What Is Autism Masking? Recognizing the Signs

Autism affects how people communicate and behave, which can make them stand out and face difficulties in everyday situations. Because of this, many autistic people may learn to hide parts of themselves to fit in. Understanding when someone is masking and why can help us create a more supportive environment, built on compassion and authenticity. By spreading awareness and encouraging unique self-expression, we can help decrease the loneliness, anxiety, and depression that develop when we have to hide who we truly are.

What is masking autism?

When people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) hide their autistic behaviors, it’s called masking. ASD is a developmental disorder that makes it harder to communicate, behave, or interact in socially typical ways. People with ASD often have a tough time noticing social cues and prefer a predictable routine. They might also show 'stimming' or self-stimulatory behaviors like pacing, humming, or continuously repeating words or phrases. Usually, stimming helps them soothe themselves when stressed.

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Why do people mask autism?

People who mask their autism may feel as though they have plenty of reasons to hide their true selves. Appearing 'neurotypical' is still what most people expect, so masking it can feel necessary to:

  • Avoid stigma and judgment
  • Succeed more easily at work
  • Fit in and find a sense of belonging
  • Make friends and build a strong social community
  • Attract a romantic partner

Recognizing the signs of masking autism

Spotting masking can be tricky, but there are a few things to look out for:

Signs of autism masking
  • Suppressing stimming behaviors. Making great effort to avoid soothing movements, like rocking, spinning, or arm-flapping. For example, a child who usually rocks back and forth when stressed might sit still at school or with a group of friends, but if you look closely, you may see them fidgeting their fingers.
  • Excessively rehearsing or scripting conversations or social scenarios. An adult might spend hours thinking through potential dialogues before going to a social event.
  • Imitating people’s gestures, expressions, or mannerisms. Smiles, a tone of voice, or even a laugh can all be mimicked to fit in with a group.
  • Behaving differently in private versus public settings. Someone might feel free to talk about or display their autistic traits at home (like avoiding eye contact) but try to maintain it at school or work.
  • Pretending they aren’t bothered by sensory discomforts. They might feel incredibly overwhelmed on the inside, yet try to hide it or practice deep breathing while experiencing sensory overload, like loud noises or bright lights.

For outsiders, it might be extremely hard to tell when someone is masking. Many people can have a sort of high-functioning autism, where they may appear neurotypical but struggle internally.

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Recognizing these signs in another or yourself can help manage ASD better. For example, if you believe you might have ASD, you can take the next step and get specialized support that improves your quality of life. That could be a private therapist or an autism support group, which might help you feel free to be yourself.

How masking differs between children and adults

Children might copy other people’s behaviors a little more than adults, like mimicking actions or words. They might even be visibly anxious about fitting in and fidget or get nervous in social settings. It can also be harder for them to hide their stress and anxiety when experiencing sensory overwhelm.

Adults usually have more time to develop more subtle masking techniques to hide their ASD. However, that can eventually lead to feeling emotionally drained and developing mental health challenges, like chronic stress or burnout. Hiding your true self can be exhausting, and it can easily make you feel more alone and disconnected from others, and even yourself.

Who is most likely to mask their autism?

Anyone can mask their ASD, but some research shows that girls and women in particular are more likely. It might be because of societal expectations and pressure to behave a particular way. High-functioning people can also feel the need to appear neurotypical, as well as those diagnosed later in life. They might have spent decades masking their behaviors, without understanding the root cause. However, more research needs to be done to confirm these hypotheses.

Effects of masking autism

Masking parts of yourself, no matter what that may be, can feel incredibly isolating and affect your well-being, leading to:

  • Loss of identity
  • Lack of support
  • Emotional burnout
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Delayed autism diagnosis
  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Increased depression and anxiety

It may even provoke self-harm or suicide, especially if the effects are intense or prolonged.

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Supporting individuals who mask autism

If you suspect someone has autism, or is masking any part of themselves, there are steps you can take to help them feel more comfortable. For one, you can make it clear that you honor and respect each person’s unique characteristics. Help them know that they have a safe space around you to be completely themselves. Avoid making negative comments about behaviors that may seem 'atypical,' and instead congratulate them on being courageous enough to be openly themselves. Let displaying individuality be something to feel empowered by, rather than ashamed of.

You can also ask them what makes things hard for them, such as loud noises or large groups. By knowing what overwhelms them, you can take steps to create a sensory-friendly space for them. Spreading awareness is also part of the work, educating other family members, school teachers, or work colleagues about neurodivergence. We can try to help others understand the importance of being true to ourselves and foster empathy and compassion.

When to seek professional help

If your masking is making you stressed, emotionally or physically exhausted, or depressed, it’s time to reach out for help. If your daily life and relationships are suffering, support can make a world of difference by opening up to new coping tools and perspectives.

A therapist will likely dive into your social skills and history to get a sense of how you handle yourself to uncover any masking and be sure to support you as you need.

In the end, masking makes it harder for you to fully understand yourself or get a diagnosis and the best treatment. Pretending to be someone you’re not has heavy downsides, so even though it might feel extremely uncomfortable to open up, it could be just what you need to feel more at ease, anywhere you go.

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