by Guy Shahar
Published: 23rd June, 2021
Because autistic and non-autistic people have different neurological profiles, they have different ways of making sense of many things, and different preferences around how to communicate. Neither is better or worse, but because the vast majority of people are non-autistic, it’s easy for a narrative to develop that their way of thinking is the norm and is the proper and correct way to be.
“Masking”, in autism, refers to an autistic person at least in part buying into that narrative and adapting their behaviour to meet others’ expectations. Sometimes it’s conscious, other times not. It is likely to involve repressing their own needs and preferences, and learning to behave in ways that really go against the grain for them.
Let’s break down one tiny example of this to illustrates how misunderstandings occur and why masking is used to deal with them. It may seem small and inconsequential, but when an autistic person’s day is made up of many, many different things like this, it starts to become very meaningful. Bear with me on it, as there’s a lot to unpack, but it is necessary in order to understand how it can result in masking.
Let’s look at a situation of someone doing something that we don’t like or that inconveniences us. It might be a way they communicate with us that makes us uncomfortable, or a way that they work that makes work harder for us. This happens to all humans, but the ways it is dealt with by autistic and non-autistic people are very different.
For non-autistics, there seems to be a social ritual around this which seems to me (as an autistic person) to be extremely complicated, indirect and counter-intuitive, but may very well feel natural and perfectly intuitive to others.
The first rule of this ritual seems to be that you do not explicitly bring up what you are unhappy about – especially not at an early stage. Rather you absorb it and don’t “make a fuss” about it. If it is difficult to absorb, then you are probably being over sensitive and need to “become lighter” about it.
But why would anyone choose to put up with something that’s uncomfortable, when it could be a really easy thing to resolve? Apart from a general urge people feel to conform to social expectations, it seems to be about 2 things. One is avoiding the awkwardness and social-discomfort that might arise from expressing a personal need that might appear to criticise or place an obligation on the other person, provoking them and leading to conflict (there may also be issues of self-esteem involved in this for many people). The other is the implicit payoff that if I’m not bringing up what someone else is doing to upset me, then I can go about freely doing what I want that might inadvertently be upsetting someone else without it being called into question or being forced to recognise that my way of being may sometimes be inconvenient to others (if I had to face that, I’d feel in a state of constant uncertainty about doing anything without potentially feeling guilty).
So, you put up with it and hope it will pass or that you’ll find some way to adapt to it so you can go on not mentioning it. But if it persists, that’s when the arrangement starts to break down. If you are unable to simply absorb the behaviour and put up with it, then it might be just about acceptable to make some semi-diplomatic light-hearted (on the surface) joke about it so that it can be expressed, but not clearly enough to lead to conflict. The other person can laugh along with the joke, and at the same time it might even be (or it had better be) that they quietly take on board that you don’t like it and promptly act on it.
If that doesn’t happen, and it persists, then what normally happens is you erupt in an aggressive outburst. Having repressed your own needs up to this point and having had the patience of sit on it for so long and the politeness to make a mild joke about it without giving it full expression, there is no patience left. The outburst feels justified as the other person has been constantly annoying you for so long (even though it might seem to them to come out of the blue). It turns out that if you don’t get what you want and aren’t able to put up with it, it’s you who makes the most “fuss” about it after all.
Nobody wants to end up in that sort of situation, so you simply learn to put up with annoyances in most cases however difficult that might be for you. It seems to be part of an unwritten and unspoken social contract to give us all as much freedom as possible in our actions and to avoid conflict and protect ourselves from having to face the fact that we sometimes say or do something that is upsetting to someone else. We don’t like to think of ourselves as anything less than perfect – especially not selfish or inconsiderate – and so we simply agree not to highlight each others’ imperfections. The cost is that we need to put up with them.
There are controls in place to safeguard the terms of the contract. These take the form of social judgements that someone “should” absorb such things and that they are “weak” or “over-sensitive” or “too demanding” if they can’t.
