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Opinion: The two types of masking in neurodivergent people

7 mins read

Why masking is more complex than you thought.

The state of hiding neurodivergent tendencies, traits and behaviours in order to pass off as a ‘normal’ person is usually what people refer to as masking. But what if I told you that masking is more than just that? Did you know there were two different types?

Masking can happen with anyone, at any point in life if you are a neurodivergent person.

What if I now told you that these individuals both deliberately masked, and unknowingly masked?

In a university environment, it is very common to spot both kinds of masking.

Allow me to elaborate:

Deliberate masking

The name describes this type of masking exactly as it says on the tin, (if you’re familiar with that saying). It is often commonly found in neurodivergent people who have an official diagnosis, although it can also be found in people who have self-diagnosed as being autistic and will take their mask off to their neurodivergent friends.

Why is it deliberate? Well let’s say at university, you’ve got a graduation coming up which is going to mean the dreaded graduation photograph while you suffer in a black robe in the scorching summer heat, both two sensory nightmares if you don’t like dark clothes, or summer heat.

Okay, but really, have you ever been told to smile in a photograph when you didn’t want to? If you have, you’re not alone. You might have felt a completely different feeling or emotion as the time came for you to step up, hold the scroll and get your photo.

So what do you do? You put the mask on, by giving a ‘fake’ smile that passes off as genuine, even though your mind is too focused on how the environment is affecting you at the current time.

This wasn’t an accidental mask. It’s something you felt that you had to do because you had to pretend you were comfortable and able to cope. How many neurodivergent people can relate to this one? Chances are, you’re aware of when you need to put on your mask in certain situations. That’s why it’s called deliberate masking.

In autism, there’s something called the ‘flat affect’. This is when an autistic individual smiles, but the smile isn’t perceived to be one by their recipient. Whereas to the outsider, the flat affect looks like an emotionless face, in neurodivergent people, they are probably quite happy or content.

Due to the perceived nature of the flat affect, it’s often met with the wrong response: negativity towards the neurodivergent person. As a result, the neurodivergent person has to deliberately put their mask on by offering a large fake smile perceived as genuine by the outsider.

Once neurodivergent people learn to take their masks off, (and this usually happens with other neurodivergent people) they are less likely to put it back on again, unless a situation calls for it.

Research often shows masking is prevalent in women. But any neurodivergent individual can deliberately put a mask on. The brain is well aware of it, so it doesn’t always happen subconsciously.

woman holding a cardboard box with a drawing
Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels.com

Non-deliberate masking (subconscious)

There’s another type of masking, the one that’s more commonly seen in those without an autism diagnosis or another neurodivergent condition like ADHD.

In this situation, the individual may not even know that they are masking. That’s usually because when you’re a child or an adolescent, it’s not something one tends to think about that much. However, it starts to show in different social environments.

These social environments can include schools. You may remember that when you were a child, you enjoyed being in your own company during break times. Perhaps you made it a common practice to go to the library and engrossing yourself in reading.

If that sounds like you, you’re not alone. You might have been told by a group of friends to join in with something you didn’t necessarily enjoy. You chose to do it in order to fit in and feel part of the group. That’s non deliberate masking.

But you didn’t know it was masking.

And when you were an adult, and you recalled what you went through, you probably thought it was just you being silly. What if I told you that it was actually just a part of who you are and you didn’t express that because you were afraid of what others would think?

Perhaps you have always just wanted to pass off as a normal person, or fit in with the crowd in a social environment. But you still didn’t know you were masking.

Anyway, that’s how complex masking can be. Even though research shows that masking can be harmful to neurodivergent people in the long term, in some situations, it may feel better for an individual to mask at that particular moment/situation. So I take the research seriously, whilst always using it to apply to what happens in the real world.

Masking will differ between each individual. It’s just that the main cause is often an environment that is made inaccessible, such as a financial barrier to diagnosis, or a social barrier to establishing different relationships. That is something so complex, that research, at current, may not yet be able to fully appreciate.

Featured image credit: Photo by Olya Kobruseva Pexels photos

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PhD - Environmental Science. Aspiring research scientist. Like to blog things science, and how it affects us.

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