Today, the topic is camouflaging and masking. Next session is on special interests. We have been assigned to have a think about what we want to talk about. Is there a qualification for it to count as a "special interest"? No. Just our special interest, whatever it might be. Whatever. Whenever. Wherever. Whatever it is that we are into. Free reign.
In the literature, there are slight variations in the definitions between "masking", "compensation" and "camouflaging". Those are the 3 terms that are used most within the literature on autism and camouflaging. There is a slight difference in the definitions between those. In terms of what people talk about, people talk about "masking" a lot. However, the underlying base concept is the same.
Goffman's (1959) impression management theory is one of the most well-known theories in identity performances. Goffman argued that individuals present the self based on the perceived audience in their front stage. Identity presentations are constructed and prepared through the backstage.
In terms of the background to this and the psychological theory. From the 1950s, there was a theory on impression management. At the time, it was quite revolutionary. Goffman came up with this whole metaphor that we put on identities and we perform. Metaphor of life being a stage. We perform based on the perceived audience and we present ourselves facing before them. We prepare backstage. We perform. There are different identities that we put on for the audience. The point is that humans can change, manipulate or vary their behaviour and presentation depending who they are with and who they are seen by. This theory was the first time that this idea was put across in clear way. Since then, there have been various interpretations such as a "social management theory". However, this is the basic foundation theory.
The idea originated in 7000BC in ritual settings. These were the first masks. Masks have been part of human interaction for 1000s of years.
For most people, whether autistic or non-autistic, neurodiverse or neurotypical, there is a modification in behaviour depending on who we are with. For autistic people, there is a stark difference both in terms of intensity and stressfulness. It is a different experience in terms of specificity. There is an aspect of hiding / suppressing. There is a perception of something not going to be accepted. This is potentially more stressfull. This tendency manifests not only in acting more gregarious, but also adopting more hiding behaviours and non-autistic social behaviours. The experience of autistic people is not the same as that of a non-autistic person, for example, having to act polite around their boss. It can feel way more intense, complicated and sophisticated. It is important to recognise this. There is a difference and an increased stressfulness.
Not an extensive / full list at all.
Learning scripts of what to say: preparing in advance, saying this or that. Copying / mimicking other people or famous people: copying the way that they something or the way that they move their body to look "non-autistic". Having a rubric, a flow chart, an algorithm. If someone asks me how I am, I might have a set of prepared responses at the ready. Having a learned, structured way of socially interacting in that setting. There may be a pressure to give someone eye contact. A tendency to do it intentionally even though someone does not want to. Stopping yourself from talking about certain interests. Particular words or ways of language. Dialling it down (not acting "intense"). Some people might not understand it. Stopping yourself from doing something. Ideally, you would like to do that something but you are mindful of the people around you.
Not expected to stare or make eye contact whenever someone is speaking to you. It can be quite intense and unnerving for the other person. When I was younger (child / adolescent), I was often called out for staring at people and told that it was "rude to stare". During a saxophone masterclass / workshop at the RNCM, I received some feedback that I was staring too much at the audience and that it was sensory overload. I was supposed to focus my eyes on a point just above the audience. Outside an educational setting, I found that no one ever told me to stare or not to stare because they were too polite. This, in itself, manifested in a reverse camouflage where a person might think that the other person might not take the non-staring rule too well. Therefore, they choose to not say anything for fear of offending or upsetting the other person. Camouflage can work by way of rebound and reflection. Often, certain behaviours (like not to stare) are not taught. One is expected to pick it up and know it. For some people, these rules and expectations do not come naturally.
Some non-autistic people can find certain settings and interactions intense without even having to deal with the stuff that autistic people have to cope with.
What is masking? Hiding...feeling anxious hiding something, not showing it. Trying not to go...withdrawing or covering something up. Hide...compensating for sensory differences. Bottling...can lead to burnout and sensory overwhelming.
