Autism Champion, to check any goals you write and make sure they’re not encouraging masking. If in doubt – does your goal encourage a neurodiverse child to act like a neurotypical child in ways that will make them feel uncomfortable? (this could include goals around eye contact, expecting them to tolerate painful (to them) sensory stimuli, wanting a young child to play in a specific (neurotypical) way, or forced compliance).
Ensure neurodiverse students, like neurotypical students, have free time in which they can follow their own interests and chosen activities.
Remove barriers to comfort and accessibility wherever possible. This could include reasonable adjustments to school uniform (soft black trousers rather than tailored trousers, leggings rather than tights, a polo shirt rather than a formal shirt). A child who feels uncomfortable will not be able to concentrate on learning.
Provide support for people who process things differently and/or more slowly than expected. This could include providing information in writing, with visuals or using video/audio that can be replayed, reducing expectations around quantity of work if understanding can be demonstrated, and reducing the amount of verbal information given.
Lots of neurodivergent people mask their neurodivergent traits to fit in socially, or to keep themselves safe. But masking neurodivergent traits a lot of the time can be really bad for your mental health. Here are some ideas about helping you drop your mask, if you feel safe to.
When they’re just not up to it
Listening to neurodivergent people about what they find difficult and when, and responding to those needs, is central to helping them feel comfortable and able to drop the mask. Even for parents or siblings who know a neurodivergent person really well, it can be difficult sometimes to spot the signs that they are struggling, although you are likely to know these signs better than many other people in their lives.
Reassuring someone that if they are feeling overwhelmed, or need to leave, or change something about the environment, then this is okay, and they can and should tell you so that you can help, can build a track record of them knowing that their experiences will be respected so they can drop the mask.
If you are in a situation that is more difficult for you to change or control (say, out of the house, or in a larger or more formal social situation) then establishing codewords that they can use to let you know that they are finding it difficult can also be useful. Having codewords, using them, and responding actively when they are used again helps build that understanding that you will do what you can to make them comfortable to the best of your ability at the time.
Ways to make your family a safe space to drop the mask
These will differ for every family. Good communication is central (and this does not just have to be verbal – responding to behavioural cues from your neurodivergent family member is also crucial). Building an environment where they know that they are valued for the person they are, that being autistic is not a bad thing, and that they can be proud of their strengths and supported in their difficulties – all of this will make your family feel like a safe and accepting space where the parts of the outside world that are too difficult don’t have to apply.
Doing this can also help to make the outside world easier, as having a secure base to return to at the end of the day makes it easier to cope with the challenges. Similarly, normalising conversations about why people do things that might be confusing can help build social insight and skills that your neurodivergent family member can then then use in their other interactions. “
Words from Cerys- a young person with Autism on Masking
“To me, I have masked forever. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t need to. Primary school is when I can remember masking impacting my life. I was struggling at school, so I subconsciously was masking which gave the illusion that I was the golden child. However, when I came home that was a different story, because at home I felt safe enough to not mask and my behaviour would be terrible. I still mask now; I mask to not be different in crowds and to disguise parts of me that are different to others. Masking is exhausting, trying to be accepted, changing who you really are to suit where you are and who you are with takes its toll emotionally. For me, this means I burnout and completely shut down. I become so overwhelmed I can become extremely emotionally dysregulated (I call this a meltdown), and to people who don’t understand me this can be distressing for them and always for me. But I am actively trying to stop masking all together to prevent future meltdowns and burnouts. I am such a high masker that I will have a burnout at least five times a month, which isn’t healthy at all, this is why I’m trying to unmask. When I burn out or have a meltdown I cannot communicate. Things that help me are having a safe and quiet space to go to, painting and listening to music and texting certain people who understand me and that I trust. I can unmask when I’m around my family or even in public with certain people like my family or boyfriend. Since my Autism diagnosis at 17, I have discovered a lot about myself and masking and I now know why I would struggle in school, work, and even friendships and why I have the mask. At school I would struggle to ask for help so I would start failing certain classes. At work I would hate the lack of routine and being told what to do. With friendships, disputes were more likely as I was viewed as ‘stubborn’ or a ‘know it all’ because id take jokes literally and correct them. I have amazing friends now who understand why I am the way I am and accept me for me. I have the most supportive family around me.
I would always say- don’t be afraid to say no, to allow yourself time to recharge and to use your amazing unique brain to celebrate who you really are.”
Resources and links:
Please note – lots of these websites and articles refer to autism but the information and suggestions will be relevant for other forms of neurodiversity.
https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2019.00129#ref1 Camouflaging in Autism (written for older children)
https://embrace-autism.com/autism-and-camouflaging/ Autism and Camouflaging
https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/professional-practice/autistic-masking Autistic People and Masking
https://theautisticadvocate.com/autistic-masking/ Autistic Masking
https://therapistndc.org/masking-goals-autistic-middle-school-girls/ On Writing Masking Goals for Autistic Middle School Girls – Stop It!
https://www.healthline.com/health/autism/autism-masking Autism Masking: To Blend or Not to Blend
https://www.bristol.ac.uk/blackwell/news/2022/masking-in-autism.html Masking in Autism
https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/aut.2020.0043?journalCode=aut A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking: Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice (full text available for free here)
https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/aut.2020.0071 Autistic Adults’ Experiences of Camouflaging and Its Perceived Impact on Mental Health
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6483965/ Understanding the Reasons, Contexts and Costs of Camouflaging for Autistic Adults
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-017-3166-5 “Putting on My Best Normal”: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions
Please note – lots of these videos refer to autism but the information and suggestions will be relevant for other forms of neurodiversity.
Camouflaging Autism – What is Autistic Masking? (10 minutes, subtitles available)
The Problem with Masking ADHD and Autism (burnout, etc.) (first 4 minutes then sponsored ad, subtitles available)
Autistic masking: a dangerous survival mechanism | Leah Reinardy | TEDxHopeCollege (17 minutes, auto-generated subtitles) (This talk contains discussion of suicide and mental health and contains a statistic on sexual assault.)
Kieran Rose: Autistic Masking and Burnout (38 minutes, auto-generated subtitles)
#TakeTheMaskOff unMasking Strategies with Kieran Rose and Kerrie Highcock (18 minutes, auto-generated subtitles)
Unmasking: 3 Steps to Take Off the Mask? (16 minutes, auto-generated subtitles)
A BBC documentary about autism by autistic presenter Chris Packham, including a section about a young woman who wants to mask less around her mum: