Masking is the act of artificially performing social behaviors or hiding less socially acceptable behaviors to appear more neurotypical. It is often a factor in late diagnosed autism.
Men are more frequently diagnosed with autism than women at a rate of 4:1. There are several reasons for this, but one of the core reasons for a lower rate of autism diagnosis in women is that they are more likely to internalize their autistic traits, whereas men tend to have more external traits. One of the ways in which women internalize their autistic traits is through masking, also known as camouflaging.
Masking consists of controlling impulses and ‘acting’ neurotypical. It may present as forcing oneself to make eye contact during a conversation, even if it makes the masker uncomfortable. It can also consist of imitating facial expressions and gestures. Maskers often learn, create, and follow “social scripts”, using pre-prepared stories, talking points, or jokes during conversations with neurotypicals.
Masking is not female specific, but does seem to be performed, on average, more often by females than males. In a study evaluating camouflaging in autistics, it was observed that autistic girls camouflage their social difficulties on the playground at a higher rate than autistic boys. Because of this, these girls were frequently not seen as struggling socially, leading to them being undiagnosed. Many of the women who aren’t diagnosed with autism until later in life exhibit above average intelligence, potentially supporting their exceptional ability to mask their autistic traits.
Masking provides autistic girls and women the ability to better maintain relationships, make friends, build successful careers, and avoid bullying. But it also comes at a great cost. The strategies for masking tend to be very mentally exhausting. Because masking requires so much cognitive effort, frequent masking often leads to increased stress, anxiety, depression, and meltdowns/shutdowns. It can also negatively impact one’s identity.
I often find that people are surprised to hear that I am autistic and I think a lot of this has to do with my ability to mask. My masking of my autistic traits has allowed me to be successful in school and extracurriculars, but it has also led to depression and anxiety disorders. I imagine masking was also a major factor in my late autism diagnosis at the age of 22.
When first evaluating myself for autism, before my official evaluation by a psychologist, I took many tests related to autism. One of the tests I took is called the Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire (CAT-Q). It was developed by Laura Hill in 2018 as a way of measuring camouflaging behaviors. It evaluates strategies such as compensation, masking, and assimilation. Higher scores indicate a greater prevalence of masking behaviors.
My total score was 147 with subsection scores of 53 in compensation, 44 in masking, and 50 in assimilation.
My results from this test weren’t surprising to me. I think these scores also make a lot of sense for my depression and anxiety disorders as high CAT-Q scores like mine correlate with social anxiety and depression.
When I had first learned of masking in autism, I remember being surprised that everyone else wasn’t doing what I was doing. I’ve known I was different for a long time, but I often didn’t quite pick up on why. Now I recognize that there are many ways in which I mask my autistic traits. For example, I always have a list of stories that I can tell new people that I know will make them laugh because I can’t rely on myself to come up with good small talk. I usually make eye contact, but as my stress or anxiety level increases, it becomes a lot harder and takes a lot of cognitive effort. Still, I force myself to do it in social situations. I struggle with hugs most of the time, and really only like getting hugs from my mom or sister under certain conditions. Despite this, I allow people to hug me without complaint because I know I am supposed to per the rules of social engagement.
All of my masking combined ends up requiring so much effort. It’s part of the reason why I find social outings so exhausting. It is ultimately a response to trauma, a response to the negative consequences of not being socially acceptable.
But as much as masking is a trauma response and has negative impacts such as anxiety and depression, I find it is also important to address some of the privilege that goes hand-in-hand with being able to mask well. Although masking is fluid and its level of believability often fluctuates between different scenarios and levels of stress, some autistic individuals are more capable of masking than others. This ability to mask can literally save their lives in a world such as this when autistic traits can be deemed enough cause for brutal police force, as in the case of Troy Canales.
The discussion of masking versus not masking is where the importance of autism acceptance and the neurodiversity movement becomes so vital. In the present world, both masking and non-masking autistic people face incredible harm. Until our society embraces neurodiversity in a way that can simultaneously accomodate and accept the autistic community, we will never know what autism without trauma looks like.
I will probably always feel a need to mask, whether at work, school, or even the grocery store, but my hope is that I can practice decreasing my use of masking with family and friends. It’s not a switch I can turn on and off, but I think being open about being autistic is a good place to start.