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What is Masking?

Masking is when someone tries their best to fit in and go unnoticed by others. It can become an automatic, natural way of being, meaning autistic people can sometimes mask without actually knowing it.


Masking can be a stressful experience. It takes a lot of energy to be able to 'fit in', and act in a way that is different to your natural self.

Masking can be a helpful, conscious strategy in the short term for things like:

  • Delivering a presentation or to achieve something

  • If you think the energy it takes to mask is less than the energy from dealing with negative reactions from others in an environment that you don't repeatedly experience, such as when visiting a café.


But often in the context of school, masking is a survival response.


Importantly, masking is a 'fawn' survival response. Masking happens because it feels unsafe to be your authentic self, and it feels that you have to try your best to fit in to avoid conflict.


Masking can look like:

  • Hiding behaviour that is considered as 'socially unacceptable'

  • Mimicking other people

  • Forcing facial expressions and vocal tone changes

  • Initiating eye contact

  • Following scripts that can be used as part of discussion

  • Sitting quietly without contributing to conversation to not be noticed as 'different', or being 'loud' and 'boisterous' to hide insecurities

  • Ignoring your sensory needs. Sitting still in class even if this makes you feel uncomfortable, hiding self regulation movements that make you calm like rocking and pacing.

  • Having 'surface level friendships' - interacting with people but not getting too close or inviting to do anything else in case they notice you are 'different'

  • Faking interests and hobbies to fit in with others

  • Not asking questions or seeking clarification when you are confused or don't understand

  • Laughing with the group even if you don't understand the joke

  • Overall, trying to act 'normal'


Someone who is masking (a fawn response) is in the same survival mode as someone who goes into fight/ flight mode or shows other highly stressed behaviours. But they internalise their stress instead of being able to process it through their safety response, which is more manageable for the people around them, but is more detrimental to their wellbeing.

"They are fine at school"


Masking is why you may hear of situations where a child 'seems fine in school' but has explosive meltdowns when they get home. One of two things can happen:

  1. If they have become so stressed that they reached full survival mode, as home is a safer place, their body stays in fawn mode, until they get home where the body feels able to complete its fight/ flight response. This is their body's way of feeling they have made it through the dangerous situation and are back in a state of safety. But as this has been held in for so long, your level of stress has increased significantly and becomes HUGE.

  2. Masking takes a lot of energy, this means that by the time someone gets home they may have no spare energy left, and are so highly stressed that they are unable to tolerate small demands or questions.


"I masked when I was in school as I was desperate to fit in. This took so much energy that by the time I got home I had nothing left, I would barricade my room shut and play games to escape from the world and to try and recharge energy to survive the next day. Sometimes, my mum said something as small as 'how are you?' and I would shout and scream. I felt horrible about this, but I realise now it is because I was so stressed I wasn't even able to process questions anymore." - Autistic adult


As mentioned above, in the short term masking can be a useful strategy in some situations in the short term. But masking in an environment you are part of often (home, school, work) is detrimental to your wellbeing, and can result in: Low self esteem, loss of identity, burnout, loneliness, lack of self acceptance, exhaustion and trauma.


The main ways to reduce long term masking are:

  • Acceptance: feeling that you are in an environment where you are able to be yourself without risk of negativity from others. This means you must be able to accept yourself, but also have acceptance from the people around you.

  • Being able to process trauma so the environment now feels safe.

"This drawing is called Façade and it represents masking. Me and many other autistic people feel like we need to camouflage to fit in with our surroundings, just like the leaf insect, but it’s important for us to know that we’re incredible just the way we are. We are the colour and difference that the world needs." - By Hannah, Autistic Young Person.

Information for young people on the topic of masking can be found on our Autism Understood website >here<

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