- Masking is a hiding of one's neurodivergent traits to match neurotypical social norms.
- Masking inhibits open expression and makes it more difficult to connect despite conforming to these norms.
- Over time, masking can damage a person's self-worth, happiness, and peace of mind.
"Hey! You know there is a dog out there that's as princess-like as a poodle but not?" I sang as I bounced my 11-year-old self into my counselor's office. This was my hour to talk, and I wanted to talk about dogs. Most people wouldn't entertain my passion, but she was my captive audience. "Can I talk to you about dogs?" I stared back at the nice lady in front of me. This is how she wanted me to go about asking to talk about my favorite topic. That wasn't me. We talked about these social skills and how important they were for my making friends. "I don't want friends," I half lied.
I recognized that there were many things adults around me wanted me to do differently. It wasn't a thing of not wanting to. These "skills" didn't align with me or how my brain worked. They helped me disguise myself as what I thought they thought was an acceptable person. People I met later in life showed me that I am acceptable as is.
Masking is a strategy used by neurodivergent people and people with mental health conditions to hide their "different" traits. All people, diagnosis or not, hide parts of themselves at times. We alter parts of ourselves and our behaviors for others' comfort/benefit or our own. Sometimes, this is a good thing. For example, I might usually be someone to stomp and talk loudly, but with a friend who needs quiet, I won't.
That's not what we are talking about here.
Masking typically describes a pattern. In neurotypical people, "being real" or authentic is celebrated. Sometimes what is authentic for a neurodivergent person is not greeted with such friendliness. There are times when someone might choose to mask these things. In the short term, this can be strategic; however, in the long term, when a neurodivergent person feels they cannot show themselves, it takes a toll. Masking is linked to lower self-worth, increased depression/anxiety, and overall poorer mental health in autistic people (Evans et al., 2023).
Traditionally, social skills training has been offered to neurodivergent people struggling socially. Still, well-meaning social skills programs that focus on neurotypical social skills can teach masking. Without a caveat of what masking is, why people use it, and the right not to use it, it sends a message that the way a person is when unmasked is not OK. It can also inadvertently make it more difficult for the youth to make friends.
Making Friends With Masks
Wait, social skills training is focused on helping kids make friends; why would it make it more difficult?
Let me explain: When a person is masking they are not showing their true self. The act of social interaction feels calculated, and it is more difficult to be present emotionally. Over time, habitual masking can give a feeling that others are making friends with the mask, a much more limited version of one's authentic self.
Within radically open dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), it is understood that open expression is essential to true social connection while masking, a form of inhibited expression, creates distrust and isolation (Lynch, 2018). On the opposite, if we can be ourselves, we allow people to know us, building mutual trust. This can be incredibly freeing.
Still, sometimes neurodivergent communication strategies are met with misunderstanding or unkindness.
A study that showed individuals clips of a simulated job interview of autistic and nonautistic individuals found that these "interviewers" consistently rated the nonautistic people more favorably and were ultimately more likely to "hire" them (Flower et al., 2021). This represents a reality for many people with autism of difficulty finding work regardless of objective qualifications. Traditional interventions have focused on teaching the autistic person (neurotypical) "interview skills," but is that fair? Are we putting autistic candidates at a disadvantage by encouraging them to mask, a practice that may impair their ability to connect? Are we also reinforcing a system of discrimination?
What's the alternative?
Perhaps, rather than asking neurodivergent people to learn and practice neurotypical "skills," we would do better by learning from each other and practicing appreciation for neurodivergent communication styles. What if schools routinely offered classes or even assemblies to celebrate different ways of thinking? Or workplaces included awareness of neurodivergent interview styles as part of diversity initiatives? Masks are for Halloween, not life.
Evans, J. A., Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., & Rouse, S. V. (2023). What You Are Hiding Could Be Hurting You: Autistic Masking in Relation to Mental Health, Interpersonal Trauma, Authenticity, and Self-Esteem. Autism in Adulthood.
Flower, R. L., Dickens, L. M., & Hedley, D. (2021). Barriers to employment: Raters' perceptions of male autistic and non-autistic candidates during a simulated job interview and the impact of diagnostic disclosure. Autism in Adulthood, 3(4), 300–309.