Understanding Masked Autism.
Autism Spectrum (AS) is a neurodevelopmental condition having various effects on the individual. There are two terms that are commonly used in the context of autism “masked autism” and “unmasked autism.”
Take a look at our resource pack “What is Autism” here
Let’s understand the difference between the two:
Masked autism refers to individuals who have autism but have learned to compensate for in such a way that they are not immediately apparent to others. They may appear to be confidently functioning in social situations. However they may still struggle with communication, social interaction, and /or find it exhausting to constantly be in a masked state. They may have learned coping mechanisms that enable them to blend in with their peers but are still experiencing difficulties in certain areas. This includes understanding social cues, reading emotions, or dealing with sensory differences. Those masking their autism are almost acting in social situations in order to “fit in”. They usually only show their unmasked state to those closest to them.
On the other hand, unmasked autism refers to individuals who display more overt traits of autism. This can include repetitive behaviours, and sensory sensitivities. They may also require more support in order to navigate their daily lives. Often struggling to fit in with their peers or to adapt to new situations.
Some individuals are always in an unmasked state, showcasing more commonly known characteristics of autism. However, in many cases, those with autism begin to mask quite early on in life by adapting to social norms to try and fit in with wider society.
While this allows them to “fit in” by socialising more and having access to more opportunities. This is highly exhausting as those individuals are almost acting outside of themselves for the majority of their day.
What can masked Autism look like?
- Forcing or faking eye contact during conversations
- Imitating smiles and other facial expressions
- Mimicking gestures
- Hiding or minimizing personal interests
- Scripting conversations
- Pushing through intense sensory discomfort
Here are a few reasons why people mask their autism:
- Feeling safe and avoiding the stigmas.
- Avoid being bullied or mistreated.
- To make friends or fit in with friendship circles.
- To feel a sense of belonging.
Understanding the overall impacts of masked autism:
While masking enables individuals to feel safe and fit in, it can in fact have many negative impacts on a person. For long durations of time, individuals are acting as someone they are not, causing them to feel exhausted and potentially altering their mental health.
What are the long-term impacts of masked autism:
- Increased stress and anxiety: A study from the National library of medicine found that stress and anxiety were much higher for those who masked their autistic traits when compared to those with unmasked autism.
- Depression: Studies highlighted those masking their autism have symptoms of depression and felt unaccepted by people around them.
- Delayed identification of autism: Sometimes individuals may be used to masking that they are unaware of their autism and this can be hard for an untrained professional to unpick.
- Loss of identity: Masking often involves acting a certain way and portraying yourself in ‘socially acceptable ways’. However, over longer durations, individuals may begin to forget who they really are. In some cases, people said masking feels like self-betrayal, or as if they are deceiving themselves and those around them.
Inside Our Autistic Minds on the BBC, showcases a brilliant insight into the everyday day life of masked autism, watch here.
As we get to understand more it is clear that Autism is a part of who you are, and we need to have more acceptance within education as well as the greater society. A lot of time, people with autism are viewed as lesser than their peers. This is likely causing them to mask their autistic traits. However, it is increasingly clear that autistic people just have a different approach to those that are neurotypical and they should be valued for their distinct take on the world.