12 Aug What is Masking?
Masking (sometimes referred to as camouflaging) is the tendency to suppress certain behaviors that might be related to neurodivergence. The term is most often used in the context of ADHD or Autistic individuals. If you are interested in learning more about neurodivergence, feel free to check out my other blog post: What is Neurodiversity #TipsToBloom. In summary: a neurodivergent individual diverges from the dominant social standards of typical neurocognitive functioning (they might have ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, or Down Syndrome). The term neurotypical refers to an individual whose neurocognitive functioning falls within the societal standards of typical.
Masking can be thought of as the conscious or unconscious regulation of behaviour in order to fit in or be perceived as “normal” or neurotypical. It can be difficult to tell the difference between whether or not someone is masking because it is a deeply internal action that typically occurs on a regular basis. Some examples of masking strategies include:
- Suppressing repetitive hand movements (like stimming or fidgeting)
- Forcing uncomfortable eye contact
- Using learned phrases or prepared jokes in conversation
- Mirroring language or nonverbal communication such as tone of voice or facial expressions
- People-pleasing tendencies (agreeableness, over-apologizing, hypervigilance)
For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll be focusing on the experience of Autistic and ADHD folks based on my own experiences and research.
Doesn’t everybody mask?
Everyone controls what they say and do in order to fit in sometimes! The difference between how a neurotypical and neurodivergent person experiences masking is the varying degree of disparity between the individual’s natural way of functioning and the social demands around them. Neurodivergent individuals often use masking as a strategy to avoid social stigma. One way that we might all experience masking is in the expression of our gender identity. We might change the way we speak, behave or look in order to match the expected presentation of our gender. Although all genders have shown a tendency to mask, female and non-binary individuals are especially prone to mask their neurodivergent traits.
Causes and Consequences of Masking
It is important to note that there are both benefits and consequences of masking. Unfortunately, many workplaces, schools, public spaces, and even families are not set up to support and accommodate for everyone’s ADHD or Autistic traits so masking can be an effective strategy to be well liked, hired, or to avoid discrimination. Without even knowing it, sometimes we do it because we’ve learned that the way we move our bodies, speak or look is wrong. In a way, neurodivergent individuals learn to trade their internal comfort for social safety.
Although masking has a purpose and can help a neurodivergent individual succeed academically, professionally, or socially, it often leads to burnout and other mental health concerns. An individual that is masking might experience anxiety about how they are perceived, followed by exhaustion and stress after an interaction. The constant monitoring of social perception can also lead to a disrupted sense of self or feelings of inauthenticity.
You might notice that you or your neurodivergent peers need an extensive amount of time to prepare for or recharge after a social function. Sometimes this is because the feeling of being “on” can be extremely tiring and can require a considerable amount of concentration.
Late diagnosed or discovered ADHD or autistic individuals often go through the process of “unmasking” when they learn about how their behaviours are related to their neurodivergence. This can be a liberating, confusing, exciting and scary experience because it involves reframing your past, present and future identity and needs. There is a lot of learning and unlearning to be done when you discover you are neurodivergent. Here are some of my top tips for unmasking that have helped me along the way:
- Read and learn. Knowledge is power. The more you know about yourself and your neurodivergent brain, the more you can accommodate your own needs and unmask to the extent you are comfortable. The books that have really helped me learn are You mean I’m not stupid, lazy or crazy by Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo, Unmasking Autism by Dr. Devon Price, and Different not Less by Chloe Hayden. There are also many blogs, and social media accounts that share their personal journey with unmasking.
- Think about what you’re like when you’re alone. This is often your truest self. Notice the way your body moves through space and reacts to your surroundings. Do you flap your hands when you’re excited? Do you fidget with objects or rock back and forth on your toes? Incorporating some of this into your daily life can help you regulate your emotions and feel comfortable even around other people.
- Notice what you do for yourself vs. what you do for other people. A big part of masking typically involves making others comfortable at the expense of your own happiness. When making plans or a decision, turn inward and ask yourself what it is that you desire in the situation. Let your wants and needs guide your actions.
- Connect with like-minded people. Sometimes, unmasking can make you feel so alone. Know that there is always someone going through something similar to you. People in your life that notice your unmasking may be surprised if your behaviour changes. Spending time with other neurodivergent folks who make space for you to express your needs can be very healing. I have also found it very helpful to speak with a therapist