Masking, Camouflaging & Stealthing, oh my!

Posted by Chantal Gagnon on

What is masking?

Masking entails identifying traits in yourself and working hard to hide them. Masking, also known as camouflaging, stealthing, or compensating, it's common in people with neurodiversities who do not have a diagnosis, and it can prevent them from receiving the help they need.

People put forth a lot of effort and time throughout the day to ensure that their behaviour conforms to societal norms. How it looks will vary from person to person, and neurodiversity to neurodiversity. Every impulse that seems unusual is suppressed, and the underlying aims are conformity and sameness. Some people  good at concealing their neurodiversity, that no one can tell they are masking.

Whatever the reason, a neurodivergent person may feel compelled to hide their differences or alter their natural behaviour, especially if their living, educational, or professional environment does not tolerate, support, or respect neurodivergent behaviour.

While masking may have certain benefits, it's crucial to keep in mind that it comes at a price.

Time spent learning neurotypical behaviours is time not invested in developing other kinds of personal development. Furthermore, the effort required to mimic neurotypical interactions can lead to social overload and exhaustion. 

Why People Mask?

People may mask their neurodiversity for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • feeling safe and avoiding stigma
  • avoiding mistreatment or bullying
  • succeeding at work
  • attracting a romantic partner
  • making friends and other social connections
  • fitting in or feeling a sense of belonging. 

The down side of masking

Regular masking is linked to the following conditions and effects:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Exhaustion - Masking uses a significant amount of energy.
  • Delayed identification and diagnosis of neurodiversity. 
  • Loss of identity - Some people who mask their identity, interests, and traits feel as if they have lost track of who they are.
  • Burnout
  • Isolation - Masking may require an extended period of quiet withdrawal and recovery.
  • Increased risk of suicidal thoughts. 

Why it is important to include all neurodiveristies?

  • All neurodiversities mask to varying degrees.
  • Many people have multiple neurodiversities, even though they may have been diagnosed with only one. So people may be masking without even realising it. 

    How different neurodiversities may mask

    Autistic masking can include behaviours like:

    • forcing or faking eye contact during conversations
    • imitating smiles and other facial expressions
    • mimicking gestures
    • hiding or minimising personal interests
    • developing a repertoire of rehearsed responses to questions
    • scripting conversations
    • pushing through intense sensory discomfort including loud noises
    • disguising stimming behaviours (hiding a jiggling foot or trading a preferred movement for one that’s less obvious)
    • research social rules and norms
    • practice appearing interested or relaxed

    ADHD masking can include behaviours like:

    • imitating smiles and other facial expressions
    • mimicking and being conscious of gestures
    • hiding or minimising personal interests
    • Reacting how your expected to rather than how you feel
    • developing a repertoire of rehearsed social responses and interactions
    • Scripting conversations
    • Mimicking or adjusting tone
    • Disguising or suppressing stimming behaviours (hiding a jiggling foot or trading a preferred movement for one that’s less obvious)
    • Avoiding talking about special interests
    • Adopting personas to hide neurodiveristy
    • Staying quiet and being overly careful in what you say
    • research social rules and norms
    • practice appearing interested or relaxed

      Tourette’s Syndrome masking can include behaviours like:

      • Suppressing vocal and motor tics
      *apologies - more research by the author needs to be done in this area. We are currently looking for someone with this neurodiversity to join the live talks on World Unmaking Day and share more information about masking and Tourette’s syndrome. Please contact us here, if you would like to join @so.co.lo and @girlswithdyslexia on the 25th of May for World Unmaking Day. 

      Dyslexic masking can include behaviours like:

      • mimicking or faking reading speed
      • pretending to read
      • pretending to write
      • Going to great lengths to avoid saying, spelling or reading certain words or names
      • pushing through processing overload
      • Imitating people around them when unable to keep up with group conversations
      • practice appearing involved and participating
      • Adopting personas to hide neurodiveristy
      • Staying quite and being overly carful in what you say

      Irlen Syndrome masking can include behaviours like:

      • pushing through visual sensory discomfort
      • Not wearing tinted lenses or hat to be seen as polite and conform to social norms
      • mimicking or faking reading speed
      • pretending to read
      • pretending to write
      *more neurodiversities to be added soon. 

      The changes we need to see

      • The most important thing everyone can do is educate themselves on neurodiversity in order to better understand, respect and accept neurodiverse people. No one should have to change who they are to please another person or group. 
      • Employers must educate themselves and have a better understanding of neurodiversity in the workplace
      • Every educational programme should include neurodiversity training. The more people who know and understand neurodiverse people, the less stigma and pressure neurodivergent people will feel about trying to fit in.

      In conclusion

      For neurodivergent persons, masking is a complicated and costly survival technique. It usually entails learning neurotypical behaviours and then imitating them in social circumstances, as well as developing strategies to compensate for communication gaps.

      People may hide their neurodivergent traits for a variety of reasons, including advancing their careers, connecting with people, and avoiding stigma. While masking might be helpful at times, it can have major consequences for mental and physical health.

      Further Reading

      Armelle's article, Stealth Dyeslexia

      Judy Endow's article, “Sucking It Up” To Pass as Non-Autistic

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