There are terms used to describe the tendency for autistic people, particularly women, to try and blend in with those around them. Both “masking” and “camouflaging” are commonly used in clinical applications as well as layperson vernacular. It’s generally accepted that autistic women, more so than autistic men or neurotypical people, consciously study social interactions, behaviors, and norms (in terms of dress, voice inflection, language usage, conversation topics, even outwardly discusses interests, etc.) and then deliberately try to mimic these observations in their own lives with the explicit goal of fitting in.
I think that during early child development, children go from being very ego-centric to being aware of others and able to compare themselves to peers. For me, I started to notice that I was different from peers as young as three years old. I was painfully shy and remember watching kids jubilantly play together in preschool and wishing I was home quietly playing in my own environment, either alone or with my sisters. I used to purposely choose toys and activity corners that were less populated just to have a bit of space. However, besides feeling overwhelmed and shy, I don’t really remember feeling wholly different or weird.
By early elementary school, I started noticing that I was indeed “weird.” My interests seemed different, my ideas for pretend play were always met with mystified stares and criticism from my peers for being dumb, and it became evident to me that my brain learned differently. I was highly intelligent and easily bored, and my mind was always doing math problems in the background, even in kindergarten. The questions I had always elicited laughs among my peers or responses from teachers that it was an “interesting question” or one that “we could talk about another time.”
I continued to feel socially overwhelmed. In kindergarten, I used to pretend to be asleep at nap time, although I never once was able to sleep on that hard floor with my dinky pink panda blanket, just so that I could stay back for extended nap time with the kids actually asleep and be spared from song and story time with another kindergarten class. When we meshed the two classes, it was just so loud and overwhelming and I preferred the familiarity of my own classroom.
In first grade, my two friends were unable to speak English, so I was able to engage in parallel play or “partner” learning activities individually instead of having to verbally interact with others.
My behavior in school was somewhat problematic, despite being introverted. I have ADHD, and the hyperactivity component seemed especially unbridled in the first few years of elementary school when I was overly bored and unchallenged by what we were learning. With two older sisters and parents who encouraged reading, writing, math, and critical inquiry skills, I had previously mastered much of what was covered in class. This left me disengaged and apt to struggle sitting still and remaining quiet. Especially in first, second, and third grades, daily scolding and punishment from the teacher for distracting behavior was the norm.
The disparity between myself and my peers increased throughout elementary school, particularly regarding appearance (dress), interests, social skills, and thinking styles. Moreover, my awareness of how much I stuck out grew exponentially. I felt weirder and weirder and increasingly assigned a negative quality to being different.
In fifth grade, I started getting bullied by another girl in my class when I started trying to befriend the girls in my class who were essentially bonded in one large clique. I knew several of them from earlier years of school, but was not one of the anointed members of the clique. They were all much closer to one another than any were to me. Because I always found myself without a partner when our teacher said to “find a partner” and I felt lonely during all free time, I genuinely wanted to be accepted into the group and feel like one of them.
Unfortunately, I looked like everyone’s younger sister, dressed like a 6-year-old, wanted to play “mad scientist” and “analyze algae on the playground” instead of whatever more girlie games and topics of conversation I “should” have been into, and loved the learning parts of school and hated the “specials,” lunch, etc. Moreover, I hated spontaneity (even things that should have been fun like field trips or cupcakes brought in for someone’s birthday), missed all the jokes and fifth-grade-appropriate “pop culture” references, and had zero interest in boys, fashion, shopping, magazines, or the “excitement” of growing up enough to do things like wear makeup and go on dates.
One girl started to tease me a lot, mainly about how I dressed and what I liked to talk about (things like rocks and minerals, inventions, and patterns in math and nature). It became increasingly aggressive and hostile, yet I never reported it to my parents or the teacher. It finally came to a head when she came in to the bathroom after me, slid under my stall door, and put me in a headlock and called me a “weirdo” and “baby with pictures on my underwear.” I did report that to my teacher, but all she did was pull us both aside with the “helpful advice” that we needed to get along and be nice to one another.
It was around this age that my clinical depression (which I have yet to shake) first set in. My self-esteem plummeted. Additionally, my eating disorder began. I’ve analyzed its genesis extensively at this point and while certainly multifactorial, I believe one major impetus was wanting to have some control over my life and my body and mind. As my wholehearted attempts to fit in were evermore failures, and I was rejected by peers, I desperately wanted to find something I could control and succeed at. It’s likely that in my immature ten-year-old mind, which lacked the common sense I now have, part of me also thought that if I could change something about what I did (my eating patterns), I could change who I was and become my likable.
My feeling of “differentness” and nearly primal need to fit in and be accepted escalated the older I got, especially through the pre-teen, adolescent years, and college days. Like many autistic women, I studied the patterns in language, social interactions, conversation topics, societal expectations, etc. of females in my peer group and did my best to conform, both to enjoy the benefits of feeling accepted and like I had friends and to ease the pain of feeling like a rejected outsider. This deliberate effort, called camouflaging, is exhausting because it’s a constant process; you can never let your guard down or your weirdness will be exposed, putting you at risk to be ridiculed or ousted from the group you’ve so precariously tried to weasel your way into.
I see the camouflaging as trying to blend in, like prey in the environmental surroundings, whereas masking is more centered around covering up who you really are—hiding your true colors around a more socially-acceptable front. Camouflaging is trying to be more like others, while masking is hiding yourself. I think you can “mask,” and still isolate yourself, while camouflaging involves a component of actively working to mimic those around you. Both are energy-depleting, taking massive amounts of continuous mental effort, and anxiety-provoking because you’re constantly worried you’ll slip up and “forget your lines” or commit a social faux pas, or allow some of your authentic self (the “weirdo” parts) to shine through. It really is much like having to put on a costume or mask when you leave your house for the day and play a foreign character all day, every day. What’s more, there’s usually a different “character” for each situation or peer group with whom you interact, depending on how specific you’ve been in your critical analysis of those around you and the blatant and nuanced differences between the various people you interact with. Both masking and camouflaging also completely sabotage your self-esteem, leading to tremendous depression, feeling less than, and feeling broken.
Eventually, these concerted efforts become so debilitating in their suck of energy, spirit, and ability to simultaneously carry on other tasks to function in society. The masks come off; the carefully developed camouflaging adaptations are shed. It’s scary, and I’ve found in my own life, it can lead to loneliness and isolation. However, it can also lead to the eventual development of some degree of self-compassion and acceptance. It also exposes who true friends are and allows you to begin taking steps toward feeling better physically, mentally, and in your heart.