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What is Masking and Why Do Neurodivergent People Do It?

When a neurodivergent person has to change their behaviors to be more "socially acceptable" in our culture, this process is called masking

As many of our LGBTQ+ readers know, not being your authentic self can damage your mental health. People who are neurodivergent, like those with ADHD or autism, for example, can also feel hindered when they have to hide aspects of their true selves. When a neurodivergent person has to change their behaviors to be more “socially acceptable” in our culture, this process is called masking. 

Since we live in a world that caters to neurotypical minds, neurodiversity can often be misunderstood. As a result, neurodivergent people may feel they need to perform certain neurotypical social behaviors or hide their neurodivergent behaviors to be accepted in society.

When neurodivergent people mask, they do so to protect themselves from discrimination, harassment, or having their disability being “outed.” Sometimes, masking can even be unintentional or the person may be unaware they’re even doing it. 

What is Masking?

For many neurodivergent people, masking is a survival tool for engaging in neurotypical societies and organizations. Masking (also called camouflaging) is the artificial performance of social behaviors deemed more “socially acceptable” in a neurotypical culture.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), especially ones who have experienced trauma, may feel that masking their autistic traits can help them fit in better socially. It can also prevent them from engaging in acts of aggression or help them avoid misunderstandings. However, even though masking can seem helpful, hiding your authentic identity can have an emotional toll on a neurodivergent person. 

Why Do Some Neurodivergent People Mask?

There are many reasons a person may engage in masking behaviors. First of all, it could be to fit in, avoid bullying or criticism, or being judged.

Here are some other reasons people mask:

  • To avoid stigma
  • To be more succeeding at work or school
  • For making friends, social connections or find potential romantic partners
  • To have a sense of belonging   

What Are Some Examples of Masking?

The process of masking can come across in various ways. Here are some examples:

  • Copying a person’s tone of voice or body language
  • Provided an “expected” answer to a question instead of what you actually feel 
  • Engaging in small talk and forcing or faking eye contact
  • Smiling and laughing even if you’re unsure why you’re doing so 
  • Pretending to understand and follow a conversation
  • Imitating facial expressions and gestures
  • Hiding or talking less about your special interests
  • Rehearsing responses to questions and scripting conversations
  • Forcing yourself through uncomfortable sensory discomfort 
  • Hiding stimming behaviors

Does Masking Have Negative Consequences?

Masking can occur in settings where there is little support or understanding for neurodiverse people. Even though masking may seem to have some benefits, it comes at a cost.

First of all, constantly copying neurotypical behaviors can become exhausting and cause social situations to become even more stressful. 

Here are some of the negative impacts of people who mask often:

High levels of stress, anxiety, and depression

For neurodivergent people who mask often, their stress levels are much higher than neurodivergent folks who don’t constantly use this behavior. Also, masking can lead to depression and feelings of inadequacy, and not being accepted in social situations.

Masking can also create a risk for suicidal thoughts and ideation. A recent small study determined that prolonged camouflaging could lead to a lifetime of suicidality. The reason for this adverse effect is because masking can lead neurodivergent people to feel like a burden and increase the likelihood of suicidal thoughts during their lifetime. 

Exhaustion

One of the most significant issues with masking is that it creates a lot of exhaustion. Masking takes a lot of energy and can leave neurodivergent people feeling burnt out after social interactions. 

People with autism can start to feel overloaded after social situations, referred to as autistic burnout. The process of masking may require a more extended period for a person to withdraw alone. 

Delayed Diagnosis of Autism or Other Neurodivergent Conditions

Some people are so efficient at masking that they don’t receive a diagnosis until later in life. This is especially true for women and femmes who often get overlooked and have late diagnoses for their neurodivergent disorders, which is common for people with autism or ADHD. When a diagnosis is delayed, mental health issues can arise because of a lack of support.

Loss of Self

Neurodivergent people who mask their authentic personalities and traits can end up feeling like they have no sense of self. For some people, masking can even feel like an act of self-betrayal or feel like they are being deceptive to others. 

Why Neurodiverse or Autistic People Don’t Need to Be “Cured”

Many advocates in the autism community believe that neurodiverse people don’t need to be cured. Instead of forcing autistic or neurodivergent people to change their behaviors, it would be better to create a safer and supportive environment for people who may think or behave differently than neurotypical people. 

In Summary 

Masking is a complex way for neurodivergent people to navigate a neurotypical world. It can include learning neurotypical attributes, copying behaviors in social settings, and hiding behaviors that other people may perceive as weird or not accept.

For some neurodivergent people, masking involves preparing scripts and tools in social situations to relieve the stress of communication differences. 

Neurodivergent people may mask their behaviors for various reasons, like advancing their career, forming social connections, or protecting themselves from being stigmatized by others. Even though masking seems like a tool that can help, it can lead to negative mental health consequences and exhaustion if done too often. 

In essence, because ableism is so prevalent in our society, it makes sense that neurodivergent people resort to masking to feel more accepted. However, neurodivergent people should not have to change their behaviors to fit into society better. Instead, it would be more beneficial to include neurodivergent minds within our world and to accept and respect these individuals.

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Billie Olsen

AUTHOR: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.