Why Do Neurodivergent People Mask?

5 Oct 2023




minute read

Last Updated

Dec 8, 2023

What is masking?

Masking, also called camouflaging, describes how someone consciously or unconsciously camouflages their true feelings, experiences, or characteristics. Whether it's a student with dyslexia hiding their reading difficulties or someone with social anxiety forcing themselves to network, masking is an attempt to fit a perceived norm.

Neurodivergent masking is often accompanied by compensation (copying neurotypical behaviour) and assimilation (acting like you are neurotypical) techniques. When someone refers to masking, they are normally referring to all three of these.

Why do people mask?

There are many different reasons that someone might mask depending on the situation they are in and how they feel. Some of these reasons include:

  1. Stigma and Stereotyping: Many people who mask, do so because they fear being judged by society. Adapting behaviours in order to distract from one’s experience can be a way to avoid the anxiety of attracting stigma.

  2. Social Acceptance: For those who feel "different", masking can seem like a pathway to inclusion. They might consciously or unconsciously change their behaviours, interests or communication style to align with those around them. For example, people might mimic mutual interests, follow a certain script during social interactions, or force eye contact even if it is uncomfortable for them.

  3. Pressures in Professional and Academic Arenas: In work or school environments, the pressure to conform is often heightened. In these environments, People often feel they need to hide certain parts of their personality, blend in and conform to that system’s notion of success in order to be taken seriously.

  4. Self-Protection: People might feel more vulnerable when presenting their authentic selves or feel the need to protect themselves from harm so mask to reduce the risk of that happening. They may fear bullying or ostracisation so use masking as a defence mechanism.

Do only neurodivergent people mask?

No - both neurodivergent and neurotypical can engage in masking.

The concept of masking to conform to social norms originated in the context of autistic individuals changing their behaviours to appear neurotypical. More recently, the concept of masking has broadened to include all different neurotypes who change their behaviours to mimic those around them. It’s likely that neurodivergent people mask their behaviours more frequently and more heavily than neurotypical people.

Studies have shown that neurotypical people have a similar experience of masking, however, the traits and behaviours that neurodivergent people mask might be more pronounced. Some traits, such as sensory sensitivities or stimming (repetitive self-stimulating behaviours that are calming or enjoyable) require more energy to mask.

Some examples of masking in different areas include:

🟢 ADHD: Someone with ADHD might try to sit still, despite feeling restless.

🟢 Autism: An autistic person might suppress stimming behaviours, like hand-flapping, to avoid attention.

🟢 Specific Learning Difficulties: A person with dyslexia might shy away from reading aloud, or someone with dyscalculia might avoid tasks involving numbers, all to sidestep potential embarrassment.

🟢 Personality Traits: A naturally introverted person might push themselves to be outgoing in social settings to align with societal expectations of sociability.

🟢 Mental Health: Someone with depression might project an image of happiness and vitality, hiding their true feelings.

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