What Is Autism Masking?

What Is Autism Masking?

When an individual with autism intentionally or subconsciously suppresses behaviors that come naturally to them, this is referred to as “masking.” Neurodivergent masking is a way to overcompensate and put effort into hiding certain behaviors. 

There are many signature characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and when someone is masking, they are putting effort toward hiding or decreasing the noticeability of these behaviors. Understanding masking and the signs that point to this behavior sheds light on the challenges that those with autism face day to day. When we understand what someone is doing when they’re masking, we can offer them support and help to diminish the stigma behind autism.

What Is Autism Masking?

Autism masking, often referred to as camouflaging, social mimicking, or assimilating, is the act of trying to blend in with social norms and conceal behaviors that may display traits of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Masking can occur with any neurodiversity if someone is modifying their behavior to fit into what they feel is a societal norm, but it’s most commonly referred to when talking about people with autism. In those instances, they may avoid stereotypical markers of autism in an attempt to appear more neurotypical.

For example, if a person with autism has sensory sensitivities and chooses to try to ignore their feeling of sensory overload rather than attend to it, they are masking. This can look like someone with auditory sensitivities staying in a loud and overwhelming environment or someone with visual sensitivities staying in a place with flashing lights. 

Other developmental disorders, like ADHD or learning disorders, may demonstrate behaviors that are a form of masking. This includes learning how to make it appear that they are concentrating when they really are struggling to or blending in with peers to stay unnoticed in school when, in reality, they don’t understand the curriculum. 

As you can imagine, constantly trying to mimic “typical” behavior and suppress one’s own needs can greatly impact self-confidence and mental health. Researchers Meng-Chaun Lai and Sarah Cassidy developed the Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire (CAT-Q) to assess masking tendencies and measure how they impact the participants’ well-being. 

The development of this questionnaire shed light on the issues of masking or camouflaging, spreading awareness, and advocating for individuals with autism. It was the first of its time to specifically address this problem and help people with autism feel a sense of validation in what they are experiencing in social settings.

Why Do Autistic Individuals Mask Their Behaviors?

Masking can be intentional or unintentional, but it almost always is a result of wanting to conform to social norms. Social anxiety is something that many adults and children with autism face, and they use masking as a way to help them feel less self-conscious in social situations. At times when they may feel awkward or uncomfortable, people with autism often have a desire to appear non-autistic. They demonstrate different behaviors to blend in as a way to subdue their autistic traits. 

Researchers Laura Hull and Simon Baron-Cohen studied masking in adults with autism. They studied the gender differences in masking behavior and found that autistic females tend to experience more extreme masking than autistic males. Their findings led to the development of a three-stage model of the masking or camouflaging process. 

Stage One

Stage one studies the motivation behind masking, such as social expectations or social anxiety. A desire for acceptance or friendship can drive someone to masking behaviors. They may consciously or subconsciously feel that others won’t accept them for how they are, so they utilize masking and scripting to act more like those they are around. 

Stage Two and Stage 3

Stage two discusses different masking techniques, such as over-compensation, mimicry, and behavior suppression. Stage three explores the consequences of masking, such as lowered self-confidence, increased social anxiety, and exhaustion. 

There is a unique link between stimming behaviors and masking. Stimming is a repetitive motion or vocalization done by people with autism as a way to self-soothe and regulate sensory input. This can be a wide array of behaviors, like flapping, tapping, humming, or rocking their body. 

When someone is masking, they may try to hide or decrease their stimming behaviors. These are generally markers of autism, so in masking, they try not to let them show. However, the act of masking itself can actually make stimming behaviors worse. 

The feeling that comes with suppressing your true self can lead to increased anxiety or tension, leading to an increase in stimming behaviors. As stimming is a coping mechanism, it may become more frequent with the toll that masking takes on mental health.

What Are the Common Signs of Autism Masking?

Knowing the signs of masking can help create more supportive environments and enhance communication. If a child, friend, or family member is demonstrating signs of masking, it helps us know that they are feeling stressed and feel the need to suppress themselves so we can help them accordingly. The most common signs of masking are:

Mimicking or Copying

Individuals with autism may mimic or copy neurotypical behaviors, facial expressions, or social interactions to blend in. This can include copying speech patterns, body language, or reactions to situations. They may even “script” and repeat phrases they recognize are often used in speech to feel that they fit in.

Suppressed Stimming

Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviors, are natural for individuals with autism. These can include hand flapping, rocking, spinning, or tapping. If someone is masking, they might suppress these behaviors to appear more neurotypical. Anything that may be seen as a sign of autism is typically masked to help an individual blend in with more neurotypical people.

Forced Eye Contact

While many individuals with autism naturally avoid eye contact, those who are masking might force themselves to maintain regular eye contact during conversations, as this is a common social expectation. If it seems forced or unnatural for the person, it likely is. 