Camouflaging can be conscious or unconscious, Some people did not realise how much of a performance that they were putting on until after diagnosis, reflecting and unpicking it all. They end up consciously forcing themselves to look / not look at someone, or stopping themselves from talking about particular interests. This conscious process becomes a subconscious process. Subconsciously adopting ways of thinking over a number of years. Under the surface, working hard without being aware of it consciously. People talk about when they were younger like 5, 6, 7, 8, remembering “I need to learn how to do this” such as something socially at school. Needing to figure out what was going on. Learning until become automatic.
This process can be conscious. Consciously asking about someone’s holiday or the weather. It can be a mixture of both, some stuff conscious, some stuff unconscious (can be automatic). Example of attending a social event and coming back thinking "I am knackered!" Reflecting how I had to be animated with my face or talking about stuff that I am not necessarily interested in. Reflecting that there was a lot of masking. I cannot be quite sure what the process is of becoming conscious or unconscious.
Example of musicians. Sometimes, I have bumped into a musician with whom I studied at university / RNCM. The experience can feel quite intense. Invariably, they ask "are you still playing?" I mirror their behaviour by grinning and laughing yes. They seem to be dancing on their toes as they are saying this. The experience feels forced, contrived, fake, irrelevant and somewhat awkward. They are practically jogging on the spot: "are you still playing?" 😅
Example of adopting micro-personas depending on what situation / environment I find myself in and what role I am playing within that setting / context. Docile, homely, West Country "ice cream" persona for acting as a freelance musician or in a relationship. Relaxed, casual, tranquil yet imperfect Emo / "studio persona" when working within the data team. This is something that helps me to adapt. It is something that I have become good at through being forced to do it. It has become natural.
Compensation can be talked about on 2 levels.
Aspects of compensation form part of camouflaging (like holding back what I really felt like saying to her). But camouflaging can also involve superficial things like eye contact or changing physical appearance. There are a lot of semantics going on in this, which academic people love. What is useful in this is the highlighting of complexities and nuances in the ways in which autistic people talk about how they manage their interactions with other people. It is nuanced and varied depending on what camouflaging methods people use and how they use them and how they use them depending on the person and their lifestyle.
And what else?
There is not much research on this. It is really to develop a deep understanding and be in an environment where you can talk, reflect and build up knowledge about how to deal with it.
CAT-Q = Camouflaging Autistic Traits questionnaire. The LGBTQI Autism Group facilitator has an online link to try the test for myself. It might be interesting to go through it and see what they say. Although she does not think that the CAT-Q test is the most accurate. There is a more accurate one and she will see if she can find it for us.
The CAT-Q test is done with both autistic and non-autistic populations. Interestingly, in non-autistic populations (although more data is needed), people who identify as women or non-binary camouflage less than men. In autistic populations, generally, women and non-binary people camouflage more. There is not a massive difference. We need more info and repeated studies.
Reasons to camouflage
Specifically trying to hide autism can be a conscious choice, or it might not be. Someone might feel quite happy for people to know about their autism but still camouflage in certain situations. This is an important point. People can say "yes, we are autistic friendly here". And they might appear "autistic friendly" to the name and label. But they can still not act friendly towards the traits themselves. Like "you can be autistic, but look me in the eye". Like "it is not a problem that you have XYZ and need to take time off work but actually you do need to do XYZ, come into work and perform in a certain way." In a family, someone can be expected to fulfil a certain role, like caring in social situations or performing social functions. Reason to camouflage comes not only from the expectation to fulfil the pressure from society but also from people who are in your world.
