Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often find that their behaviors don’t match those of their peers. This can create self-consciousness, which leads many to attempt to downplay, hide or “mask” certain behaviors so that they can better fit in. This is known as “autism masking.”
While this is understandable, it can also give rise to problems, according to Tisa Johnson-Hooper, M.D., a pediatrician and autism specialist at Henry Ford Health.
What does autism masking look like?
The term “autism masking” describes many types of behaviors used to hide the signature characteristics of ASD. Children with ASD may try to mirror the behavior of neurotypical people. They may also develop “scripts” of what they perceive as neurotypical behavior to help them in social situations.
For example, a child who engages in stimming behaviors like rocking back and forth or moving their hands will try to suppress those movements. Or a teen might prepare a mental “script” to deal with stressful social situations.
The goal is to blend in and not appear to be “different” than others. One important thing to remember is that autism masking isn’t always negative.
In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), learning to mask certain behaviors is part of the process and can help your child gain confidence. But be on the lookout for excessive anxiety due to the stress of learning to adapt.
What else causes someone with ASD to ‘mask?’
Everyone feels social pressure and needs acceptance. However, for people with ASD, masking can often be a natural reaction to a desire to conform to neurotypical behaviors.
Masking is common for people with ASD, but some groups are more likely to engage in this practice. One of the biggest groups to do this? Females.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four times as many males as females have ASD. However, since females are more likely to mask their symptoms, they may not be diagnosed in childhood.
In an article on its website, Autism Speaks points out that girls may exhibit different symptoms than boys. These differences can lead to a delay in an ASD diagnosis for girls and young women.
Teens and young adults are also more likely to try to hide or suppress autism behaviors. Plus, people who need less support for their autism are more likely to “mask” ASD behaviors.
What are the downsides of autism masking?
First the good news: occasional masking can be beneficial in some ways. For example, when people with ASD can socialize and gain acceptance, it may boost confidence. Problems arise when children and teens feel that they need to suppress their natural selves all the time.
Too much masking can be exhausting for a person with ASD, says Dr. Johnson-Hooper in a Henry Ford Health blog post. “When kids with autism use all of their energy to suppress and to hide their authentic selves, there’s nothing left for making social connections, learning and creative thinking.”
Masking may also lead to delays in diagnosis and treatment. This may prevent individuals with ASD from getting the support they need to thrive.
Another downside: The pressure of routine ASD masking can also result in mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
How to support children and teens who are masking autism
Children and teens who are engaging in masking behaviors are doing so in part to avoid judgment, criticism and isolation. Your child with ASD needs to have a solid support system in place.
The first thing to do is reassure your child that you accept and love them no matter what. Other family and friends can be invaluable in this area as well.
Other ways you can support your child or teen with ASD
Understand that a person who needs to “mask” all day may “let it all out” when they get home. The strain of trying to conform or suppress behaviors can be draining. “Meeting social demands all day is hard work,” says Dr. Johnson-Hooper on the Henry Ford Health blog. “They may just need a release after holding it together all day long.”
You can also help kids and teens find better ways to cope. If your child uses stimming behaviors to self-soothe, such as flapping hand movements, have them try a fidget spinner to help calm them down. Kids who rock back and forth may enjoy a wobble chair.
Is your child or teen anxious about social interactions? Helping them create a “script” for various situations shows support and encouragement.
The bottom line is that being aware of masking and its impact on your child will help both of you as you deal with ASD.
Not sure if your child is dealing with ASD or some other type of neurodiversity? Visit henryford.com to find a doctor who can help.
NOTE: Metro Parent is teaming up with Henry Ford Health to offer a Virtual Autism Workshop on Nov. 6-8, 2023. Those who can’t attend live will have access to speaker playbacks and presentations. Register here. Registration ends Saturday, November 4, 2023.