In the final episode of season two of The Other Autism podcast, I explore the concept of masking. We've talked about it a lot this season, but now I'd like to do a deeper dive.
Topics discussed also include:
If you'd like to know more about topics discussed in this episode, check out:
"Camouflage and Masking Behavior in Adult Autism" by Javad Alaghband-rad et al.
"Looking Good but Feeling Bad: 'Camouflaging' Behaviors and Mental Health in Women With Autistic Traits" by Jonathan Beck et al.
"Conceptualising Autistic Masking, Camouflaging, and Neurotypical Privilege: Towards a Minority Group Model of Neurodiversity" by Elizabeth Radulski
Episode intro and outro music: "Calliope's Cry" by Kristen Hovet
The Other Autism theme music: "Everything Feels New" by Evgeny Bardyuzha.
All episodes written and produced by Kristen Hovet.
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For transcripts, go to The Other Autism on Buzzsprout, click on an episode and then click on "Transcript" to the right of "Show Notes".
Today I'm talking about masking, also sometimes called camouflaging. Some people even talk about it as passing as non autistic in the same way that some LGBTQIA plus folks talk about passing as straight. If you've been listening to this podcast for a while, you'll know that this topic has come up in a few episodes. But today, I'd like to do a bit of a deeper dive if that's okay with you. The inspiration for this is really wanting to make sure we're on the same page when we talk about masking. Also, this is the last episode of season two. Season three will kick off in a couple of weeks time. I have some new interviews lined up for you, which I think you'll like and some topics and questions I've been hoarding that were sent in from listeners. Please do keep those questions and topics coming if you have a question or a topic you'd love to see covered here. Please do email me. The email address is as always in the show notes.
It's important to mention that not all autistic people mask. It seems to be a behavior that's all over the map, just like all other autistic behaviors or traits. Masking is usually associated with those who are late diagnosed. In other words, those who are identified as autistic sometime past their 18th birthday. But of course, it doesn't have to be. Any autistic person is capable of masking. Typically, the later the diagnosis, the more masking the person does. I mean, this makes total sense. Those of us who are high maskers went completely unnoticed and off the diagnostic radars while we were kids and youth. Some have actually said that some interventions for autistic kids merely teaches them how to mask which is troubling a little bit, especially since it's taught as, like, you need to mask to fit in, or you need to pretend to be neurotypical to fit in and it's not done in a way that's empowering to the autistic individual. Anyway, before I get ahead of myself, I want to really define masking. What is it? What does it look like? I've got a load of articles on masking, some of which I'll include in the show notes. I've learned that if I list too many references in the show notes, if I get too citation happy, some information gets cut off. So I'm trying to limit myself to a few top references in the show notes with a focus on the ones that I use the most in working on the episode.
Speaking of references to academic journal articles, I'd like to put a general plea out there to researchers looking into autism: Please for the love of umph stop calling autism a disorder characterized by persistent deficits. I don't know how many times I've seen that exact phrase, but it's like too many times to even start to be able to count. Anyway, this type of language will turn off a lot of autistic readers and will show that you have not worked with enough autistic folks to get the wording right. It shows you're behind the times, frankly. If you want to be relevant, glow up your word choices. We love what you do. We love that you're putting energy and resources and so much of your life into researching autism. Truly, truly, but some changes are desperately needed. It would be great to see you help lead the change. I'm still seeing brand new, like 2023 papers with this old language. It's not necessary. I mean, there are papers, you know, that are even older that use newer language. I don't know, I don't know why it hasn't caught on. It doesn't take much to just change and tweak a few words here and there and completely change the feel of your paper. You turn deficit and shame-laden language into something neutral, something palatable. That's not to say that autism isn't a disability because it is for many, it can definitely be challenging. But we need to balance out the negativity and the deficit language that's pervaded the talk about autism for far too long for decades.