Example of work. I play down my autism as much as possible so as not to cause a fuss. I have disclosed about it early on. People already know. I camouflage / mitigate because I am aware of other people's needs (e.g., having everything in writing takes considerable time for many people). I am aware of how much people want to accommodate my autism and help me. In return, I want to help them. I want to compromise as much as possible. Example of a 6-person meeting. We were discussing interrelated, complex issues. I did not want to participate in the discussion (a lot of it was management of tasks). I was nominated as a scribe to take notes. This plays to my strengths and enables me to help them as much as they help me (in my need for everything to be in writing, I become the one who puts everything in writing). Autistic people are often aware of other people's needs. There is invariably a misunderstanding that they are oblivious. There is a classic "lack of awareness" misinterpretation / not being unaware but wanting to be helpful. Getting the balance between wanting them to be aware and wanting them to be helpful / accommodating of my difficulties. Example of my dad stressing that I need to ask people about what they are doing when I expressed how exhausting it was to do this yet how conscientious I was putting in the effort to do this. There was a presumption that I was not doing this already!
The impact can be physically, mentally and emotionally tiring and exhausting. Apart from that, there is not much research into the effects. Meltdowns: afterwards there can be a feeling of exhaustion where the person ends up shutting down for a bit. A lot of people talk about a "busy", sociable couple of days in which they have hidden some of their traits or worked hard to engage. They go through a shutdown. Example of having to lie down in a darkened room. Exhaustion can result in not only anxiety but also depression. Although that is a confusing picture. In some research, it says that exhaustion can be linked to depression (but this is not necessarily the case). A loss of self, ending up camouflaging so much that they feel unsure of who they are. This has come up before. Particularly when they get their diagnosis, they can think "wow, I have been doing a lot of camouflaging! What does this mean about who I am?" It can result in a bit of self-reflection. On the other hand, people can find camouflaging useful for work. There is a benefit to it, a practical use and an advantage.
How to build a connection (personal, professional or otherwise) if you fake it? Should one fake it 'til you make it? This is an excellent point. The LGBTQI Autism Group facilitator has been talking to people about this a lot. Initially, the research talks about how helpful camouflaging can be to build up a connection. However, what people talk about is a feeling whereby one is camouflaging and getting to know someone. Subsequently, there is a dilemma of what to do once it reaches a certain level. Either stop camouflaging, genuinely be myself and connect on a deeper level. Or hit a relational ceiling and continue to suppress. There is a point about becoming more authentic and potentially risking the relationship. There is a dilemma about this. In theory, a "good" person should obviously act welcoming, lovely and warm. In reality, there is a dilemma when it comes to finding authenticity.
Camouflaging and masking takes a lot of effort. One cannot always get right. They might be perceived as "deceitful". They might not be read the right way. If one tries it and you get it wrong, one can come across as acting deceitful which not necessarily the case. People worry about acting deceitful more than not acting authentic. How does that work? As camouflaged has become talked about more in the wider world, there is a worry that people can think that one is lying and not wanting to be deceitful. This is a good point. People have talked about exactly that worry.
If you do camouflage or mask, is there a difference between the people you do it with and the people you do not do it with? People who know you might be helping with the "unmasking" process. They know that you are going through the "unmasking" process anyway. They make it easier for you. They become part of that unmasking process, making it easier to unpick. This can form the basis of a solid friendship or relationship.
Are there variations with whom you mask and with whom you do not mask, who I have disclosed to and who I have not disclosed to? There is not such a need to mask with people to whom I have disclosed. With those to whom I have not disclosed, I mask more. If I disclose to someone more accepting, I feel safe, not having to worry as much as I would with the general population.
Friends who have stuck around for years notice, respect and appreciate the sensitivities that I have (like my rigidity of needing to stick to the plan, following through and having everything a certain way). Other people have not stuck around. They might not have expressed a dissatisfaction with those sensitivities. They simply disappeared from my life or circle of friends. They did not understand me. It is a question of people's tolerance. Unfortunately, sometimes people are not tolerant to the ways in which my sensitivities manifest themselves.
Overall, camouflaging can happen across genders. Some of the data suggests that this spread is even. There is more evidence to suggest that females and non-binary people camouflage more.
Generally, what is reflected in the statistics (in terms of social expectation): it may be that women are stereotypically more socially engaged and undertake more social activities. Maybe autistic women do more "work" to keep up with the heightened social expectations, act "chatty", talk about care etc. However, this is a generalisation. Camouflaging is definitely seen across genders.
