Picture by Elif Dilara Bora on UnsplashMasking, also known as camouflaging, in its most basic form is covering up our traits and behaviours in order to fit in, and/or to take on behaviours deemed as more socially acceptable or advantageous. But don’t we all do this to a certain extent?  Certainly one might suggest we all ‘fake it’ to some extent, to impress a date or in job interviews. Perhaps we keep some opinions to ourselves in certain company, or maybe we dress a certain way for specific events.

The main difference between neurotypical fitting in and autistic masking is the time spent on it and the impact of the effect

Whereas some neurotypicals might rein it in now and again or keep up a little pretence, those on the spectrum sometimes fake their whole life!  Women on the spectrum in particular are expert in camouflaging, often more so than men - with the consequence that they often remain undiagnosed. Having assisted a PhD student with their thesis on camouflaging in women, I realised just how wide the gender disparity is and how common the issue is in women and girls. It is still more socially acceptable for men and boys to embrace their inner ‘nerd’ and act out all their weird and wonderful idiosyncrasies.

Girls are encouraged to replicate entire fashion or make up looks and mimic ways of being. Whilst this is not specific to autism, it is more about masking in order to fit in for those on the spectrum rather than a trend or rites of passage.

Of course, this can be quite fun! Dressing a certain way, assuming an accent or copying behaviour can be harmless fun and if it doesn’t affect you negatively there is no cause for concern. While professional actors can finish a play or a film and cast off their character, for autistic people this is a lifelong practice, and it can be exhausting. Autism ‘burn out’ can be detrimental in the long term.

While masking manifests in a myriad of ways which impact our relationships and how we evolve and mature, our perception of normal can be stretched to its limits when at work.

A person who is masking scripts and plans for a situation, rehearses entire ways of being in a specific scenario and curates just the right appearance to fit in or fulfil an idea of how to appear. So imagine if one had to mask every day for work. The constant suppression of behaviours, opinions and one’s very essence can not only cause burn out but result in long term depression, physical illness and unemployment.

This impact can shape the life of autistic person and affect earnings and career prospects which affect one’s overall sense of value and worth

It is through the world of work that many adults, perhaps especially those who were not diagnosed as children, really feel the full jarring effect of their autism. Obvious triggers such as workplace sensory stimulants can force masking, as an individual absorbs and stores up the negative experiences. But what also of the social requirements at work to fit in or progress, navigating the banter, and the ‘team building’? Or the confusion caused at what is considered common work practices which seem inefficient or ridiculous to a meticulous, ordered autistic mind.

One might assume in a post-Covid remote working environment that autistic people may find it easier to be themselves, no longer constrained with autistic unfriendly workplaces and neurotypical colleagues. For many, this is the scenario they have long fantasised about. Yet, it is often the way in which work is structured which can be perplexing and alienating.

I learnt the hard way that honesty is not always the best policy, where a direct blunt approach calling out bad practices or nonsensical modes of work is often seen as odd where reverential fakery is the acceptable way to fit in. Suppressing thoughts, ideas and feelings takes its toll.

Having worked in so called stressful workplaces, I have found not the responsibilities or fast pace the problem, but the mindless mundane nature of much of work life and banter, which pushes me to my limits

If our voice is stifled, our truth becomes compromised and we are not our authentic selves. The roles we assume become permanent, perhaps we change our persona altogether. For people who have been late diagnosed or not at all, our entire lives are distorted and when we begin to repair the damage from constant conforming it can be devastating. This is of course worst-case scenario.

When I look back at the jobs I have had it is with an air of objective bewilderment. How did I last that long? What was I thinking? Was that job the real me? These questions seldom have an answer and I accept it as my history. With a diagnosis either late in life or as a child, we can feel empowered to be ourselves and live an authentic life as the best version of ourselves.

While neurotypicals may sometimes ‘fake it to make it’, we should in theory all be living the best versions of ourselves.  There will always be unconscious bias and as humans we will always prefer certain people over others. This is natural. In the workplace, there is no easy solution.

Better understanding for autistic people is one answer. When we are empowered individuals, knowing our limitations and aware of our skillsets we can conquer any problem. In a climate of increased awareness of neurodiversity and greater desire to recruit people on the spectrum, more empowerment will ensue. With a diagnosis either late in life or as a child, we can feel empowered to be ourselves and live an authentic life as the best version of ourselves.

Whether we disclose is not the issue, but the ability to be ourselves without question is non-negotiable. For all humans, in all aspects of society, a greater acceptance of our individuality is paramount. An autistic friendly environment is a friendly environment for all. When all humans can be free to be themselves, then that is an inclusive, diverse and civilised society.  

For employers and workplaces, more training and awareness is necessary

Charlotte Sabel

October 2021