Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

What is masking and how can autistic people safely foster authenticity?

In a recent LDT webinar, two autistic authors, Dr Amy Pearson and Kieran Rose, explain what masking is, why autistic people often ‘mask’ certain traits, and what autistic people can do to safely foster authenticity. They draw on chapters from their recently published book, Autistic Masking, exploring these areas alongside a wider understanding of the impact of stigma and trauma on autistic people.

Autistic Masking book cover

Conceptualising autistic masking: what is it?

The term ‘masking’ is used to describe how autistic people practice and perform certain behaviours and suppress others to fit in with the people around them.

Terms differ from researchers and members of the autistic community, and camouflaging, assimilating, projecting acceptability, adaptive morphing and passing are also used to describe the practice of modifying identity in social situations.

These terms vary slightly in definition, with adaptive morphing and camouflaging often used to describe instances where autistic people adapt to fit a social situation based on the experience of stigma and trauma, while passing (which has historically been associated with the LGBTQI+ population) is often used when autistic people try not pass as non-autistic in social situations.

Dr Amy Pearson, an academic researcher and senior lecturer in the school psychology at the University of Sunderland, says masking is the term most commonly used by the autistic community, and it is a “general human strategy that autistic people use for different reasons.”

Autistic people may also use identity monitoring or management, which can lead them to present as a more ‘dialled up’ or ‘toned down’ versions of themselves, for example, by letting some interests shine more in certain contexts, and suppressing them in others.

Amy says when autistic people monitor or manage their identity, they are still presenting their authentic selves, but are just showing different aspects of their personality.

Comparatively, when autistic people mask, they are ‘projecting acceptability’, and spend more time engaging in stigma avoidance, suppressing parts of themselves to avoid negative social judgements from other people. This can lead to significant social trauma.

It is important to remember that this can look very different depending on the individual, and it often happens developmentally in response to trauma, according to Kieran Rose, who delivers specialist training and consultancy in autism and neurodiversity, and is also a research associate at the University of Sunderland.

Why do autistic people mask?

Kieran says autistic people often experience invalidation, pathologistation, and trauma as a result of their autistic traits, and masking is often developed as a coping mechanism to better ‘fit in’.

Society has a strong sense of what is ‘normal’, and Kieran says this feeds into an ‘ecology of stigma’, steering how autistic people are treated and what they experience on a day to day basis.

“A lot of these stigmatised experiences have caused trauma within us, so our behaviour changes, often completely unconsciously, in response to these traumas that we have experienced,” Kieran explains.

These stigmatised experiences can be big, significant events, or day to day microaggressions. For example, when people invalidate how you communicate or behave by making comments or treating you differently.

Kieran says autistic people are up for “correction and pathologisation across every domain of humanity”, and society tries to correct how autistic people think, how they feel, how they behave, how they move, how they emote, how they eat and how they play.

This can be traumatic for autistic people, and when it occurs over a sustained period of time, it can have a huge effect on how autistic people behave in social situations.

Researchers are therefore now taking more of an ‘ecological approach’ to masking, which considers all the accumulated experiences of autistic people and how this may contribute towards masking and feeling a lack of authenticity.

The ecological approach puts the individual at the centre, but also considers the person’s family, friends and peers, and above that, the systems they’re situated in, such as schools and workplaces.

It takes into account the interactions between these people and systems and how these experiences have accumulated over time, as well as the role of wider society and how outsider perspectives impact autistic people.

What can autistic people do to foster authenticity?

There is a prevailing narrative that in order for autistic people to foster authenticity, all they need to do is ‘unmask’.

“The idea that unmasking is easy or something that we all have access to does not necessarily take into account the nuance among the experiences of autistic people, and also how complex a mask is,” Amy explains.

“We assume that the mask is one unitary thing … but masking is built up over years and years of invalidation, negative social judgments, stigma and pathologisation, and it infiltrates every aspect of your being … including how you internalise and think about yourself.”

Unmasking is therefore extremely complex, and it is unfair to expect autistic people to simply take the mask off, like you would a piece of clothing, as this doesn’t take into account the accumulation of years of experiences and the build-up of trauma over time.

What autistic people can do is surround themselves with other autistic people. Kieran says that a huge part of his journey towards self-understanding has been through community connection, and meeting and spending time with other autistic people.

By doing so, he realised that many other autistic people have had similar experiences to his own, which can help to ease feelings of invalidation and lead to a better understanding of your own mind.

However, autistic people are not often supported to connect with other autistic people. While this sometimes happens in schools, Kieran says this is a prescribed group of people who are usually around the same age.

While this may be useful for some autistic children, the most beneficial experiences tend to happen when autistic people are surrounded by people of all different ages who have had a variety of life experiences.

Safety and intersectionality

Amy highlights the importance of intersectionality, and that every autistic person will have a different experience of unmasking depending on their identity.

She points out that some autistic people will find it harder to feel like they fit in within communities and some may feel that it is unsafe for them to unmask because of other issues around stigma.

Members of the Black autistic community, for example, have spoken about how it is very hard to access the autistic community because of the intersectional issue of racism, which can make this group feel less safe in these spaces.