What about learning disabilities? All of the camouflage research is done on individuals who are autistic / have autism but might not have a moderate intellectual learning disability. The definition of masking involves a conscious cognitive accommodation. At the moment, there is not enough research on it. There is a theory that people who have learning disabilities camouflage as well. Maybe there is a behavioural difference, for example, putting hands in pockets rather than on skin. The algorithm requires more mental processing.
A couple of questions / points:
Camouflaging is Intersectional
Camouflaging is intersectional (religion etc.). A lot of people might camouflage autism in conjunction with their sexuality, gender, ethnicity, disability, religion, dyslexia, ADHD, chronic fatigue or anything else or any combination of the above attributes. For example, camouflaging autism can be hiding / suppressing specific autistic traits. This links in with who we are (how we perceive ourselves) and how we are trying to change / adapt ourselves. Non-binary and gender queer people are often not only camouflaging their autism but also trying to "be" more masculine or feminine in order to fit in with a social situation. This can feel complicated and intense. Often, it is a mix of diagnoses and many neurodiverse people have mixed / multiple diagnoses. The above attributes can affect one another. Certain aspects of camouflaging may not be possible because there are other attributes present that affect it.
Life is difficult. That is the truth!
Example of being in a church. I do not admit how much men can be a trigger for me because I am aware of what I say and try to moderate it.
Web diagram. I love this graphic. Labelling stands out as different. The power that is involved. The fact that as an autistic person, there can be a lack of power. People can feel stereotyped and excluded. Camouflaging can function as a way of being avoided, mis-labelled or left out and trying to be included. The sensations that dealing with those aspects can throw up due to social stigma.
Camouflaging seems to change over time. I am not sure how. Some people talk about how they camouflage more as they grow older because social situations become more complicated. Kids can get away with stuff. Adults cannot. Some people talk about camouflage less with age. They say "sod it, I am just going to do what I am going to do". A couple of examples from work. Madeleine is a retired receptionist who comes back to visit the office every week to see people. She said to e that when she was my age, she used to act diplomatic, kind and caring. But as she grew older, she adopted more of a "fuck off" attitude. She explained to me that she had several run-ins with HR because she needed to "tone down" her language and behaviour. And she fell out with some of the younger stuff because there was a culture of society getting offended and upset over anything. Reacting disproportionately. My line manager once said to me that the older she grew, the more she learned about caring less. This is about embracing individuality (not in a mean way). I was about to suggest the rude granny from the Catherine Tate sketches but something in more of a positive light.
On the other hand, camouflaging can happen more with age. Stakes become higher and with promotion and ascension into higher positions of power, there can develop an increased responsibility and need for personal regulation via camouflaging. The stuff one got away with as a kid cannot be gone away with anymore. For example, one cannot talk about their obsessions when they are in a board meeting. It depends on people's families and work situations. Some people can act extremely guarded at work but let down their guard when they are at home. They adapt according to different situations.
The home environment. When young, the family can be accepting and nurturing. This is great. But when they are not, masking is something that can happen early on as a child. When older and more out of a family situation, there is more opportunity to be less restricted. This is not a linear process. It is not necessarily changeable according to age. There are a range of factors.
What are the norms? These could be a combination of factors like growing older and securing higher positions at work. Or living up to certain standards and impressing superiors. Social environments change according to situations. Acceptance of "norms" fluctuates at different stages.
When you are retired, you can do what you like, no? Theoretically, you are not having to fulfil obligations. Arguably, in your social sphere, friends and family might have a set of expectations or clear-cut rules about how to behave. Intersectionality comes in, particularly social or religious backgrounds with defined norms.
