Autism and Camouflaging (or Masking)

Everyone wants to fit in, to be included, to have meaningful relationships and social connections. Everyone wants to be “normal.” While the quest to be “normal” is a meaningless one, the desire for fruitful human connection is built in to all of us. Everyone, autistic people included, desire to be loved and to give love. But since autistic people have a different neurology, the ways in which they give and receive love, the ways in which they achieve meaningful human connection, are different in approach, though not different in kind.

Regrettably, there are pernicious myths that still persist in social consciousness about autistic people. They’re lost in their own world. They’re aloof. They’re narcissistic. They’re incapable of relationships and so on. But what these falsehoods do is increase the social isolation and rejection that is the common experience of autistic people. While it is true that only 1-2% of any given population is autistic, there is no reason that the 98-99% can’t see autistic people for who they are, understand and adjust to some of the different approaches autistic people have in making social connections, and in love accept and include autistic people in the care and kindness that should be the normal experience of all people.

Let’s explore what this might mean.

First, let’s dispense with some common misunderstandings. It is just false that autistic people don’t need, require, or maybe even want the sort of human relationships that the 98-99% of non-autistic humanity wants. In a 2014 study, two-thirds of autistic respondents had thoughts of suicide, and one-third had made attempts to commit suicide or had made plans to commit suicide. A different study indicated that autistic people were five times more likely to commit suicide than the non-autistic population. Factors involved include the rates of depression and anxiety in autistic people; the bullying autistic people receive, even as adults; and the high rate of unemployment among autistic people. It is the social isolation that autistic people experience that lies behind these statistics. While the popular notion is that autistic people want to be alone and don’t need other people, the reality is autistic people desire and need meaningful human relationships just like non-autistic people.

Many autistic people deal with social isolation by a form of compensation and adjustment called “camouflaging” or “masking.” This is behavior that actively and consciously suppresses their otherwise normal autistic reactions to social and sensory stimuli. While everyone experiences the desire to “act normal,” to adjust their behavior and to “fit in,” with a social group, the difference between the way in which autistic people do this as compared to non-autistic people is that such “fitting in” is that for an autistic person is a constantly conscious and attentive endeavor, it is almost a completely rational and analytical exercise; whereas for non-autistic people, while there may be elements of a conscious and attentive adjustment, the experience is almost wholly intuitive and instinctual.

Why this is the case is due to the neurology of autistic people. Making generalized statements about autistic neurology is rather difficult, since, as brain imaging shows, autistic brains differ from one another more than non-autistic brains differ from their counterparts. Nonetheless, it is true that autistic brains receive and interpret sensory stimuli differently than non-autistic brains. An autistic brain is wired for detail, and is usually far more sensitive to sensory stimuli than is a non-autistic brain. An autistic brain will notice more detail, and retain memory of that detail better, than a non-autistic brain. However, an autistic brain does not have the sort of neural connections that makes it easy to place the stimuli into a centralized coherence. That is to say, autistic brains, while being wired for detail, are more likely to miss the “big picture.” They do indeed often miss the forest for the trees.

As this applies to social relations, while autistic people will notice particular details–this person’s face looked this particular way just now; this person’s voice tone changed when they said that–it is more difficult for their brains to fit those details into a meaningful picture. It’s not that autistic people can’t read body language or hear sarcasm–in fact, as will be discussed in a moment, autistic people can and do understand sarcasm and different body language signals–it’s that putting the individual mannerisms and tones of voice into a larger picture is more difficult, and less natural.

Also, because autistic people are taking in so much sensory information all at once, in a sort of unfiltered way, the processing of that information can be at times slower than a non-autistic person who, due to their own neurology, misses or filters out details and grasps the “bigger picture.” A common experience among autistic people is a slower processing of auditory or verbal information. There is a behavior common among autistics called echolalia in which autistic people will repeat someone’s words. An autistic person might be told, “Would you please take out the trash?” That autistic person might then say “Take out the trash” or “You want me to take out the trash,” or they might simply ask the person to repeat what they said, “What?” or “What was that? Could you say that again?” And then before the other person can respond, the autistic person might immediately say, “Oh, you want me to take out the trash.” This echolalia, or repetition of speech, is due in part to the autistic brain isolating the auditory stimulus, processing it and understanding it. It might only be a fraction of a second slower than a non-autistic person might take.

None of this, of course, makes an autistic person stupid or “slow,” or intellectually disabled, let alone incapable of understanding. (Intellectual disability can occur with autism, but the two are distinctly different conditions.) It is simply the way a healthy and capable autistic brain works.

So what does this have to do with camouflaging?

Let’s first ask, why do autistic people suppress and hide their autistic traits? For example, why would an autistic person suppress their echolalia which they use to process verbal information? Simply because autistic people are consciously aware, often painfully aware, that they are different, and that non-autistic people view their behaviors as “weird.”

While autistic people are commonly, though falsely, assumed not to be able to empathize with others–the fact is autistic people are often deeply empathetic and have intense emotional capabilities–in reality, non-autistic people do often fail to empathize or just simply don’t attempt to empathize with autistic people. This is the double-empathy problem. In fact, in studies, non-autistic people form negative first impressions of autistic people in mere seconds. It may well be that the reason for the social isolation that autistic people feel is not a result of an autistic person’s lack of empathy, but the lack of empathy in the non-autistic person.

Autistic people compensate for this lived reality by masking and suppressing their traits so as to attempt the human connection we all need and deserve. This is the sad and sometimes hopeless social reality of autistics. Autistic people are simply not accepted as autistic people, they are often only accepted as autistic people acting like they don’t have autism.

Suppressing, masking or camouflaging, hiding one’s autistic traits, takes a great deal of constant, focused, conscious effort. Furthermore, the “self” that a masked autistic person is presenting is an inauthentic self, a false self. When only their inauthentic self is accepted and celebrated, it creates depression and anxiety.

Even if an autistic persons chooses not to mask in a social setting, their efforts and filtering and understanding the social and sensory data in that setting requires a great deal of energy. Social interactions for autistic people are often enterprises of rational and analytical effort, rather than intuitive and instinctual behavior. In fact, through a lot of memory of various social interaction data and the recall of sensory data, autistic people can and do understand sarcasm and can and to read body language well. But as noted, this is an almost wholly rational and analytical enterprise and is not instinctual or intuitive.

This rational approach to understanding relationships, the attempts at masking, are often the reason that some adults do not receive an autism diagnosis until late in life, in their 40s and 50s and beyond. They can be married and have a family, they can have had a long and successful career. But it is often the case as they age, their resources for masking and camouflaging, for their analytical approaches to social settings, diminish, just as physical strength diminishes with age. And their long-masked autistic behaviors become more readily apparent. Their need for support, for resources to re-energize and refresh themselves daily, becomes greater.

When one realizes the efforts autistic people take to be “normal” and “successful,” the shrewd and clever ingenuity they have to bring to the fore to navigate a social world that is not only not made for them but often actively opposes and rejects them, one should pause in wonder. It takes a remarkable set of skills and grit to achieve that. If only it were not needed.


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