“Because masking is a trauma response that people use it in order to survive, you can’t expect people to get rid of all the coping mechanisms they’ve previously used,” Amy explains.

It is therefore is important to ensure autistic people have a safe space to explore their own identity, speak to others who understand them, and be their authentic selves. However, Amy highlights that, as a society, we don’t often create these safe spaces, and this can prevent autistic people from having their needs met. , and society needs to facilitate this.

“Unmasking is not just about being your shiny self in social situations and talking more about your interests and making eye contact with people if it makes you uncomfortable. It’s about knowing what your own needs are and learning how to advocate for those, and feeling like you have agency within the interactions you have,” she says.

The process of unmasking is therefore reflexive and ongoing. Autistic people will have to think really hard about what they genuinely need and what will help to ensure their needs are met.

Autistic people are doing all the heavy lifting

Kieran and Amy explain that power is naturally titled away from autistic individuals, yet they are the ones who are expected to facilitate change.

Instead, the power balance needs to be tipped back towards autistic people, and those with the power should work alongside autistic people to ensure they have access to the support they need.

Typically, the onus is on autistic people to ‘fit in’ to the systems surrounding them, which is a very difficult thing to do, and often not a lot of thought is given to what has caused them to find it difficult to fit in in the first place.

People outside of autistic communities therefore need to take responsibility and make it safer for autistic people to be more authentic. Without this, it is likely autistic people will be exposed to more trauma.

There is therefore a shared responsibility to create change – autistic people need to think about what they need, but society also has a responsibility to make it safe for autistic people to be themselves.

Society needs to provide space for autistic people to thrive, whether that be in school or in the workplace. We need systemic changes, not just individual reasonable adjustments that are seen as a ‘favour’ to help autistic people fit in, Amy says.

Work is also needed within the field of research, as autistic people are simultaneously pathologised within academic narratives and tokenisticly valued for the lived experience they can contribute towards insights that might help shape research, services and support networks.

How do we create an ecology that nurtures autistic people?

To create an ecology that truly nurtures autistic people, Amy and Kieran say we need to shift responsibility away from autistic people and create environmental changes, such as reasonable adjustments.

“We also need practice which is truly informed by lived experience, and that really fits in with what autistic people actually need, not what people think we need,” Amy says.

“We need to create support systems and interventions which are led by autistic people, because if they’re not, then they’re unlikely to meet people’s needs well.”

To do this, autistic and non-autistic people must confront their own biases. Amy says that as a researcher and an autistic person, she is aware that she can still cause harm, and may be ignorant of people’s individual experiences.

For this reason, we need to be constantly reflecting on how we interpret people’s experiences. It is important to take a step back from your own knowledge and understanding and think about how we may be impacting different groups.

“There is always space for growth, and there is always room for us to get better,” she said.

Amy highlights the importance of safe spaces where autistic people can get together with allies and listen to each other’s experiences and grow and develop best practice from these discussions.

Allies need to create meaningful and genuine relationships with autistic people in order to nurture these changes. A segregated approach to autistic and non-autistic people is not helpful for anyone, as the relationship between these two groups is vital to creating tangible change.

The Advoc8 Framework

The Advoc8 framework is the brainchild of Kieran Rose, which helps organisations and individuals to think about how they can foster authenticity and create a safe space for autistic people.

The framework is underpinned with the four A’s: acceptance, agency, autonomy and authenticity.

Acceptance encourages autistic people to understand themselves better, and this gives them a better idea of what their needs are, giving them more agency and autonomy over their lives.

When autistic people are able to act on their own choices, it creates a space where they can be more authentic. Even if autistic people are unable to be fully authentic, it is hugely important that they know who they are and what they need.

As well as the four As, Kieran has come up with eight pillars which cover the areas around which autistic people are mostly misunderstood and misperceived. These are:

  1. Understanding the societal and historical narrative
  2. The neurodiversity paradigm
  3. Utilising double empathy
  4. Cultural diversity in social intelligence
  5. Understanding monotropism
  6. Diversity in movement, sensory, neurobiology and trauma response
  7. The environment
  8. Identity and its relationships with stigma, masking, burnout and mental health outcomes.

By reframing these areas, Kieran says this can lead to the acceptance of autistic people, which can give them more agency and autonomy, and the support they need to become their authentic selves.

Georgia Pavlopoulou’s Lifeworld Framework

The Lifeworld Framework is focused on the relationships between autistic people and the people who support them, and what we can do to improve the lives of autistic people and validate their experiences.

The framework focuses on eight different dimensions which aim to address key issues in building up these genuine relationships and foster a sense of mutual understanding.

These are:

  1. Objectifications and insiderness
  2. Passivity to agency
  3. Homogenisations to uniqueness
  4. Loss of meaning to sense making
  5. The importance of personal journeys
  6. Dislocation to a sense of place
  7. Reductionism to embodiment
  8. Isolation to belonging.

These two frameworks both focus on changing the narrative for autistic people, and as Amy says, “if we change the narrative we change the future.”

Amy says while it’s still early days for research in this area, she hopes these open discussions about autistic people’s needs will create tangible change and have a positive impact on autistic people’s lives.

You can watch the full webinar here.

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