How To Spot Autism Masking In Kids — And What To Do About It
When autistic kids feel like they have to act differently to fit in, their mental health suffers.
Feeling like you must hide a major part of yourself can be exhausting, frustrating, and demoralizing. But many autistic people report regularly feeling the need to mask (or “camouflage”), purposefully adopting “neurotypical” behaviors to blend in and avoid discrimination or other mistreatment.
What Is Autism Masking and Why It Matters
To some, camouflaging to fit in might not sound like such a bad thing. It may even sound similar to the process that many non-autistic kids go through as they grow up and find their way. Historically, some parents have even encouraged their autistic kids to avoid stimming in public or hyperfocusing on their special interests to fit in and avoid bullying, discrimination, and stigma that targets autistic people.
In fact, in 2016, Spectrum reported on controversy surrounding “applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, the longest-standing and best-established form of therapy for children with autism.” The approach has drawn criticism for being “based on a cruel premise — of trying to make people with autism ‘normal,’ a goal articulated in the 1960s by psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas, who developed ABA for autism,” author Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn wrote.
But when autistic people feel as if they must constantly hide key parts of themselves, research suggests it takes a toll.
“In adults, we’ve seen that higher levels of camouflaging are associated with greater levels of depression and anxiety, both general anxiety and social anxiety,” says Laura Hull, Ph.D., an early career fellow who researches autism at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. There are also connections to burnout and exhaustion. “One study has shown that higher camouflaging is a predictor of higher levels of suicidal thoughts and ideas,” she says. This social survival strategy is linked to “a whole kind of range of different negative mental health outcomes.”
Researchers have only recently begun to study masking in autistic people, Hull says. So far, it’s only been done in adults. “We don’t yet know the consequences of camouflaging or masking for children and young people,” she notes. However, some of the autistic adults who have participated in Hull’s research have described their experiences with masking, both as adults and earlier in their lives.
Masking can involve many different types of behavior. “The classic one would be forcing yourself to make eye contact with other people” when you talk with them to meet other peoples’ expectations, “even if you’re someone who finds it very uncomfortable,” Hull says.
Many autistic women have described engaging in masking by imitating other people, although this form of camouflage can be used by people of other genders too, Hull notes. “When they were younger, if they felt like they weren’t being accepted by other children at school, they would identify a girl who was popular or seemed to have a lot of friends,” she says. They then “would mimic the way that she talked or dressed or her interests” in an effort to “seem more socially successful, even if that actually meant hiding their own interests or their own natural behaviors.”
For instance, a child might have a special interest in learning about whales and discussing them any chance they get. But when they realize their peers are more focused on talking about pop music, they might quit sharing giddiness about gray whales and instead talk about musicians that they don’t care much about. Another kid might really enjoy dressing in comfortable or eclectic clothes, but after getting teased or alienated for how they dress, cast aside their unique way of dressing and start wearing what’s trendy.
Parents Can Push Masking Without Knowing It
Some autistic people also try to stem their “stims” — repetitive behaviors (such as flapping their hands, twirling something in their hands, or vocalizing) that help them self-regulate. This is often due to pressure from family or teachers who encourage kids “not to stim or not to react to the sensory environment, because it looks different or it looks weird,” Hull says. But taking away that coping mechanism — or replacing it with a more socially palatable one — doesn’t get rid of the overwhelming sensation that the child is responding to. It just gets rid of their way of dealing with it.
Since research on masking is still so new, there aren’t clear cut signs to watch for that your kid might be masking, whether you know they’re autistic or think they might be. However, Hull finds it “quite interesting” that many adults said they masked less after their autism was identified. Having a formal identification of their neurodivergence provided an “explanation for why they were different” and why they were compelled to mask in the first place, she says. For many, this led to hanging out with other autistic people or non-autistic folks who are accepting of autistic people and behaviors that they would otherwise mask.
It’s unclear whether children and teens would be similarly impacted by knowing they’re autistic. But one thing is clear: Having safe spaces to unmask at home and school can be critical to the mental health and well-being of autistic people.
How to Help a Kid Who’s Masking Autism
If you notice that your autistic (or presumed to be autistic) kid seems to be changing their behavior in a way that seems like masking, it’s worth trying to talk to them about what’s motivating the changes you’re seeing. One thing that might tip you off is if the changes “don’t feel true or genuine,” Hull says. “We don’t want to pathologize the sort of identity changes that pretty much all kids have,” she says. But being secure in those changes “is about feeling accepted and feeling like you’re being genuine when you do that,” she adds.
Since little research has been done on masking in autistic children, it can be difficult to know how to respond if you recognize that your child is doing it. It may help to let your child know that you understand why they feel pressure to mask and that many people feel as if they must hide parts of themselves at one point or another, but that it’s important to also make sure they’re giving themselves time and space to be themselves when they feel comfortable.
It may also help to brainstorm with them how to respond to adults who ask them to mask in a way they’re not comfortable with, such as making sustained eye contact. You could also help them make a plan for what to do if they need to stim while in public but don’t want to do so in front of others and ways they might talk about their neurodivergence with others. It might be important to ask them if they want help deciding how much to unmask in front of certain friends and other peers. Finally, you could even decide on a code phrase that they can say to you if they’re in an overwhelming social situation and need you to help them find a way to take a break or leave.
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