And for the most part it works, as the rules are intuitively understood by most people (though would still be recognised by many as ridiculous if someone were to go to the lengths of spelling them out like this), and there’s some willingness most of the time to adapt to the warning signs that the arrangement might be breaking down. Conflict is thus mostly avoided, even though mutual resentment may be created and fester, as it is unable to be openly expressed, leading to later complications.
But not everybody will pick up on these underlying dynamics, and autistic people are in one of the categories least likely to.
To me, as an autistic person, the whole arrangement appears to be a complex and slightly crazy inversion of what’s important. Perhaps it’s because autistic people tend to be less worried about facing their human weaknesses and imperfections (knowing that these weaknesses don’t reflect on the essence of who they are) and therefore have less to fear from direct, open authentic communication – at least when it’s well-meaning and constructive. Plus, having experienced so much adversity and likely traima in life already through being repeatedly misunderstood, they do not have huge expectations around ever being able to behave freely with non-autistic people without repercussions. So the advantages that non-autistic people get from this, and from many many other such social arrangements, are not very attractive to autistic people.
To me, it would seem far more straight-forward and respectful to simply point out what works and doesn’t work for each of us when that feels necessary – without any judgement or demand on the other person – and to be very open to what others’ preferences are too. It’s not uncomfortable for an autistic person to express their needs (unless social pressures from others make it so) or to hear others’ needs (unless they are expressed aggressively). There is no impatience or demand implicit in this. It’s simply a means of putting the full picture on the table so we can come together and find the best way forward for everyone and provide a better environment for each other, as it’s impossible otherwise to know what is optimal for each person without such communication. There’s no reason why this can’t be achieved simply, naturally and quickly, with no bad feeling. So for me, this would be a far more natural way to try to resolve issues. From the outside, it might seem a little convoluted, but doesn’t need to be, and it avoids a much more convoluted and destructive situation that could otherwise occur.
But, although that makes much more sense to me, it’s not what I generally do. And the reason I don’t generally do it is because it doesn’t fit in with the required social ritual that pervades most people’s expectations of how such interactions should work. Especially when needing to work with non-autistic people, I have always known (via many experiences) that handling such situations in the way that’s most natural and intuitive to me would be profoundly misunderstood, and so I do it much less often than I otherwise would. I’m not consciously repressing my own intuitive ways of doing things, I’m just making an effort to fit in to societal expectations.
I have done this all my life, long before I had any idea that I was autistic. I just considered it to be a necessary part of life – after all, everybody needs to make efforts and sacrifices to be a part of society, and there’s a trade-off between the efforts that we make and the benefits we get as a result of them.
What I didn’t realise was that amongst the non-autistic population, this particular trade-off (along with very many others) is a fair and attractive one, with a tangible pay-off (relative freedom to do what they want, and not having attention drawn to imperfections), while for an autistic person, there’s much more to lose and nothing to gain from it.
This is what makes it masking. It is not only supressing my preferences (which would be tolerable) but actually supressing my value system and life paradigm in the interests of a social compromise that was created to serve the interests of a group of people with a completely different paradigm – not mine. I am merely required to take lots of steps in the direction of what others perceive to be in their interests.
While they gain relative freedom and a firm protection against a deep fear (that of being shown to have got something wrong), it’s a lose-lose situation for me. I would much prefer to know what I’ve done that has hurt or inconvenienced someone else, even in a small way, than to continue to do it in ignorance and with an assumed impunity. It’s not a comfortable feeling, of course, but it enables me to better provide for them going forward, which is more important to me. Not only do I lose that opportunity, but I also lose the opportunity to make my own needs known and respected. This is especially important for autistic people because there’s generally a much greater degree of sensitivity involved (see our TED talk and many of our other articles for more discussion of this). Plus the inauthenticity of indirect communication and unexpressed feelings is highly counter-intuitive and uncomfortable for most autistic people.
What’s This Got To Do With Our Autistic Children?
If we’re not careful, we are setting up our autistic children for a life of masking in this way. We are ourselves imprinting in them the deep and unconscious expectation that they are required to fit in with this ritual, whether or not it is in their interests. Trying to live up to this expectation to mask is a very significant factor in the risk of Autistic Burnout at a later date.