Have we had experiences of feeling overwhelmed by choice? In my behaviour, there has been an element of not wanting to bother people, wanting to help them and not acting too much of a pain, wanting to be part of a social group. You use it in that way for that as well. It can be a bit difficult. Recently, I realised that I am autistic and I do certain things differently. There is a lot of ambivalence and dilemma about that. Maybe I cannot behave in that way or be involved in a certain social group. It makes life complicated. I also realised that, having told them about my autism, there is an almost patronising want to help. The term benevolent sexism, can this apply to benevolent ableism? Patronising statements like "you are here, should we turn the lights down?" While the intention is pure and thoughtful, it can make one feel uncomfortable because it is an opposite extreme. The benevolent thing is such a key behaviour that society needs to work on. Rather than acting totalistic, it is intended in a positive way. But it is not effectively helping or giving a sense of power or recognition to the person with those attributes. It can be tricky when someone is not accustomed to engaging with it and slips into those modes.
What do I do? I camouflage partly because it helps others. It is totally individual. There should be no judgement about whether or not I choose to camouflage in any situation. Am I going to adapt or not? There are pros and cons whichever way. Is there an advantage / purpose or not? There is no pressure whichever way. Should I choose to take the mask off? In the same way as coming out about gender and sexuality? It should be fine whichever way without a pressure or judgement one way or the other. What feels right to me? What is my experience of this? It is complicated. There are many dynamics at play. It is useful to think about it and what it means to me. It is important to recognise when "unmasking" has a negative impact leading to a conscious choose to leave it out. I choose to deploy when I wish. I love that empowering statement. It is a person’s agency to use it when they want. AND if they struggling with it and it is not their "jam", that is equally cool. Because a lot of people do struggle with coming out. It is about adjusting to neurodiversity / sexuality as well as disability and ethnicity and how the world accommodates these attributes. It is an individual choice but equally the world needs to get better at accommodating personal choice, too.
Getting the world to adapt instead
Pretty much every single thing I do when in public is so nobody thinks I’m weird. I’ll probably always alter my behavior, because it’s easier over time. Because if I didn’t, I likely wouldn’t have the career or life that I have now. (Vanessa https://www.healthline.com/health/autism/how-women-camouflage-autism#1)
Example of my parents and a generational generalisation. They focus on society's impression of me and how other people might see me. Repeatedly, I emphasise that the most important relationship that I will ever have in life is with myself. It is about how I perceive myself. This is the important relationship that must be safeguarded. I do not know if this is a generalisation / generational trend. Since there is a lot more research and education about equality and discrimination now that there was when my parents were growing up.
No matter how much I have tried to change myself (and show others that I am willing to change and adapt): I will never be able to change who I am fundamentally, at the root. However, I may be able to tweak or adapt what is at the stalks. There is a majority vs. minority issue as well. If part of a majority, it is hard to appreciate what it is like to be part of a minority. Like "come on, it is not that hard, get with the programme". There is a constant experience of having to adjust oneself. Especially when it comes to issues about gender, sexuality and cognition.
Example of my previous manager. I clearly delineated to him what was going on inside my mind when faced with a barrage of verbal information and instructions. His response was "I cannot say that this is something that I have ever experienced, can relate to or can accommodate". There is a shuttered mind and an inclination to disengage.
Read More: 06/02/2020
For many autistic people, it is sometimes easier to retreat into a shell and camouflage because it feels safer.
Camouflaging can be miscalculated and done in the wrong way. However, the advantage of this is that at least one has shown a willingness to try. It is all about the intention. The motives were pure, thoughtful and considerate. Even if we do it in the wrong way, at least people are not attacking. The above mentioned micro-personas can function like little robots that I have programmed or puppets on strings that I have fashioned. These micro-personas act as a strategy and a mechanism by which I can maintain a healthy internal dialogue with myself whilst simultaneously performing the job or role at hand. It acts like a suit of armour when I am going out to battle.
Next month, we are focusing on special interests. Reminder for the next time. Email the LGBTQI Autism Group facilitator with what I would like to talk about and how long I would like to speak. She will put together a little programme and divide everyone up fairly. She is looking forward to hearing about our special interests!
LGBTQI Autism Group
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I have been recommended to acknowledge and process all that I have been though, where it all started from how it has affected me.