Some people are autistic. Others may conceal their autistic traits and present them as mostly neurotypical through something called masking. It may make it easier for persons with autism in London to integrate into a world where most people are not autistic in the short term, but it might lead to burnout and other issues in the long run.
What exactly is masking?
Masking is somewhat self-explanatory. It means “putting on a mask”, concealing aspects of your personality so no one can see who you are underneath. For people with autism, the mask is often a mask of neurotypicals, meant to hide autistic traits. Other terms are compensating or camouflaging.
Masking can take many forms, including forcing eye contact through pain, faking smiles and other facial emotions, constructing social interaction scripts, disregarding anguish induced by sensory stimuli, and avoiding discussion of special interests on purpose. Masking can be conscious or unconscious.
How does masking affect people with autism in London?
People who mask may feel safer with their autism concealed. It can help avoid strange looks or unkind comments. It means they blend in more in everyday society, especially in unavoidable communal situations such as school or the workplace. Masking can be particularly important in situations such as job interviews. It can also help establish and maintain social relationships, something often difficult for people with autism. Having scripts for social situations can reduce stress and fear of failure.
There is, however, a negative side to masking. It can increase stress, anxiety, and depression because of the pressure of constantly having to maintain the mask. People who mask successfully are less likely to receive a formal autism diagnosis, making it more difficult to access support. A particular risk of extended masking is autistic burnout.
Burnout is a form of exhaustion where the mask collapses. Normal skills and coping strategies deteriorate. Behaviour becomes more visibly autistic, which can lead to significant difficulties at school, work or in relationships, and there is a lack of energy or motivation to re-engage. At its worse, it can lead to permanent physical and mental health problems.
Avoiding the risks
No one should feel compelled to conceal key aspects of their identity all the time. If you are a friend, family member or support worker assisting someone with autism in London, you need to accept their autism, even the awkward or inconvenient parts. Pay attention to their moods and behaviour and be aware if they are trying too hard to mask. Listen to their concerns, encourage them to rest, give them a chance to express their autistic strengths and reduce pressure by supporting them in everyday tasks.
There are situations when masking may be a useful tool to achieve a short-term goal, but in the long term, it becomes increasingly unhealthy. The best way to avoid masking is to help people with autism feel accepted for who they are and provide the necessary support, so they can live with their autistic traits and even use them as strengths.