Each time we complain about or try to disrupt their stimming behaviour, each time we teach them the “correct” way to respond to what others say to them, each time we tell them what sort of things it is and isn’t acceptable to talk about, and so on, we are actually putting them in a situation which, unknown to us, is significantly more challenging to them than it would be to a non-autistic person. In effect, we’re demanding that they conform to social norms which they don’t instinctively share with the non-autistic people who they are designed for and which require behaviours that are not natural to them (when in some ways it might actually be more appropriate for us to learn from them rather than the other way round)
Why Do We Do This?
It usually happens in the most innocent of ways, and our motivation is most often a deep concern for our children’s future wellbeing.
We want to give them the best possible chances in life, and we reason that if they stim while they are with others or if they speak in a way that’s too direct or whatever else, they will not be accepted and will not achieve success or happiness in life as a result.
We think we’re helping them by supporting them to nip in the bud the habits and behaviours that might hold them back in life. Once these are out of the way, they’ll be able to make the most of their lives and have much better chances of success and happiness.
What’s The Problem With It?
What we’re not realising when we do this, is that these habits and behaviours are as much a part of who they are as our own habits and behaviours are of who we are. Consider what our own life would be like if we were presented with a list of things that we could no longer say or do, even though these things felt very natural and obvious to us and it was really uncomfortable not to do them. We’d be constantly on edge and operating at a permanent disadvantage. Let’s at least consider the effects that such demands can have on the confidence, self-respect and overall condition of our autistic children, which are much more serious than we think and can have profound consequences in the future.
If we do consider this, we’ll be less likely to insist on such things so strongly, as we’ll be more aware of the long term costs and more respectful of the real experience of our child.
We could also remind ourselves to trust our children more and have patience with them. While some autistic children can develop their cognitive and academic skills more successfully and much earlier than their peers, many of them can at the same time be much slower than their peers at developing social awareness or the desire or confidence to socialise.
But this doesn’t mean it will never come.
It is natural for a parent to worry about this when the child is young, and to intervene to try and compensate for it by encouraging them to behave in ways that are likely to be considered more socially acceptable.
On a small scale, this might involve giving the child reward and recognition for saying “good morning” or “thank you” to people and looking the person in the eye when they are doing it. Even schools partake in this. Unfortunately, it puts the child in a very uncomfortable position. Eye-contact might well be extremely difficult and uncomfortable for them, and it could very easily feel forced and inauthentic to say those words when there is no impulse to say them (and for many autistic people, authenticity is a deep need). It also distorts and confuses their sense of motivation, as they are being encouraged to do these things in return for a reward, turning it into a transaction. What will they then do when there is no reward? Will they then expect that a reward be offered for acquiescence to every such demand. If so, we are treating them as performing dogs, requiring that they behave as we want them to in return for the equivalent of a biscuit rather than out of any natural motivation, thus bringing them unnecessary additional confusion about the social world which is most likely to damage or curtail later genuine interest in it. Our article on whether rewards help or harm autistic children goes into this more deeply.
If instead we could respect our child’s own inclinations, we could easily find that there is already a motivation to behave in ways that are acceptable to others – and that also respects their authenticity. Care for others is widespread amongst autistic people. It may sometimes take a little longer to be externally perceptible, and may not be evident in younger children at the same time as it is becoming evident in their peers, but let’s not panic about that. In any case, it’s not serving anybody’s interests to put pressure on them to conform to expectations that make no sense to them. It is not sustainable and can only lead to loss of confidence and resentment, which can only be worse than the situation that we started off with.
Similarly with stimming behaviours. It is understandable that we, as parents, may worry that these might make them look strange to others and to want to protect them from being bullied as a result. However, we need to remember what the point of these behaviours is. It is to help them self-regulate and be better able to cope with all the adversities they are already undergoing in the cultural world around them. To take that away from them would not improve their lives at all. On the contrary, it would leave them additionally exposed with no means to support themselves.
Over time, and given a safe environment where they are allowed to be themselves – at least in their home life – and to be accepted and loved for who they are without judgements or complaints, in a way carefully based on the concept of Containment – it may very well be that they grow to intuitively judge for themselves when and where are the optimal situations to be more discreet where possible.
