The feeling that we’re putting on a different face or adopting a slightly different persona is something many of us have experienced. But for some, social masking is a way of life, and seems like the only way they feel they can fit in
We’ve all done it. That moment at work where a question arises and we just aren’t quite sure how to respond, or a friend makes a comment we think is a joke but aren’t 100% certain. We surreptitiously check to see how everyone else reacts first lest we choose the wrong thing to say. In many ways, we all practise a bit of social masking to help us avoid social faux pas. However, some of us rely on it much more than others.
Social masking, also known as social camouflaging, is thought to be one of several potential reasons as to why autistic women and girls often receive a diagnosis later in life.
In early 2018, a TV documentary revealed that more than half of undiagnosed autistic adults could be women – a figure that shocked researchers and experts alike. Of the 750,000 participants, more than 11% met the criteria pointing towards a diagnosis, with an unprecedented 52% of them being women.
With previous studies indicating that the ratio of male to female autistic individuals stood at anywhere between 2:1 to 16:1, experts put forward a range of theories to explain why these results suggested women may be under-diagnosed. The conscious and subconscious use of social masking is one of several popular explanations.
Psychiatrist Dr Louis Kraus specialises in autism. He suggests that, while the indicators of autism can be less obvious in women, many learn to mimic the behaviour of others around them, helping them to mask their difficulties in understanding social norms and cues.
Experts think girls and women may do this more often, as they want to socialise, be part of the group, and make friends, which can lead to them attempting to mimic the behaviour of their peers.
Autistic girls may also be more likely to recognise the signs of social expectations, even if they don’t fully understand or are unable to meet them. This can include mimicking facial expressions, memorising acceptable topics of conversation, and adopting physical behaviours observed in others, such as maintaining eye contact during a conversation.
While social masking may seem like a positive way to learn social cues through practise, many mimic these interactions, rather than fully understanding them. This form of social camouflaging, while helping individuals to blend in, can also delay diagnosis and support.
Many who practise social masking report still feeling disconnected or overlooked in social situations. To an outsider, they may appear to bounce between activities, conversations or groups, as they struggle to connect or have trouble recognising typically expected responses and behaviours. To combat this, many will create a “social script” of conversational phrases that can be reused when required, or copy social behaviour from friends and sometimes even TV shows.
Can it increase anxiety?
Those who regularly use social masking to cope with everyday interactions and situations may experience higher levels of anxiety than their peers, as they struggle to understand social situations and cues that others take for granted.
Many report feeling mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted following social interactions, as they may be consciously tracking the body language, facial expressions, language, and reactions of those around them to try to mimic social cues and expectations. In some cases, the individual may be doing this while also suppressing any behaviours or actions that may be deemed socially inappropriate or out of the norm, such as common self-stimulatory (or stimming) behaviours.
This can lead to increased anxiety and self-doubt and, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Autism, with higher levels of social camouflaging also associated with higher levels of depression.
Without diagnosis, some experts believe autistic women may not recognise the signs that they are socially masking, and may believe that a level of exhaustion following social interactions is something everyone experiences.
The same study defined social camouflaging as the difference between how people seem in social contexts, and what is really happening to them on the inside. This can cover a broad spectrum of things, from suppressing repetitive behaviours, to avoiding talking excessively about special interests, pretending to follow conversations, or mimicking other neurotypical behaviours.
Why use it?
If it can be so exhausting, why do people use social masking? Some use it to connect with friends, find a partner, or land a better job. Others use it as a defence mechanism, to protect themselves from being shunned, or just to seem “normal”.
While it may seem like an easy suggestion for people to just “be themselves”, social camouflaging can be a reassuring way for those who struggle to connect to take part in social situations, where they might otherwise feel out of their depth.
Can it have its downsides? Of course. But with time to practise and implement self-care routines and techniques that can help to relax, unwind, and recharge – combined with professional support to learn healthy coping strategies – social masking can be a helpful tool that non-neurotypical individuals can use to feel more comfortable and accepted in a largely neurotypical world.