Over-Preparation for Social Situations

To cope with unpredictable social interactions, individuals who are masking may rehearse conversations or situations beforehand, planning out responses and reactions. They may already have your conversation played out in their mind and be caught off guard if the topic changes.

Avoiding Social Situations

Some individuals who mask may avoid social situations altogether to reduce the need for masking. This could include avoiding parties, gatherings, or even everyday social interactions. They may cancel at the last minute if anxiety creeps up on them as the situation nears. 

Overcompensation in Social Interactions

This could mean laughing too loudly, talking too much, or being overly friendly to fit into social norms. They typically study the behaviors of others and try to mimic what they see, but as this feels unnatural to them, they may overdo it unintentionally. 

Exhaustion After Social Interactions

Masking can be mentally and emotionally draining. Individuals who mask often feel extreme fatigue or exhaustion after social interactions. Masking involves constant monitoring and adjusting of behavior during social encounters, and this continuous cognitive effort can be mentally draining.

Difficulty Expressing Personal Feelings

Individuals who are masking may find it hard to express their own feelings or emotions as they are focusing on mimicking neurotypical behaviors. If they are suppressing how they normally act, they’re likely suppressing how they feel. 

High Levels of Anxiety

The pressure to appear neurotypical can cause high levels of anxiety, especially in social situations. Individuals masking are likely anxious before an event with anticipation, during an event to try to constantly assess and reassess their behavior, and possibly even after an event replaying it in their mind. This does not help those who may already experience social anxiety.

Inconsistencies in Behavior

There might be noticeable differences in an individual's behavior when they are in a comfortable, safe environment compared to when they are in a public or unfamiliar setting. This is often because they feel less need to mask around trusted friends or family. 

How Does Autism Masking Affect Mental Health and Well-being?

The effects of masking on mental health are profound. The constant effort to conform to social norms leads to increased stress and anxiety, emotional exhaustion, and burnout. Autistic burnout occurs when an extreme feeling of emotional exhaustion leads to a short-term loss of skill or function. This is often accompanied by heightened sensory sensitivity.

Masking can do serious harm to self-esteem due to feeling like it’s necessary to hide one’s true identity. Prolonged masking can result in identity erosion, leading to long-term psychological consequences. Recognizing and addressing the toll masking takes is crucial for supporting the mental well-being of individuals with autism and promoting environments that embrace and accept authenticity.

How Can Unmasking Benefit Autistic Individuals?

Unmasking, or allowing autistic individuals to express their true selves, brings many benefits. It leads to increased self-esteem as they embrace their authentic identities, fostering a more positive self-perception. Unmasking also enhances mental well-being by alleviating the stress and emotional exhaustion associated with conforming to societal expectations. 

Authentic connections improve as former maskers can engage in more meaningful relationships without the constant need for social conforming. Encouraging autistic individuals to unmask celebrates neurodiversity, creating inclusive environments and encouraging self-expression. 

Coping mechanisms such as gradual exposure, support networks, therapy, and self-reflection help kickstart the unmasking process. We can embrace neurodiversity and advocate for the right to authentic self-expression to create a more compassionate and understanding society that values the perspectives and experiences of those with autism.

How Can We Support Autistic Individuals in Their Journey of Unmasking?

As caretakers, friends, or loved ones of those struggling with masking, the most important thing we can do is create and foster inclusive environments. By celebrating neurodiversity and allowing people with autism to express their true selves, we give them a sense of belonging and a reason to unmask.

In recognizing and respecting different social cues, behaviors, and needs of our loved ones with autism, we can create space for their unique preferences and needs. For example, picking up on their sensory sensitivities and being mindful of that in social situations can show that we are accepting of their sensory needs and happy to help avoid certain things that may make them uncomfortable. This shows them that they do not need to act a certain way to please us, and it’s absolutely okay to ask us to help them thrive.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and behavior modeling can help to practice embracing authentic behaviors and reduce the need for masking behaviors. ABA can use positive reinforcement to shine a light on the great things about one’s authentic personality and help them see the good they have to offer without pretending to be something they’re not. Paired with behavior modeling, people with autism can also practice social skills in a safe setting, learning to release their masking tendencies slowly.

The Bottom Line

It is so important to understand and support children and adults with autism and let them know it’s okay to unmask. When we educate ourselves and learn more about autism and neurodiversity, we can do better to create inclusive, accepting environments that allow everyone to express their true selves. If you’re looking for more information on autism, raising children with autism, or related topics, check out our other blogs or sign up for our newsletter. We understand your unique situation, and we’re here to help.


Autistic People and Masking | National Autistic Society

ADHD Masking | Does Hiding Your Symptoms Help or Harm? | ADDA

Development and Validation of the Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire | CAT-Q | NCBI

Gender Differences in Self-Reported Camouflaging in Autistic and Non-Autistic Adults | PMC

“Putting on My Best Normal” | Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions | PMC

How to Tame Your Sensory Seeker | NAPA Center

Autistic burnout, explained | Spectrum | Autism Research News

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) | Autism Speaks

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