Autistic people often mask and camouflage as they feel uncomfortable about showing their true selves, or, to avoid standing out in the crowd. This occurs due to a lack of understanding and acceptance of difference within society, and the autistic person feeling they must hide who they really are, in fear of being seen as odd, weird or strange.
There are some differences between masking and camouflaging and when this can happen.
Camouflaging is generally seen as trying to merge into the background, not to be seen or stand out to other people.
Another term is blending.
You are trying to blend in with your surroundings.
For example, this could occur at work or school during lunchtime, when trying to avoid talking to co-workers or other students. We may not want to join the conversation as we are not interested in idle chit-chat or gossip, or me may feel afraid in not knowing what to say to a group of people, or how to be part of the conversation.
At social events, we may be the person that is on the edge of the room, trying desperately not to be noticed by anyone, and be drawn into a group of chatty people. This can make us feel uncomfortable as they may ask us lots of probing questions. It can be quite scary when we don’t know what people may ask of us, so it can feel safer to not stand out, and to try and avoid the situation by merging into the surroundings.
Masking, on the other hand, is putting on a mask to suit the people that are around you. For example, many autistics put on a mask at work to try and fit in with the people who they are working with. Putting on a mask helps us hide what we may perceive as inadequacies compared to our co-workers.
But we are not inadequate, we are different. Remember that!
We may want to appear confident in our job and to look like we know what we are doing. However, we may be struggling to understand what our boss has asked of us and are afraid to ask for clarification in fear of being viewed as not being competent.
We put on the mask of confidence to hide our fears.
We don’t want people to see what we believe is a weakness.
Which it is not, we just don’t know how to effectively advocate in a world that is fuelled by expectations of getting hidden nuances and drive for perfection.
We need to change that. No one is perfect.
At school we may mimic our peers to fit in with the group and in hope to gain a friend. We can also mask by being silly, or seen as the comedian to other people, to mask challenges we may think we have. There are many masks we can wear, and they can change in each situation we are in.
Many autistic people mask due to peer pressure of fitting in with the group, a construct that is often created by typical people and seen in cliques. This is especially evident at high school where young adolescents are becoming fashion conscious and a growing interest in having intimate relationships. The pressure can be enormous in wanting to fit in, as difference is still perceived as unfavourable.
When we are with people who get us, or truly understand and accept us, we are most likely not to mask and camouflage and to be our true authentic selves.
When we are with like-minded people, we can feel safe to be ourselves without judgement.
It is through acceptance of your true self, that the realisation of trying to fit into a social dynamic that is often not designed for us, and is not what we should be striving for, can release us from the mental burden of feeling defective or broken.
We should not be forcing ourselves to fit in. Society needs to adapt, change, and support everyone.
Life would be boring if we were all the same.
Find your tribe, folk, kin, or people and allow yourself to be truly you.
Being yourself is quite freeing and incredibly good for your mental wellbeing.
Stop trying so hard to fit in. It’s time to be unashamedly you.
I’m speaking at a two day masterclass on the 14th and 15th October 2021, along with Dr Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood, exploring diagnostic differences and supports for autistic girls and women.
For more information and registration please visit: attwoodandgarnettevents.com
About Barb Cook, M.Aut., Dip.HSc.
Barb received a diagnosis of Autism/Aspergers syndrome along with ADHD combined type and phonological dyslexia in 2009 at the age of 40. This really did give the statement of ‘life begins at 40’ a whole lot more depth and meaning for Barb.
For Barb it was literally a whole new beginning and set her life on a path of self-discovery, self-advocacy and personal empowerment.
Today, Barb is a Developmental Educator (DE) and Autism and Neurodiversity Employment Consultant for neurodivergent adults. As a Developmental Educator, Barb focuses on developing individualised learning strategies, tools and supports with positive outcomes for individuals across the lifespan. Barb is currently Deputy Chair of the Developmental Educators Australia Incorporated (DEAI), the governing body for Developmental Educators throughout Australia.
In 2016 Barb founded Spectrum Women Magazine. Nearing on a million unique readers per year, the magazine is a place where autistic women and non-binary people from around the globe can write about their experiences, feel validated in reading and recognising themselves in others; a need that so many had been without for far too long. As editor-in-chief, Spectrum Women Magazine is one of Barb’s passions and provides trustworthy, relevant and credible information and a platform for fellow autistic people to have a voice.
Inspired by the magazine, Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism, covers never before published insights of life for women/non-binary on the autistic spectrum. As editor and co-author, together with 14 fellow autistics, bare their heart and souls to the reader, providing valuable information, validation, support and advice. Working together with Dr Michelle Garnett, clinical psychologist of over 20 years in autism spectrum conditions, makes this book a well-rounded publication that fills a large gap between the personal and the professional. This book is a must read for women of all ages, and will make you laugh, cry, feel validated, but most importantly, you will never feel alone again.
Barb is an independent autistic peer reviewer of the journal Autism in Adulthood, and she has completed a Master of Autism (Education) at the University of Wollongong (Australia) in the areas of education and employment. Barb was jointly awarded the 2018 Community Engagement Grant for Facilitating the voice and self-determination of young adults on the autism spectrum where she is co-lead of this research project.
Barb is Vice Chair of the association My Life, My Decisions Inc., Co Design Committee Member of Aspergers Victoria’s World of Work: Work Experience Pathways Project, on the Advisory Committee of Autism Awareness Australia’s, Autism: What Next? project and is a Community Council Member of AASET (Autistic Adults and other Stakeholders Engaged Together), which provides advice and input into the areas of research on autistic health. Through Barb’s engagement with AASET, she is part of two published papers on Autism and Mental Health in the academic publication, Autism by Sage Journals.
Barb is a highly committed autistic advocate, writer, and highly sort after international speaker, making a variety of appearances on Australian radio, television, in newspapers and magazines and the short television documentary, The Chameleons: Women with Autism.
In 2021, Barb was the winner of the “A Different Brilliant” Award at the Aspect National Recognition Awards for her work in autism advocacy, education and research and recently received the “Leadership Support Award” for inclusive environment. Barb received a Special Commendation in the 2017 Autism Queensland Creative Futures Awards by the Queensland Governor, his Excellency Paul De Jersey.
Barb spoke at the World Autism Organisation Congress 2018 in Houston Texas and, keynoted for a special event “A Woman’s Voice: Understanding Autistic Needs” for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM) in Washington DC, USA in 2019.
Barb currently rides a Suzuki V-Strom DL1000 motorcycle called Ron ‘Strom’ Burgundy and he is one of the major loves of Barb’s life. Her motorcycle keeps her anxiety levels in check by taking her out on adventurous rides around the countryside.
For more information on Barb and her extensive work, please visit www.barbcook.com.au