Camouflaging, also commonly known as masking, is a concept that many people outside of the autism community are often unaware of, even if they regularly interact with those who are autistic. And, because it affects how people exist each day, it’s worth taking a moment to provide an overview of autistic camouflaging and its costs.
What is camouflaging?
Hull & Mandy (2019) describe camouflaging as an autistic person forcing themselves to appear "normal" by:
compensating: finding ways around tasks and situations that might otherwise be challenging, like forcing eye contact when it's uncomfortable or even faking it by looking at the spot between the eyes;
masking: hiding aspects of their autism, like trying not to engage in repetitive behaviors, known as stimming, (or stimming more discretely); and
assimilating: copying others to fit in with the current environment and group, like playing next to another child or responding to an impromptu conversation in line.
While these terms are often used interchangeably in conversation (most notably masking) as they all describe the actions autistic people take to "blend in," the person's motivations define into which category the action falls.
Camouflaging takes different forms for each person, and it's not just "being polite" or "faking it 'til you make it." It is similar to an introvert pretending to be an extrovert or a retail worker putting on their 'customer service' persona to help a customer. This social camouflage is something autistic people build and maintain throughout the day and isn’t something that can be switched off at will.
Mimicking neurotypical behavior is exhausting, and camouflaging for days or weeks at a time takes a significant toll on an autistic person. Individuals who camouflage for too long can face autistic burnout, characterized by loss of energy, loss of interest, depression, and other health issues, both mental and physical. Children in school who camouflage during the school day have their attention unevenly split between camouflaging and learning. Recovering from burnout takes time and can even lead to meltdowns or shutdowns.
So why camouflage?
Kids often want to blend in at school to avoid bullying or getting in trouble with teachers for being disruptive. Adults may want to be accepted socially or to succeed at work. Most autistic people generally camouflage to blend in or avoid unwanted attention or stigma. They fear what might happen if they do not censor their behavior around those unaware of their diagnosis.
With the history of society's mistreatment of autistic individuals in some situations coupled with people's individual experiences, autistic people often use camouflaging as a purely defensive measure.
Autistic fatigue is a term coined by autistic adults to describe some of the negative things that happen when the pressure of competing expectations and managing sensory inputs becomes overwhelming. It can also lead to more severe presentations, such as meltdowns, shutdowns, and burnout.
A meltdown is the result of continual sensory overload and stress with no way or time to recover. All the pressure from trying to fit in builds until it cannot be bottled up and is finally expressed. A combination of excess energy and stress must be released to relieve the pressure. When camouflaging for excessive amounts of time, the pressure can finally overwhelm a person. Children are especially susceptible to meltdowns.
Shutdowns differ in that they occur when sensory overload and stress become too much for an autistic person to handle. As a result, they become exhausted and may be unresponsive or speak very little. All that energy that would have been building with sensory overload is instead spent continuing to function. The result can be regression, where an individual may become non-verbal or otherwise unable to act in ways they otherwise could. In addition, the energy an autistic person uses to camouflage can, over time, wear away at the sensory reserves that person has and cause them to revert inward so as not to engage with the outside world for a time.
A shutdown is very much internalized, while meltdowns are an external response.
Autistic burnout is an extreme version of both, all at once, over the course of a few days or even weeks. It is the complete exhaustion of all social or emotional energy coupled with depression, anxiety, and stress. The only thing that seems to help with autistic burnout is getting enough rest to reset.
Unfortunately, getting that rest is often a nearly impossible task, especially with autistic adults who may have to camouflage daily for work or personal reasons.
Is there a balance?
For some autistic people, camouflaging may be essential to some degree to smooth daily interactions. Hence, finding a balance where there is time daily to be free to exist in comfort is essential. For example, reserving time daily to stim without suppression could counteract the necessity of masking that behavior the rest of the day.
But it might also be beneficial to set reasonable expectations. For example, if a person finds it challenging to camouflage all day without the negative repercussions of autistic fatigue, it may be beneficial to discuss more appropriate expectations with a manager or team lead. Some suggestions might be moving a desk to a less busy corner of the office or rearranging schedules to have time unpacking merchandise in the stockroom as a break from customer interactions.
For autistic children in school, arranging to have lunch with a teacher in an empty classroom might provide a needed break during the day, or even sitting in the back of the classroom, so they don’t feel other students are focused on them.
There can absolutely be harmony between the necessity of camouflaging and finding time to relax into more comfortable states. Open communication with teachers and managers about aligning expectations is the best way to find that balance.