What is Masking?
As I rise, in the morning, I’ve noticed that the air feels chilly and crispy. The leaves on trees are blossoming into beautiful shades of yellow, orange, red and brown before gently falling and filling the yards and streets of my neighborhood. I’ve found myself digging through tubs of sweatshirts and hoodies that I retired for the summer to equip me for the changing weather. All of these occurrences can mean only one thing… Fall is here! The season is changing, and the world is preparing itself for a new beginning. When I normally think of fall, my mind goes straight to all things spooky and wicked. I imagine ghost stories being told around a fire, families carving twisted smiles into Jack O’Lanterns, and kids with masks walking door to door trick or treating and giving a good spook to their neighborhood while doing so. What a treat! However, did you know that the term ‘Masking” doesn’t just mean throwing on your scariest face mask for some Halloween fun?
In the mental health field, the term Masking suggests that someone is attempting to hide or camouflage certain parts of themselves to seem more socially appealing to the people around them. Individuals often feel like they have to ‘mask’ their true selves or their behaviors when they do not feel like they would be accepted by the dominant culture that they are living in. They may feel like hiding certain traits or parts of their identity can help them succeed socially without the fear of judgment or prejudice from others for being ‘different’.
Masking is a common coping mechanism for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). When individuals are growing up with Autism, they can recognize from a young age that the way they process information or interact socially may be different from their peers. In an attempt to hide these differences, individuals with ASD start ‘masking’ by learning the “normal” behaviors of those around them, practicing and performing those behaviors, and suppressing any urge to engage in “undesirable behaviors” in order to appear more like their peers.
Many of the behaviors that are suppressed through masking can actually be soothing for individuals with ASD but can appear unusual to others who do not have an ASD diagnosis or who are not educated about Autism. For example, Stimming, also known as self-stimulating behavior, is a common soothing behavior that includes repetitive body movements or noises. Some common examples of stimming behaviors for individuals with ASD include repeating words or phrases, rocking back and forth, repetitive blinking, flapping hands, rubbing or picking skin, pacing or walking on tiptoes, etc.
Although the purpose of these behaviors can look different for each person, a common theory is that stimming helps regulate sensory input, which can be a very overwhelming process for individuals with ASD. Stimming can help individuals adapt to their environment by either increasing or decreasing sensory overload and help them better process information. Stimming can also be calming because repetitive motions can affect the body’s vestibular system which helps with balance and orientation of the body while also calming one’s nervous system. However, there can also be maladaptive effects of stimming such as disruptive behaviors, distractions in learning environments, and self-injurious behaviors such as head banging.
Another common way for individuals with ASD mask to protect themselves in society is by suppressing their interests and hobbies. Many people with ASD have special interests or hobbies that they study from a young age, and this oftentimes becomes a field of expertise for them. When interacting with others, it can feel less intimidating to discuss these interests because facts and information can be shared and talked about freely without having to address other social nuances in ‘small talk’ conversations. However, this behavior is often interpreted as dominating the conversation and is normally viewed in an undesirable way. To address this, individuals with ASD will study the social interactions with others and incorporate these observed skills and traits into their interactions with others to mold themselves into a more socially acceptable version of themselves.
Although Masking is a social skill used for survival and protection for individuals with ASD, the long-term effects of Masking can actually be quite harmful. Much research has shown that individuals with ASD who mask more tend to show more symptoms of depression and anxiety, and Masking may even be linked to an increase in suicidal behaviors. There are several theories that could explain this phenomena, one as simple as feeling exhausted from navigating a world that is not adapted to suit new ways of thinking or communicating. Masking prevents individuals from developing their identity and reaching their full potential by trying to make themselves palatable to others. It’s hard enough to find your place in the world, let alone figuring out who you really are when the world seems to always remind you that who you are isn’t good enough.
You may be wondering- where do we go from here? Knowing everything we’ve just learned about Masking; does it mean that I should stop? Although I can’t give you all the answers, I have made it my goal to equip you with as much information as possible in order to help you make meaningful decisions moving forward about how this topic impacts your life.
Throughout my career, I have found that one of the biggest obstacles individuals face when Masking is a negative self-image and internalized stigma that makes them feel obligated to hide their true selves. But there is hope! Therapy can be immensely helpful when trying to work through this. By engaging in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and learning how to seek relief from our negative thoughts and feelings, we may find that we no longer need to Mask as much, if at all. It is my hope that through compassion and self-love, we can all learn to put our masks down and show the world our true selves a little more often.
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For more resources and information about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), check out the NeuroClastic website:
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