Blending In: On autistic camouflaging

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve felt the need to hide your identity, pretend to know more about something than you do, or felt like an outsider? Chances are, that for most of us, the answer to that question will be ‘yes’. Whether through trying to be part of a group or finding yourself in environments where you don’t understand anything going on around you, we’ve all experienced that sensation of being ‘locked out’.

Autistic people experience this more and in some rather adverse ways, compared to thier neurotypical peers. This process is called ‘camouflaging’, ‘masking’ or ‘compensation’. Put simply, this occurs when autistic people feel like they need to pretend not to be autisitc. This involves very careful and deliberate monitoring of our day to day behaviour. Taken on a simple level, this might involve forcing oneself to make eye contact. Yet masking manifests itself in more sinister ways like feeling the need to study the speaking patterns and personality traits of peers to seem ‘normal’.

Confession: In my first year of uni I did this all the time because I was socially awkward and I thought through trying to copy the sense of humour, hobbies and routines of other students, that I would somehow increase my social acceptance. It worked in some respects, yet at times felt weirdly forced, like I was putting up a façade. To be honest, the moments I remember most from university were those where I could engage in my nerdy interests of music or politics with likeminded individuals, who while not always necessarily understanding my quirks and special interests, appreciated them.

This is quite widespread as well. In one study, 70% of autistic people reported having used camouflaging techniques. However, until the past five years or so, its seen almost no research. In understanding why camouflaging happens we know that many do so to avoid bullying. Notably, many do so out of a sense of obligation, rather than choice. There’s being alienated from social circles, and then there’s the threat of being alienated, which is arguably worse. All this shows how difficult it can be to navigate environments set up primarily by and for neurotypicals. As stated at the beginning, being ones authentic self is not easy for anyone, but facing a choice between social expectation and being oneself on a near constant basis, can prove mentally and socially trying.

‘Putting On My Best Normal’

Its worth pointing out that not all autistic people see masking as a negative. Some point out how it can help them overcome shyness in social situations, or help them in areas such as the job market. Even I acknowledge that in order to interact effectively, a degree of masking is required. I point this out cause when I talk about society being geared towards neurotypicals, I don’t mean that I expect there to be no situations where autistic people need help to overcome some part of ourselves.

That said, the expectation of camouflaging can hide an individuals difficulties, preventing them from being helped. An autistic employee who struggles to disclose to thier employer because of fear of how thier coworkers might see them, or because of the pervasive myth that being honest about ones difficulties is the same as asking for special treatment, is at far more risk of mental exhaustion than someone who is entitled to ‘quiet time’, mentors and other means of support.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, camouflaging can even prevent diagnoses. This is paticulary common in women with autism, to such an extent that we spent years believing that autism is primarily a male disorder. In these instances, undiagnosed people struggle to understand thier own difficulties, as well as thier own talents, and seem trapped in social situations that are overtly critical of the way they behave. Speaking as someone who has a sibling who went through school feeling ostracized by social circles and misunderstood when they would have meltdowns or struggle in certain subjects, that feeling of being locked out must be disorienting.

Also unsurprisingly, masking is associated with mental health struggles. Autistic people who camouflage tend to report higher rates of anxiety and depression. This might be for a number of reasons. Even in areas such as my own writing where I’ve often held myself to an unusually high standard based on other writers, or my attempts to blend in socially, starting from the perspective that I need to hide my personality undermines the confidence I have in myself. There is a strong judgment inherent in the idea that you need to hide your autism, that your true self isn’t acceptable. This ultimately causes people who are masking to avoid asking for the help that they need.

And it isn’t thier fault. There’s a culture which surrounds ‘independence’ that says to people who have been diagnosed that support is there up to a point but once you cross a certain threshold, be that a certain age or stage in your life, asking for support is immature or entitled. When places like my university take away the ability for students to talk to thier notetakers, or placements brush aside requests for help with ‘I’ll just leave it to you to figure it out’, they are stigmatizing the already difficult process of realizing you need help, and going after that support.

Lastly, masking is exhausting! If you’ve ever been in a very different culture – and I mean that in every sense – you’ll know how it feels to be ‘out of your depth’. Now imagine doing this every day for your entire adult life. Neurotypical people unconsciously use a process known as ‘mentalizing’. This is where you figure out someone’s intentions or mood from looking at their behaviour.

