What is Neurodivergent Masking & Is It Time to Unlearn Masking?

Social pressure can make it very difficult for a neurodiverse person to live a happy, healthy, and successful life. Masking is a coping skill used to “fit in.” In this article, we’ll discuss neurodivergent masking, what it is, and if unmasking is necessary. We’ll also share research-backed information on the effects of masking.

Neurodivergent masking

You might also be interested in reading: Neurodivergent Dating: How Parents Can Support Successful Experiences

Masking, which can also be referred to as camouflaging or compensating, describes the act of concealing specific traits of an intellectual or developmental disability, usually in a social setting. It’s a survival tool for neurodivergent people.

For example, a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will show certain behaviors that are considered neurotypical. On the other hand, they may hide behaviors that aren’t regarded as socially acceptable.

Neurodivergent masking is often intentional to avoid bullying, fit in with societal expectations, and be accepted by peers. The act of masking can also be unintentional. Regardless, it’s essential to understand masking as best as possible because, although it may seem helpful at the moment, it can affect a neurodivergent person’s mental health and lead to autistic burnout. We’ll go more into this below.

There are many ways someone may mask neurodiversity. It depends on things like what behaviors a neurodiverse person may want to hide or feels that go against what’s socially acceptable. Again, masking can also be unintentional.

Masking neurodivergent traits

Examples of masking neurodivergent traits include:

  • Not answering a question based on your truth, but instead on what’s “expected”
  • Emulating someone else’s body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice
  • Forcing eye contact during a conversation
  • Hiding stimming behaviors like hand movements or rocking
  • Pretending to follow a conversation
  • Not talking about what interests you
  • Pushing through sensory discomfort
  • Practicing conversation scripts or how to answer specific questions

While it’s common for neurodiverse people of any gender to engage in masking or camouflaging, an interesting aspect is that research shows that women are more likely to mask.

This is probably due to societal pressure on women, in general, to conform to a model of being fiercely independent while also expected to be highly emotionally intelligent and have an innate sense of nurturing. These pressures on a neurodiverse woman can create a nightmare-like scenario.

This study also reveals that autistic women have more social motivation. And, it reports on the struggle autistic women face with identifying and dealing with conflict in their social lives. These experiences could be why neurodiverse women are more prone to masking as an effort to avoid social issues.

It’s probably safe to say that it’s time to unlearn masking. In fact, unmasking is trending quite a bit now. The number of children diagnosed with autism is 1:44, so the idea of masking to fit into a neurotypical environment seems to be unnecessary stress for autistic people.

Masking autistic traits is also harmful because it further perpetuates the misconception of what autism is. Many people with autism spectrum disorder have heard, “you can’t be autistic because you seem so normal.” In reality, autism looks different from person to person. And, comments like this contribute to why masking even exists.

Masking for anyone with an intellectual or developmental disability can also severely affect a person’s health. Ample research shows the negative impacts masking can have on neurodiverse people.

Masking autistic traits

Regular neurodivergent masking can lead to:

  • Depression
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Exhaustion (autistic burnout)
  • Increased risk of suicidal thoughts
  • Identity loss
  • Delayed identification of disability

In this article, we’ve mentioned autistic burnout a couple of times. Autistic burnout is the body’s natural response to stress related to living with autism. This can lead to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, lasting for months or even longer.

Note: Masking any intellectual or developmental disability can lead to burnout.

During autistic burnout, a person may lose the ability to get through their day-to-day life. So, avoiding or reducing this is essential.

Masking can lead to autistic burnout. This article discusses this more and other ways to avoid it.

Whether you experience masking yourself or you’re the parent of a neurodiverse person, there are ways to cope with masking or support unmasking.

Navigating the world as a neurodiverse person is exhausting. When you throw masking into the mix, it’s even more tiring.

Not only does following a daily schedule help neurodivergent people be successful, but scheduling time to relax and do enjoyable activities alleviates pressures related to masking.

NFlyte is a platform that offers a daily schedule tool for adolescents and adults with autism or other developmental disabilities.

A daily schedule tool for people with autism or other developmental disabilities.

When people don’t fit in with societal expectations, it can be easy to focus on this. But, consider your strengths too. For parents, point out and discuss the wonderful things about your child often.

Focusing on strengths leads to self-acceptance and confidence. If your neurodivergent child is struggling with this, working with a therapist could help.

Being around other neurodiverse people can help with validation and feeling comfortable enough not to mask neurodiversity. This also helps with building self-esteem.

It might be best to get to a place of unmasking. It can be easier to practice this with familiar people first, like loved ones, then eventually start unmasking more and more in various social settings.

Parents of neurodivergent children can support unmasking by helping them with this and the above coping strategies.

Masking neurodivergent traits is very common because it seems helpful in the moment. Sometimes masking is intentional, and sometimes it isn’t. Either way, it can negatively impact a person’s health and overall success.

We hope this article helped you gain insight into neurodivergent masking. It’s essential to understand the effects of masking, why unmasking might be necessary, and how to cope with masking.

Related read: Stress Coping Strategies for Parents of Neurodivergent Adults

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