Having to hide who you really are will put a strong psychological strain on anyone in the long run. Unfortunately, for many people on the autism spectrum, this is a daily reality. Today I’d like to talk about autism masking. Autism masking is a survival strategy that involves learning neurotypical behavior and using this learned behavior in society. We have all most likely experienced some form of masking at some point, which in essence is camouflaging our behavior to fit in. We can resort to masking when we are in a new or different environment. For example, some of us may behave very differently when we are at home, compared to when we are at work. Autism masking is different from this, because it is much more constant and takes elaborate effort on a daily basis.
There can be positive effects of autism masking. Masking can help the person feel safe, avoid bullying, succeed at work, and attract a partner and friends. However the negative effects are very serious and can range from physical and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, exhaustion, loss of identity and suicidal ideation. Pretending you are someone you’re not can create an immense pressure on a person, regardless of whether they have autism.
There is some controversy regarding Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy (ABA) as some say it teaches and supports autism masking. In my opinion, if ABA is done correctly, it neither teaches not supports autism masking. As a BCBA who provides ABA therapy, I do not try to change my client’s behaviors that are characteristic of autism. Instead, I try to help my client navigate the world they live in.
Ultimately, we want to change the world so that neurodiversity is celebrated. One of my favorite things about my daughter is when she gets excited and starts flapping her arms all over the place. I get the biggest smile on my face and start flapping my arms all over the place too. She loves seeing me do this and I love that I am able to join her in how she expresses herself through flapping! I firmly believe the world needs more of that.
Unfortunately, people on the spectrum do face bullying and discrimination, because the world sometimes misunderstands them, or does not know how to accommodate their neurodiversity. Until the time when the world is more inclusive of individuals with ASD, however, we need to work with clients and their families to help them be successful in this world so they can feel safe and so they can achieve their goals. This will look different for all clients and their families.
If you believe your ABA provider is trying to mask your (or your child’s) “autism behavior,” I encourage you to have a conversation about this. It’s important that we have open conversations about these things, since providers are not always aware of how clients feel about different treatment methods and goals. If you aren’t able to communicate this to your provider successfully, or if they are not supportive, look into a new provider. There are plenty of options out there, and there is no reason to feel bad for looking out for yourself (or your child).