But the extent to which they develop this awareness in a natural way depends on how much space they are given by those closest to them in the early stage of their lives. If we love and unconditionally accept them, without complaining about or encouraging them, in overt or subtle ways, to suppress their natural expressions of themselves, they will most likely grow up healthy and aware, having been given the space to nurture their own development in all ways, and at their own pace and discretion. If we take the other course, we actively stifle their development, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.
Is There an Upside to Masking?
There is another question we cannot ignore if we want to deal with this issue thoroughly. It is the question of why autistic people often revert to masking, even knowing the costs.
I suspect it is out of self-protection. It is a common experience for autistic people to live a life of being frequently attacked and vilified by people who believe they are justified in attacking and vilifying us because they observe something about us that they believe to be reprehensible.
What’s actually happening is that they are not appreciating that autistic people simply communicate differently. They are forming assessments and judgements about us based on what they see. They might interpret a particular tone of voice as an adversarial challenge or as rudeness, when it is no such thing. They might interpret the absence of a perfunctory “thank you” as a sign of ingratitude or arrogance, when again it is no such thing. They might interpret a particular comment or suggestion as signifying a lack of care or empathy, when it has no such significance. They are judging our communication style as if the conventions of non-autistic people apply to us too.
They won’t react to all of these small things initially; they may barely register them. But over time and unconsciously, they build up a picture of us as possessing all the negative characteristics that they are reading into these little actions. Resentment builds, and then, one day, at the slightest trigger, it is offloaded – either angrily or diplomatically (the effect is not dramatically different).
This is truly traumatic for the autistic person, who is not only confused and overwhelmed by the sudden shock and the unfair nature of it, but also emotionally devastated and potentially incapacitated in many ways for an extended period of time. The more it happens, the more it can profoundly affect confidence and mental health.
So it is any wonder that autistic people revert to masking so often – attempting to conform to expected behaviours that aren’t natural to them in order to stave off incorrect and unfair judgement and ill-treatment? And by priming children to believe that there is no reason to mask, are we really lulling them into a false sense of security and leaving them open to the prospect of a life of this sort of continual devastation?
I don’t think so. There are tremendous costs to masking. It takes away authenticity, which is generally exceptionally important to autistic people; it erodes self-esteem (“it’s not acceptable to be me”); it forces people to live an exhausting double-life and it can be one of the primary causes of autistic burnout, as people force themselves to behave, work and think in ways that are not natural to them.
So what can we do about this? The obvious route is social education, so that more people are more aware that autistic people express themselves in ways that don’t always carry the same significance as they would for non-autistic people. But this isn’t going to happen tomorrow – or the day after (or possibly even in the next month). What do we do in the meantime to help our autistic children cope with such situations?
It’s extremely important that autistic children are given a foundation of unconditional acceptance at least from their family when they are young; and that they can return for replenishment of this as they grow. The sense of self-worth that they can get from this is an invaluable reference point that can significantly soften later blows (I learnt this valuable lesson from the great therapist, Andrew Shahen, who briefly volunteered at Transforming Autism, and he talks about it in a new interview we recently recorded and which has also been published today – https://youtu.be/yxZhc2cQoRk)
What we can do to prepare our children as they grow up is to help and support them to discover when they are ready to comprehend that there are differences between the ways that autistic and non-autistic people communicate, how these might play out and how they can best handle them to foster understanding, while maintaining their self-confidence. We do this in a light way to appeal to their curiosity and positivity, not in a heavy-handed way that will arouse fear. We present it as an opportunity for them to better understand the world around them, and to help others to do the same. The purpose is not to scare them, but to enable to them to realise what is going on in such situations and prepare them to handle themselves appropriately or provide explanation that might be helpful.
Once we have achieved greater awareness in society of the different ways that autistic and non-autistic people communicate and of the validity of both styles, this will not be necessary, but at the current time, autistic people are sadly vulnerable to being misunderstood and consequently unfairly judged and maltreated, with all of the consequent mental health issues that brings.