On The BI Blog

What is Masking in Autism? Is It Beneficial for Children to Mask Behaviors?

October 9, 2023
By: Behavioral Innovations
autism, autism masking, autistic masking

Masking, in autism, refers to how a person may try to hide or change parts of themselves in order to fit in or to be accepted by others. Masking isn’t privy to just people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Masking is something that almost everyone experiences to some degree throughout life. Most people mask unconsciously without really realizing they are doing it; it is a way for people to connect with others. This is typically a common experience as children get older and they want to be liked by their peers, but even adults mask in certain ways.

Masking and Autism

For people with autism, masking is more likely to require them to alter their true selves more than people without autism do. Masking can also be more harmful to people with ASD as it can be detrimental to their mental health and overall well-being. For people with autism, masking is an attempt to meet societal norms of how people “should” behave and how they “should” interact with one another. However, this comes at a cost to people with ASD. They often spend much of their time trying to cover up their true identity.

About Masking with ASD

Masking may involve suppressing certain behaviors that help regulate the person’s nervous system and behaviors that help them manage sensory input more effectively. These could be stimming behaviors or behaviors related to experiencing their special interests. Oftentimes, the neurotypical population looks negatively on someone who is overly focused on their passion. This population of people can be judgmental on those with ASD for having unique interests or not fitting in with groups of people.

For example, many neurotypical people spend time hanging out with friends, socializing, talking for long periods of time, and doing things together. If an autistic person spends most of their time on their special interests, like reading books, researching topics, or exploring electronic systems, they may be perceived as ‘different’ and therefore may not be accepted by others. They may even be bullied or left out from peer groups. 

In this type of example, masking would be when the person tries to act like their peers by hanging out and trying to engage in conversations; spending much less time on their special interests than they’d prefer. On one hand, this masking can be somewhat beneficial in helping the person to make friends but, when not approached cautiously, masking too much and neglecting one’s true self can lead to mental health difficulties, burnout, and even more challenges. 

Acceptance of People with ASD

Ideally, individuals should be accepted for who they are, even if they lead unconventional lives. Encouraging neurotypical people to embrace and include others in typical activities is crucial. Additionally, recognizing that individuals with ASD may have varying social preferences and ways to spend their time is important.

People with autism can also learn to be mindful of how they present themselves. If they seek companionship, they should think about how to connect with friends who appreciate their genuine selves or share their interests. For those interested in forming relationships with people who are different from them, stepping out of their comfort zone, engaging with peers, or honing their conversational skills can be valuable. These actions can facilitate the establishment and maintenance of meaningful friendships and relationships.

Harmful Impact of Masking

Although some level of masking may have some benefits, there is also a real concern that masking can have very harmful effects, as well. Masking can be helpful in specific situations, like interviews or family gatherings, but excessive masking can be harmful.

Research has found that masking can be harmful to a person’s mental health. People with autism who mask are more likely to experience anxiety and depression and may even be more likely to experience suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts (Cassidy et al. 2018).

Masking is exhausting and requires the use of mental, emotional, and physical energy that is in limited supply within any given person. Masking can lead to what is known as autistic burnout or periods of extreme overwhelm and fatigue which results in the person having very little internal resources to function as they typically would in day-to-day life.

Masking excessively prevents the person with autism from developing their true identity. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they try to fit in and be who they think they should be, instead of being who they truly are. It can be an overwhelming experience to discover that you don’t actually know yourself and that you’ve mostly just been ‘acting’ - in a way - to try to do what you think you were supposed to do in life.

Perceptions of People with Autism

One key finding in the research is that, despite efforts at masking, individuals with autism received more critical or unfavorable assessments from their neurotypical peers compared to how they judged other neurotypical individuals. It is important that individuals with autism embrace their true selves. This study emphasizes the need for them to proactively engage in self-improvement and step out of their comfort zones, but only when pursuing personal goals that truly resonate with them.

They should not mask often or for long periods of time, as this will ultimately lead to detrimental effects in their overall mental health and well-being, including their physical health. It will likely lead to negative consequences in their personal, social, and work lives, even if the person can mask for a long period of time.

Masking and Autism

People with autism are human beings just like anyone else. They should feel comfortable and confident in who they are. Masking might have some benefits when used as a strategy in certain situations; however, masking is not an ideal strategy to use excessively. 

To all people with autism - Be who you are and find the people who accept you and support you for who you are, as well.