Camouflaging involves disguising yourself to blend into social surroundings or conform to perceived social norms. Compensation, assimilation AND masking are all examples of camouflaging. Masking is only an example of one of three broader categories of camouflaging.
Laura Hull et al., (2018) has suggested that camouflaging in autism can be categorized into three distinct subcategories:
Compensation: using strategies to actively address challenges encountered in social situations, such as mimicking body language and facial expressions observed in others and learning social cues from media such as movies and book
Assimilation: using strategies to blend in with others in social settings, such as putting on facade to align with the behaviour of the group and either avoiding or forcing interactions with others
Masking: using strategies to conceal autistic traits, such as include adjusting facial expressions and body language to appear confident or relaxed and forcing eye contact during interactions.
While it's a common aspect of human interaction, we (autistic people) often find ourselves camouflaging to a greater extent due to the need to minimize the visibility of their autism-related behaviours. This deeper form of camouflaging may involve adjusting behaviours, speech, and attire to fit in with preferred social groups. However, it can also lead to heightened anxiety in social situations, prompting individuals to either engage in more camouflaging or withdraw altogether, each with its own set of consequences. Self-ostracization, defined as actions leading to one's exclusion from social groups, may result from either deliberate or inadvertent behaviours. Why do we camouflage? We often camouflage to make friends, appear likeable, bond with others, and to fit in with others.
There is a high need for safety in society for us to feel that we belong. But pretending to ‘be normal’ has great consequences- it often results in higher levels of anxiety, burnout, and depression. Research shows that high masking autistic individuals, like myself, are more vulnerable to bullying and mistreatment, as our hidden disabilities make us easy targets for ridicule. The fear of rejection from a world unfamiliar with our unmasked selves can be daunting, leading many of us to hesitate before fully embracing our authenticity.
I’ll use the word ‘masking’ loosely here now, since it’s more commonly used in the general population.
At a basic level, autistic masking may be choosing not to stim in public, forcing eye contact, or pretending to laugh at something that others find funny. For some, it means discouragement from pursuing interests not deemed ‘socially acceptable’ or feeling pressured to always be super friendly, and high energy, for example.
So what does ‘unmasking’ look like to me?
I now have around 20 (who's counting!? lol) pairs of cat earring-some for Christmas, easter, St Patricks day, Halloween, etc...and I don’t care what others think!
I allow my body to move how it wants to move more- I move my body when I want to. I bounce my legs a lot, crack my knuckles, bite my lips, chew at my cuticles (gross, I know), stroke my face, scratch my head, etc.
I let my eyes move where they want to- I find that when I talk, it’s hard to look at the other person a lot of the time, so I have to look away more
I allow myself to stare into space and not try to cover it up, or feel like I’ve been ‘caught out’
I allow myself to eat the exact same food over and over and over again, and not feel that I have to apologise for it- hello frozen green grapes this summer- I eat maybe a kilo a day?!
I now own four pairs of noise cancelling headsets/ear buds, and have trialed countless numbers of earplugs.
I threw out all dark colours in my wardrobe- life is too short to live in the dark- i love colour!
I try to ‘fake smile’ much less (still working on this one- it's so ingrained in 'good girls')
I just say how it is now
I don’t pretend to like someone if I don’t like them
I’ve learnt to trust my gut with people
I don’t wear any jewellery anymore, except for earrings, which don’t bother me
Bras have mostly gone lol!
I keep my nails short, because it feels good
I let myself look at moving objects like fans and things that spin- it really relaxes me
I let myself say the same thing over and over and over again in my head- why not! No point trying to stop thoughts
I openly smell my cat and don't care who knows
I let myself have my little ‘t-rex arms’ and don’t try to hide them
I don’t care who knows I am autistic
I wear a cap inside shopping centres (if I can’t avoid going into one)
I have a huge collection of fidget toys, weighted lap blanket, and other stuff that I use
I garden in the rain and don’t care what the neighbours think!
I let myself say my Austen Powers lines from movies more and don't feel ashamed
I don’t care if I’m overdressed for an occasion anymore- why not wear the clothes I love?
I don’t have time anymore for people who are judgemental or lack compassion
I have no time for people who put down our neurokin
I leave a catch up with friends earlier now if I need to
I rarely answer the phone (unless it’s a good friend or close family)
I’ve given up wearing shoes (most of the time)
I’ve accepted that I will continue to have dry skin because I hate the feeling of moisturizing my skin
I accept that I have a disability, or that i'm 'differently abled' and that it's not a bad thing
I surround myself with lovely, warm and kind people who are compassionate
Unmasking is a journey that requires patience, self-compassion, and courage. It's a process of peeling back layers of societal expectations and revealing the authentic self that lies beneath. As someone who has spent decades perfecting the art of masking, I understand the complexities and challenges of this journey all too well.
Unmasking isn't about tearing down the facade overnight; it's a gradual unravelling of the layers we've meticulously crafted over time. Just as Rome wasn't built in a day, dismantling our masks requires time, patience, and understanding. Rushing the process can be overwhelming and counterproductive, potentially leading to emotional turmoil and burnout. It's essential to proceed at a pace that feels comfortable and manageable, honouring our individual needs and limitations along the way.
The journey of unmasking is multifaceted, with each layer revealing new insights and discoveries about ourselves. It's a continuous process of self-exploration, guided by a desire to embrace our authentic identities and find pride in who we truly are. While it may take years to fully shed the mask (if at al, every step forward is progress, right?
For me, unmasking is a long and continual journey of reclaiming my autonomy and embracing neurodiversity. It's about allowing myself to express my true self without fear of judgment or rejection. Through small but meaningful acts of authenticity, such as wearing cat earrings proudly or allowing myself to stim openly, I've begun to reconnect with parts of myself that were long suppressed.
Embracing my autistic identity has been both empowering and liberating. It's a radical act of self-acceptance, challenging societal norms and embracing the beauty of neurodiversity. By unapologetically being myself MORE (i can't always), I've found more of a sense of freedom and belonging.