Meet Tahlia – she masks

Tahlia is 15 years old and loves COS Play and acting, but this is not what we asked Tahlia to talk about. She is autistic and performs ‘masking’ on a daily basis, especially whilst she is at school.

We met Tahlia during the launch of Timmy the Turtle (an animated film about bullying, voiced by young autistic people). Tahlia introduced herself and as she was saying “I bet you’re thinking I don’t look or sound autistic”!  She went on to describe how she was masking and we wanted to share her experience, so more people can understand what masking is.

Tahlia compares masking to opening multiple programs on your computer. Everything looks great until you have too many things running and the system slows down and eventually goes into meltdown.

More on masking can be found below.

Hiding who you are is an uncomfortable and exhausting experience

For many autistic people, that experience is a daily reality.

Autistic people often feel the need to perform social behaviours that are considered neurotypical. Some people may also feel they have to hide neurodiverse behaviors in order to be accepted.

Masking autism may sometimes help protect autistic people from being harassed at school or work. This behaviour is not always intentional which can lead to confusion about a person’s identity.

So, what does autism masking involve?

Masking is a social survival strategy. How it looks will vary from person to person, but masking can include behaviours like these:

  • forcing or faking eye contact during conversations
  • imitating smiles and other facial expressions
  • mimicking gestures
  • hiding or minimizing personal interests
  • developing a repertoire of rehearsed responses to questions
  • scripting conversations
  • pushing through intense sensory discomfort including loud noises
  • disguising stimming behaviours (hiding a jiggling foot or trading a preferred movement for one that’s less obvious)

What are the stages of autism masking?

Although masking can look different from person to person, one study has described a basic three-stage model of the process: motivation, masking, and consequences.

Masking begins when a neurodivergent person recognises that something important hinges on being perceived as neurotypical. Maybe it’s friendship. Maybe it’s a school class. Maybe it’s personal safety.

Whatever the motivation, an autistic person may feel they must hide differences or change the way they naturally act.

When people feel they have to compensate for autism characteristics, they have to invest a lot of time and energy in trying to “pass” as neurotypical. They might:

  • learn social cues from various forms of media
  • observe social interactions between people around them
  • monitor their own facial expressions and body language
  • research social rules and norms
  • practice appearing interested or relaxed
  • adjust their tone of voice to match other people’s vocal patterns

Equipped with these observations and skills, an autistic person can then use them in social situations to varying effects.

Some people are so effective at masking that no one can tell they’re pretending or performing. Others are less effective at masking.

People who mask regularly often say they feel drained and exhausted by the effort of trying to conform to neurotypical standards of behaviour.

Who is most likely to mask their autism?

People across the entire gender spectrum engage in masking, studies show, but people who identify as women may mask more often than people who identify as men.

There’s been some debate about why girls and women may mask autistic traits more than boys and men do. Some research suggests that autistic girls and women may be more inclined to develop friendships than autistic boys and men.


Review this resource