All right, so masking is defined by Javad Alaghband-rad and their team as seeking to disguise and compensate for one's autistic features in social contexts as a way to socially blend in. I really like that language of blending in because at least for me, that's really exactly what it is. For me masking is a way of being able to slip by undetected so that no one identifies me as a weird or unwanted or unacceptable person. These researchers go on to say that masking comprises complex copying or mimicking behaviors, as well as avoiding displaying certain elements of one's personality. It's like we're selecting or picking neurotypical traits we see and then enacting them in ourselves, even if they don't come naturally to us. They're definitely traits that we've practiced. While autistics will primarily mask in social settings around strangers, or people they don't know well or don't trust, many also describe masking around people who are very close to them, even parents, siblings, children, or spouses, depending on a lot of factors. Ideally, we'd feel safe to unmask around these folks. But unfortunately, not all of us have that option. Also, for some of us, the mask is so deeply entrenched that we have a hard time taking it off. For these, I guess we can call them deep maskers, we even mask sometimes when we're alone with ourselves, like we're so ashamed of the person behind the mask, or masking is so constant, that we don't know how to stop doing it. And it's a long process to work out the whole unmasking thing. It often requires working with a neurodivergent therapist or counselor to even begin to discover who we are behind the mask. Where does the mask end and true self begin, or vice versa. I'd also like to add here that masking is not really done consciously, especially before we're identified as autistic. It's not like we're going out there being like hee hee hee, I'm going to trick all these people into thinking I'm one of them. It's not like that. It's really not. And of course, pre identification of autism, we don't yet have that concept of masking. We aren't aware of it as a thing, yet. Most Autistics who mask will describe doing this behavior to fit in. And if they ever get meta about it, if they ever think about it, reflect on it, they assume this mimicry or hiding aspects of themselves is what everyone else does. We assume that we're just a bit bad at it because our mask is imperfect, and cracks or slips all the way off sometimes, despite our best efforts to, I guess superglue it to ourselves in certain scenarios and around certain people.
Some researchers have stated that the opposite of masking is authenticity. I kind of disagree with this binary between masking and authenticity. Because like I think masking can be actually enacting authenticity if we get to, I guess, a certain understanding of our own masking. It's well known that we all have various aspects of ourselves that we try to keep hidden and we all mask even neurotypicals do to a certain degree. It is, as Kim Gallo and I spoke about a few episodes ago, quite different though, in that masking in autistic people can interrupt our core identity or self concept, especially if it's not done consciously, and if the person doesn't have adequate safe spaces where they're free to be themselves and completely strip off the mask. Many autistic adults talk about the difficulty they have in trusting others when it comes to unmasking. This is often based on past experiences they've had that they might not even be conscious of in the moment. But definitely they've all built up. And so this is like a learned behavior or set of behaviors. Unmasking around a new person can take hours, days, weeks, months, even years, depending both on the autistic person and aspects of the person they're wanting to unmask around. Sometimes trust never forms, so you will never see behind the mask.
So what does it look like behind the mask? What does it mean when some autistic person is unmasking? I can only really speak about this from personal experience because everyone's different in this regard. But I know there's some similarities, so just bear with me. If you see behind my mask, it's like free flowing chatter, sometimes. And I'm actually very talkative with my family and close friends, which is probably a huge surprise to some people who know me. And I can be very physically active and kind of all over the place when I'm truly comfortable. When I trust you, I'll let you know my opinion and my thoughts. And I won't filter any of these or hold back, you'll get my unadulterated truth. On Super Happy Days, you might get a comedy routine, whether or not you want one, maybe some singing, I don't know. Kind of general goofiness, I guess you could say. On the other hand, my masked self is extremely controlled, focused on manners, or at least trying to follow manners, physically very still, not super expressive, or I'll maybe have this weird little smile as a way to try to make sure you're comfortable. Very quiet, even steely. And so where did that smile come from? Well, I can tell you, as a woman, we're often told, like if we have like one of those resting B faces, you know, like, You should smile more, you look so bla bla bla, you look so sad. You look so grumpy. So like, I think in my people pleasing ways I developed this, like, I don't know, obligatory smile, so that I don't get that type of it's like, it's like a shield. The smile is my frickin shield. Because I don't want you to tell me that my face is looking a certain way or whatever. So I just assume that if I'm not smiling, I'm pissing you off, or making you uncomfortable, or you're gonna say something, like some weird remark, so I just want to avoid that. So I'll just smile weirdly.