One study found that when autistic people were asked to read a short paragraph, or watch a short film focussed on a character, they struggled to describe the characters intentions. Yet, when they were interviewed in a study looking for autistic traits, they appeared neurotypical. These ‘good compensators’ were able to observe and copy neurotypical traits without internalizing outward signs and signals and what they mean. Whereas, the ‘poor compensators’ still struggled with mentalization, yet demonstrated autistic traits in the interview process. Interestingly, the ‘good compensators’ reported higher levels of anxiety which challenges the concepts that compensating is universally desirable, or the same for everyone, whether they are autistic or non-autistic.

Admittedly, we are not sure where cause and effect are coming from here. Is it that autistic people are more anxious about the way they look to the rest of the world? Or is it that compensation itself leads to mental exhaustion? If I had to guess I’d probably say that its a combination of the two but for the purposes of this, its kind of irrelevant: the point is that those feelings of ‘burnout’ exist. It must be really frustrating for those in certain jobs for their employer not to understand why they have trouble communicating, or for those at school to face the penalties of being uncommunicative.

When I do disclose in social situations, I sometimes get met with a sort of vague disinterest by people who can’t see how and why my condition applies to them, all owing to a general lack of education about autism. An autistic friend once told me: ‘I have lovely friends but its not me that they are friends with, its the person I pretend to be’.

Taking Off the Mask

Before the coronavirus caused the very same hashtag to be hijacked by ‘anti-masker’ idiots, #TakeOffTheMask was a positive Twitter campaign aimed at encouraging autistic people to be themselves. It was met with some backlash, by people asking ‘what about those who use masking as a coping strategy?’ In fact, they weren’t entirely off the mark.

In a sense camouflaging – to bring it more in line with the original definition – is adaptive. Its a creative response to difficulties, but that should make us wary of the question ‘why do autistic people feel they need to act in this way?’. The evidence to date shows us that using a façade has negative effects, and so we shouldn’t be speaking about the idea as if its simply a useful technique.

While research on this is relatively recent, theres a wider point to be made here about the role of the individuals and institutions which surround us. When I as an autistic person explain my struggles, the baseline assumption is that they arise from my own personal defects. I shivered a few months ago when someone introduced me to a mutual friend as autistic, prompting them to respond with ‘ah, I’m sorry, I know quite a few people with that problem’. For clarity, they weren’t being mean, it just illustrates my point. ‘he’s got problems’ became a buzzword in my school for explaining why I needed help. I even used that term several times, having internalized the idea that there was something wrong with me.

The information we have on camouflaging reminds us that this is false. As Will Mandy points out:

“The problems autistic people face arise from a misfit between the individual’s unique pattern of strengths and difficulties, and the demands their environment places on them”

Social camouflaging in autism: Is it time to lose the mask?

One example which is generally given of this is autistic people who refuse to go to school. This is something I am personally familiar with as that sibling of mine, which I mentioned earlier, had this problem. They would refuse to attend school and when challenged, would recount how much of a difficult experience they found education – remember they weren’t diagnosed at this point. And while this comes down to the concept of pragmaticism and principles, it’s not unreasonable to argue that – using education as a starting point – our institutions should look at weaknesses as something to learn from. Additionally, everyone should have opportunities for support and creative learning i.e to go about thier activities in ways which allow them to meaningfully engage with them. If a significant number of autisitc people are just going through the motions in education – and then, later in life, are finding themselves shut out by the ‘real world’ to such an extent that they have to pretend to fit in, our systems and ways of designing society need a rethink.

An Atypical Perspective…

Seeing the difficulties of autistics needs an ecological approach: By looking at the difficulties autistic people face in a wider context, we can see how attempts to intervene on autism should not try and change the individual, but improve the relationship between the individual and the environment. No one is saying that the approach shouldn’t involve helping autistic people learn better social skills, simply that refusing to make adjustments to the environment, puts undue pressure on autisitc people.

Masking should be seen as more relatable: The irony with all this is that if you put most neurotypical people in an environment of autisitc people who stand at multiple different places on the spectrum, the likelihood is that they would feel like an outsider. Its the same as when your trying to make casual conversation with people who think differently, or have different interests to you. The issue is that we tend to think of those awkward encounters as temporary blips, and not huge problems. This overlooks those of us who spend out lives feeling like outsiders to a world that frequently dosent appreciate different perspectives or ways of being.

There should be more education about camouflaging and autism: Before the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign was hijacked, it helped give a voice to autistics who generally said that they would like to not have to mask thier true self all the time. An active programme of education is needed both in our schools and our workspaces, to shape public attitude and to increase autism acceptance. This can help create more community, educational and work spaces where autistic people are free to make thier voice and perspective heard. A measure of success will be if more autistic people feel able to stop camouflaging as often.

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