One of the barriers to diagnosis and support that parents regularly raise with us is a lack of understanding from educational staff around autistic girls, they will raise concerns about their daughter with staff and are greeted with “but she is fine in school”. This may appear to be the case, however scratch the surface and something very different is happening. The reason they appear “fine in school” is because they are Masking.
So, let’s talk about Masking, how it can present and what you can do to support the child. Please don’t expect to leave here being able to spot a masker, many professional diagnosticians struggle, parents tell me they only recognised it retrospectively, but the fact you are reading this, wanting to know how to support is a positive step forward.
Imagine for a minute you are meeting someone important could be the queen the pope or even brad Pitt. Think about how you feel beforehand nervous anxious keen to connect but terrified you might say or do something wrong you want them to like you, you may put on your best voice you might even adopt a voice that’s nothing like yours, just so you can connect with that person. All that anxiety or that worry the dry mouth the racing heart the sweaty palms the feeling of nausea. Now imagine feeling like that every day as you come in to school desperate to be accepted desperate to fit but equally desperate to be invisible.
What is Autistic Masking.
Masking/Camouflaging/ Passing is partly when an autistic person mimics and copies those around them in order to fit in with their peer group and the wider neurotypical world. Both male and female autistics mask. It’s more prevalent, the more aware the autistic person is of their differences to others around them. Self-awareness plays a huge role here.
Masking involves intense observation and mimicking of non-Autistic behaviour, the practicing of that behaviour and the delivery of it also; as well as suppressing the instinct to flight/fight/freeze.
Incredible effort is put in to hide the natural coping mechanism for many autistics, which is self-stimulatory behaviour; or as it is more commonly known: stimming. Stimming is when a person undertakes actions, movements or makes sounds repeatedly for relaxation or stimulation.
Non-Autistic people also stim to some extent. Fingernail biting, hair twirling, pen tapping is all considered to be self-stimulatory behaviours and are considered acceptable. When Stims are suppressed, they are often redirected into these socially acceptable behaviours. Those who present with a female presentation of Autism are particularly good at this redirection, many girls are particularly - part of the reason why they blend in so well.
Autistics stims can be obvious, Rocking, arm squeezing, hand flapping, twirling, just to name a few, the stim possibilities are endless. Any action or movement that can be rhythmically repeated in a pattern, either involving the body or objects around them. It can be used as a calming mechanism, but also to burn off excess energy if the environment around is under stimulating too. It is also used when an Autistic person becomes excited. It is all about self-regulation. When those Stims are redirected or suppressed, that self-regulation cannot occur.
Studies have shown that people on the autistic spectrum begin observing and masking from as young as 6 months old. Masking becomes an automatic and natural way of functioning and can become so ingrained the autistic person becomes unaware they are doing it.
Masking is about safety, about not sticking out, an Autistic way of trying to gain acceptance from their peers. There is such a societal attitude about what is ‘normal’, that they recognise they’re different, but don’t want to be viewed as different by their friends and classmates - so fitting in is paramount. They want to avoid detection, which I must tell you can be incredibly difficult in terms of diagnosis and multiple settings recognising the issues being faced.
Is masking a positive or negative
Some hold the view that all people Mask. What you would consider Masking in this context is being adaptive. Changing your voice for a telephone call, shifting into different skill roles - a parent, a friend, an employee, a partner - different ‘hats’ for different occasions, whether to create a positive first impression at a job interview, or on a date; a life skill people adopt at different times of our lives. However, Autistic children and adults aren’t furnished with a masking on off switch and are unable to control this aspect.
So, thinking about that job interview or date and how anxious and aware of presenting your best self you were, could you maintain that for 6/7 hours a day, 5 days a week? How would you feel at the end of each day, would it make you upset, angry, exhausted, feel inadequate - would your self-esteem by impacted?
Scripting is an important part of this. Many Autistic people, adults and children hold scripts in their heads for every conversation they may face, even during the conversation they are analysing what they’ve said and furiously editing as the conversation ebbs and flows.
They project scenarios, run simulations before things have happened and even while they are happening - the Mask becomes a problem though, when the scenario doesn’t play out exactly as it’s been imagined. This leads to huge amounts of perseveration afterwards, often hours of dissecting what happened.
There is safety in control for Autistic people and Masking covers when that safety is removed. Suppressing your natural and authentic self can have huge repercussions on a person’s whole life, their emotional and mental health and the relationships they build.
Society now do not expect the LGBTQ community to hide their true selves, the idea is abhorrent, we recognise the impact it would have on their whole life. We now must recognise that Autistics Masking their true self is having a huge impact on their lives, it is far more pervasive and even more abhorrent.
Children’s first tentative steps into education usually starts with a playgroup or nursery where sensory play is age appropriate and high on the agenda, learning is informal and based around play. Staff ratios are high, staff are encouraged to be nurturing to aid the transition from home. The hours per day are low, 3 possibly 4 hours at most, the children’s needs tend to be met and any difficult faced will be considered as part of developmental journey. The group size will be low and the environment informal.
Then they start school, reception may be similar but already the child may be self-aware enough to be aware they are different from their peers. The class size will be bigger, the expectations from teachers will start to appear, the educational approach becomes more formal. The fluidity of preschool is lost and demands begin to increase.
A drive for perfectionism may becoming more obvious, the need to be the best, not make mistakes, not get in trouble. The choice to move to less stimulating or more stimulating areas is lost as formal seating plans come into play. Sensory overload from 30 children in a class will be high and staff ratios will be lower. Many classes no longer have teaching assistants, so the teacher will have less time to focus on individual needs, the autistic child is now becoming overwhelmed. They will see others appearing to cope with this transition and will suppress their difficulties in order to fit in.
Social communication and confusion will start to become more stressful, friendship rules will be becoming more difficult to navigate, friendships made will not be based on authenticity and so are often short lived or superficial.
Autistic children as young as 6 have been known to say to their parents "why am I different; why can't I be happy in school like all my friends?" It’s not uncommon for children to say, "I wish I had never been born; I wish I was dead.".
As a parent hearing this can be very upsetting, yet it is a clear indication the child wants something to end. Death is final, so by sharing this the child is clearly showing something is becoming too much to bear. If a parent comes to you with this please don’t assume this is somehow down to bad parenting and because its reported at home, means the problem is home based.
These children hold all that sensory overload in; all the frustration and confusion. They may even plaster on a smile or be selectively mute to cope in the school environment, but at home the stress can be released in the form of a meltdown (coke bottle effect), or a shutdown. The children may eventually be able to vocalize their feelings to a person they trust, but not always. Sometimes the suppression continues onward.
As the years go by the cost to the child's mental health will increase. Friendships will become less sustainable, self-esteem will be low, and self-loathing is high. Days spent holding in emotions and trying to maintain their mask will start to have more obvious impacts on their life. Many secondary school teachers will talk about kids ‘breaking’ around the February half term in year 7. Many specialist settings have bulge years in year 8 and 9 which reflects this,
Whilst masking as a coping mechanism may seem useful in the short term, it will not aide a child or young person to fully embrace their Autistic self, adopt healthy long-term coping strategies or learn one of the most important skills, the ability to self-advocate. A childhood spent focussed on trying to fit in with their peers instead of learning about themselves and recognising their own strengths and weaknesses leads to a lack of self-identity when approaching adulthood and beyond.