Someone once told me that I can come across as cold. Honey, it's because I don't trust you. You don't actually know me, you don't actually see me. If you see me as cold or steely, that simply means I'm keeping me from you. Because of past experiences, it takes me sometimes quite a while to unmask. This is changing slowly, as I have way less f*cks left to give, but it's a process. And I refuse to pressure myself. This is me. Take it or leave it. Also, I generally find it very hard, if not impossible, to unmask in large crowds or around people who are very loud or aggressive or very, very like over the top expressive. And so my mask will stay mostly on in those scenarios. That's just by default. If you think this is related to trauma in my past, you'd be correct. And as long as we live in a society where it can be unsafe to be our autistic selves, you can bet that I'm keeping my mask. And this leads me to the concept of masking as protection as a way to avoid painful experiences and discrimination. For this reason, I'm actually somewhat against efforts to try to get people to unmask in a blanket kind of way, as in trying to get autistic people to unmask in most settings like for good. You'll see this come up on social media sometimes where folks are promoting unmasking full stop, and I'm like why?! The pressure to unmask as a general way of going about the world can be very dangerous for some autistics, and at the very least can introduce some painful and potentially traumatizing experiences that otherwise would not exist if you just leave well enough alone.
So my stance is more to focus on really building awareness. Specifically working to be fully aware of what it means for oneself to mask and what it means to unmask. Really examine this, perhaps with the help of trusted friends and or an autistic therapist, because once you know the difference between your masked self and your unmasked self, you have way more control of it. And you can use it to your advantage to stay safe, to stay comfortable. It can be quite empowering actually. Here is where you might look at me funny and cite the research, which I'll also include some of that in the show notes, that states that masking is bad for one's mental health. Yeah, it's really bad for mental health. I agree. It's so detrimental, in fact, that some researchers have shown a direct link between the strength and duration of masking and the severity of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, especially in autistic females who are known to mask more frequently and more deeply or intensely than autistic males on average. But here's the key thing that I think a lot of research misses when they're talking about the detrimental aspects of masking. And that is, it's really unconscious or uncontrolled masking, or masking without awareness and living a life where you have to mask most of the time, even around loved ones, that is actually the super detrimental part when it comes to mental health and well being. Masking itself, when done consciously and selectively, can be protective to mental health. It can be the exact opposite of detrimental, is what I'm trying to say. As long as we live in a world that favors and rewards neurotypicality over neurodivergence, this will unfortunately be the way it is. All that said, I'd love to hear your thoughts on masking. So send me a note, my email address is in the show notes. Or send me a message on Instagram. I'm at otherautismpodcast, all one word, on Instagram. I'd love to see you there. I also wanted to let you know before saying goodbye that the intro and outro music for this episode is a little song I made called Calliope's Cry. If you want to hear the whole thing or download it, you can find it on Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube. I'm really shy about putting things like this out there, but baby steps, baby steps, and eee dolphin sounds. Oh god.
Also, before I say goodbye, I wanted to talk to you about Calm Strips. So I don't know if you've heard of Calm Strips, but they were kind enough to send me some samples. And they are awesome. I have a keychain now with two different textures, one on each side, one is sort of like more coarse texture and one is more fine. And it's nice. I am sitting here now just like rubbing my fingers on it. There's Calm Strips everywhere. I'm super calm. So I would like to tell you a little bit more. What are Calm Strips? Calm Strips might look like any other sticker, but they're actually the first of their kind, reusable, textured sensory adhesives. They're a simple and convenient tool for anxiety, stress, your fidgeting needs. How do you use Calm Strips? You peel and stick them to almost any flat, less textured surface. You touch them, scratch them, or pick at the top layer to help regulate restless energy and even increase focus. Calm Strips are reusable. They're residue free and they're latex free. You can learn more at calmstrips.com. That's C A L M S T R I P S.com. Or you can contact them at care at calmstrips.net. Yeah, take a little calm everywhere. People use them, they stick them on their phones, they stick them on their laptops, they have keychains you can purchase and then choose the Calm Strips of your choice to match. So yeah, head on over to Calm Strips. That's all I have for you today. Hey, that's actually all I have for you this season. Peace out, season two, forever. Thank you so much for being here.
Until next time, bye.