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Autism and Social Masking

Updated: Jul 30, 2019

What is Social Masking?

Social Masking is where an autistic person acts in ways others might consider “normal” in order to be accepted by them.

It can also be referred to as passing or camouflaging.

What can it look like?

When in a customer facing job we may act friendly and happy so the customer can feel welcomed and valued. The same when we are with our friends to show them we care. This effort varies depending on how we feel and what we're doing. With friends, this may only be small as we're interested in them even if not on the topic of conversation.

What does "Social Burnout" mean?

Everyone socially masks and this includes both autistic and non-autistic people. If you are autistic social masking is more effort, it can be physically draining and cause anxiety and depression. Sometimes this is called "Social Burnout".

What does it mean for autistic people?

Sometimes we don't realise we are masking as these roles can feel natural and happen automatically and without thought. Other times it may be a lot harder and require a lot of concentration. We can have to consciously use body language, vocal tone, and facial expressions,, as well as show interest.

Some examples of social masking behaviours are:

  • maintaining eye contact

  • trying to stay still

  • copying others behaviour

  • forcing ourselves to use facial expressions

  • smiling

  • learning conversation topics others might be interested in

  • practising how to act before we go to an event

Doing these things can take a lot of effort and time so it's understandable why many autistic people feel drained or socially burnt out.

How does masking explain misdiagnosis?

Because of social masking, you may never notice someone is autistic.

This is why some people may never get diagnosed or only in adulthood.

It could also explain why fewer girls get diagnosed as they usually have more masking behaviours and so may not seem autistic.

This could lead them to get another diagnosis or fail to be diagnosed at all.

Some people may not even know they are autistic.

They may think their challenges are because they are tired or hungry. This can lead to them blaming themselves and continuing to do things that are bad for them. Others don't get socially burnt out as easily and some don't when around routine people like their parents or partner.

What next?

Research is still needed to understand why more males get diagnosed with autism than females. Social Masking may explain one reason. If so this could mean there are many undiagnosed adults who may need help. It's our hope that if everyone understands masking then more of us may realise we're autistic and in doing so lead more fulfilling lives.

Sources: Spectrum: The costs of camouflaging autism Spectrum: Women with autism hide complex struggles behind masks