What is Masking in Autism?
"MASKING" in autism may be a relatively new term, yet it is far from a novel concept. But what is masking, exactly?
Masking is a strategy an autistic person uses to help them try to fit in to what society typically considers "acceptable" behavior. But it is key to realize is that "acceptable" behavior reflects neuro-typical standards and not what comes naturally to someone with an autism neurotype. An autistic individual may have strengths and challenges which are not only unique to themselves, but are quite different from the mannerisms, processing, thinking, and perspectives of neuro-typicals.
Examples of masking are seen when an autistic individual forces herself to act in the following ways:
* making eye contact with a friend or teacher when eye contact doesn't feel comfortable
* inhibiting a comforting or self-regulating stim such as rocking oneself side to side or flicking fingers
* Forcing oneself to be still when their body craves movement
* Stopping oneself from talking about their individual "special" interests (as these are often discouraged)
* Forcing oneself to make small talk on a day when verbal communication is too much and too challenging
So, why is masking unhealthy for individuals with autism?
Evidence from the past few years shows that 40% of autistic adolescents have a formal co-morbid diagnosis of anxiety (Chiang et al., 2016). What is key to realize is that anxiety causes people to have significant challenges in many areas, such as academics, sports, health outcomes, quality of life, and social satisfaction. Further, anxiety contributes to depression and poor mental health conditions.
What can we do to reduce masking in autistic children and students in our lives?
* Encourage self-stimulatory behaviors like rocking, pacing, or bringing objects close to their eyes or ears. These stims are typically self-regulating to autistics and allow them to feel calmer and to block out overwhelming emotions or sensory input. When stims present dangers or dysregulation to themselves or others then more appropriate stims can be introduced as substitutions.
* Encourage kids to share information about their unique interests. Try to incorporate a child's special interests into their everyday lives, games, and academics.
* Never expect or require eye contact. Eye contact can be uncomfortable for autistic people, bordering on painful. Also, many autistic adults report that forced eye contact can make it more difficult for them to pay attention to others, and often prefer only listening to others, rather than looking at facial expressions at the same time.
* Embrace and encourage autistic children and teens to be themselves. Reinforce to them that they are unique and fantastic individuals!
As always, feel welcome to touch base with me, Dr. Lisa Marnell, OT, by e-mail at KidsMasterSkills@gmail.com I would love to hear about your successes, your struggles, and any questions or comments you have! Let me know if this post was helpful.
I also wanted to share that I am SO excited for 2021. I am developing a FREE Online Autism Masterclass entitled Helping Kids Master CALM. Sign up for this Masterclass at my website HERE: https://www.kidsmasterskills.com/
Also, join my Autism Facebook group and keep up to date as I post more tips to help teachers, parents, and therapists help kids master skills! Join HERE: https://www.facebook.com/groups/kidsmasterskillsautism
Finally, for a variety of skill-building resources, check out my store on Teachers Pay Teachers at https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Kids-Master-Skills