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Autism and Masking
Most adults on the autism spectrum are familiar with masking.
In its simplest form, masking is pretending to be normal or behaving in such a way as to appear normal. Masking can be a tool to fit in socially, to keep our job, or avoid conflict with friends and family.
Masking can be a conscious, intentional behavior or we can be completely unaware that we are doing it. Or as I like to say, "Air to the birds; water to the fish".
There is no question that, like other behavior modification techniques, masking can get results. But it can also take a toll on our emotions and self-esteem.
Like ABA and other behavior modification techniques, masking, pretending, imposter-ing require us to suppress or deny our true feelings and sensory perceptions to affect the pretense of looking “normal”.
Despite appearances, masking often reinforces the feeling of isolation for the person masking. And masking undermines our self-esteem by supporting the mistaken belief that we cannot be accepted for who and what we are.
To the extent that masking behaviors conflict with our feelings and perception, it induces an internalized anxiety, it undermines our self-confidence, and it impairs our decision-making, our empathy and our ability to fully participate in meaningful and intimate relationships.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to masking. Some require a bit of instruction or coaching. Others simply require a change in habits. For example
- Adjusting our environment to reduce stress
- Setting limits on the quantity and duration of social interactions
- Being willing to walk away BEFORE we reach overload or overwhelm
- Practicing “Visual Communication Strategies” (for ADHD and ASD persons)
- Practicing daily stress reduction and sensory processing exercises; and
- Frequent ‘proactive’ stimming
Together, these strategies and others can help us manage our physical, emotional and social capital (energy) so we can avoid becoming overwhelmed and/or needing to dissociate from our environment.
It's important to understand the 'unmasking' ourselves need not be traumatic, damaging to our career or our relationships.
Unmasking ourselves is best done gradually and naturally as we become more comfortable in fully expressing ourselves. Some additional resources to support unmasking include our ebooks Gifted—Not Broken, Waves—Not Spoons, and the FACE Personality Assessment (to help understand your own communication style and sensory profile).
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