Talking about masking.
This morning I went live in my 'Katie's Classroom - Honest Parent Chat' talking about the term ‘masking’, which is something Bass, our 10 year old autistic son, does, to fit in.
Here is a little synopsis of my chat just in case you missed it:
What is masking?
Masking is put simply the act of hiding one’s true feelings or personality in order to fit in. People with autism can sometimes ‘mask’ their differences and anxieties in order to try and fit in with those around them.
I hadn't heard of the term ‘masking’ until recently when I watched Paddy McGuinness's BBC documentary ‘Our Family and Autism’, which followed his autistic twin girls and later in the programme hearing how his wife, who learned that she was autistic, had masked her entire life.
Masking is more common in girls, although many boys also present with this behaviour.
But don't we all mask?
Yes, I get it. When I first read about masking I was like: “God I always appear ok but I'm not really inside.” But autistic masking is different. Bear with!
Masking how we really feel or what our preferences really are is something we all learn to do as children. We pretend that we’re happy, when we’re actually sad, that we’re confident when we’re actually nervous, that we like something maybe more than we actually like it, so that we can fit in with the group we’re hanging out with. So yes, pretty much everyone masks at some point in their lives.
BUT for autistic brains, fitting in often requires an additional type of masking. Autistic ‘masking’ is the act of hiding your child's neurodivergence and unlike emotions that come and go (you might feel happy one day and sad the next), the way an autistic brain naturally works, isn’t something that comes and goes.
Yes, Harry (our neurotypical 8 year old child) might act like he's happy one day even though he feels unhappy inside but the next day he might act happy and be happy inside. The difference with Bass, who is neurodivergent, is that his neurodivergence doesn't come and go.
So masking is absolutely exhausting.
I read somewhere that masking for autistic children is like “having to watch every single thing that might make them seem not normal and then fix it.” How exhausting!!
Your child has to bottle who they really are up, to enable them to fit in. They are consistently and constantly making a conscious effort to behave in ways that are neurotypical even though they are neurodivergent. They have to concentrate on sitting still, making eye contact or suppressing behaviours like stimming, speaking quickly, interrupting while someone is talking to fit in - how exhausting!
I always thought Bass came out of school tired looking like death because of his dyslexia (which does make him tired) but it is also his constant need to mask.
Why do autistic children mask?
So autistic children mask essentially to conform to social pressures to avoid rejection or bullying. Children are often corrected and or even punished for ‘weird’ behaviours growing up so why wouldn't your autistic child hide his behaviours? It makes me feel very sad to think of how we parented Bass before we knew he was autistic and I'm now embarrassed to say we often said: “What's wrong with you Bass?” We often corrected Bass's behaviour. So it is no surprise he has learnt to mask.
Masking comes at a cost.
Here are some of the reasons why…
It takes up a lot of your child's working memory.
If your child is constantly having to mask, the whole process can become distracting for them. It can be hard for them to focus on what they’re trying to do, or trying to learn when they're also having to actively monitor sitting still and making eye contact and responding when it’s appropriate to respond. Masking takes up a lot of working memory so there is less chance of your child actually retaining information been given to them.
Your child can be so good at it, that they don't get the support they need.
Some children mask so well that they don’t get the level of help and support they actually need because it doesn’t seem like they need it, which can result in a delay or misdiagnosis or more difficult in getting the level of support they need after diagnosis. It can make it hard for people to believe your child is struggling. I am now convinced Bass was not deemed autistic until he was 10 years old because of his ability to mask so well!
It gives people false expectations.
Masking can set false expectations or expectations that your child can’t consistently meet, which can sometimes make people angry with them or disappointed in them.
Your child get feel quite anxious and lonely.
Masking can make your child feel lonely especially if they are constantly having to hide fundamental aspects of who they are. It is anxiety inducing because a lot of the weird and wonderful things they do are coping strategies and self-regulating mechanisms that help them to focus and/or relieve anxieties and not being able to do these things for an extended period of time is not good for them and above everything else it's exhausting for them - have I said that?!
Masking is exhausting!
Put simply masking is exhausting. I want to say this on repeat!
Your child constantly performing to keep up with the norm. Trying to do all those behaviours they do where they're pretending to be just like everybody around them so that people don’t know that they have autism.
Masking is emotionally exhausting. It takes a very heavy mental toll because your child is constantly processing things in their brain like: “OK, well how am I supposed to react to this” instead of just reacting and letting themselves react in a natural way. They have to actually think about “how’s my facial expression going to look”, “what’s my vocal tone need to be”, “what should I be doing with my hands right now” and they get to the end of the day and you’re absolutely exhausted. When you’re doing it day in and day out it takes a massive toll on their mental health.
What are our experiences of Bass and masking?
Bass is the epitome of a swan! He looks absolutely fine above the water but is peddling ferociously underwater.
I email his teacher most weeks explaining that Bass may look absolutely fine on the outside but underneath it all, he isn't and is feeling really anxious.
Bass has a piano lesson once a week and last week he was told off by his teacher for not doing his music theory. I always know when something has upset Bass. It is usually the first thing he tells me when I pick him up.
On the day it happened, the first thing he said was: “I sort of got told off today in my piano lesson. She said I was letting you and Daddy down because my lessons are very expensive and that the music theory isn't hard."
I had to swallow my anger but said: “Oh no Bass, what did you say?” Thinking/hoping he would have said sorry at least. Bass said: “I just took it.”
Once in the car, a little bit more of his anxieties came out. Children feel safest at home with their parents, so it makes sense that they feel more able to release their anxieties at home. The mask comes off!
By the time Bass was at home he was distraught. He was absolutely devastated his piano teacher was upset with him and thought ill of him. He was also extremely sorry.
I wrote an email to his teacher explaining that unfortunately the telling off had really thrown Bass and he didn't want lessons anymore. She was mortified. She said Bass had given her no idea he was upset, in fact any of her telling off had gone in, let alone upset him. I can imagine it. Bass would have stood there emotionless and expressionless and not said anything to appease the situation. He had masked all of his feelings, coupled with just wanting to get out of the awkwardness of the situation.
If Bass had cried, the teacher would have probably felt a little bit bad but she would have been able to reassure him and they would have worked through it together but there was no opportunity to do it. Bass masked all his emotions completely. He would rather never see her again than go through the awkward situation again.
We are not going to change Bass. Bass will always mask and find social situations difficult. He will probably mask throughout his whole life. So I think it is more that people who come across him to bear in mind that he might mask and able to adapt what they do to help and support him.
What can we do to support our child who mask?
1 Find a place for your child where they don’t feel like they have to mask. Find something or somewhere where they don't feel like they have to put up a front. This might be engaging in their special interest and this for Bass is video gaming. I now know that this is Bass's total switch off time and somewhere and something he can do to recharge his batteries. Video gaming does not exhaust him.
2 Give your child time where they don't have to talk.
3 Give your child time to do any activity that replenishes their batteries, whatever that might be!
4 It’s important that the school is aware of what is happening at home. Share your concerns with the school SENCO.
5 It will be helpful for school to know what makes your child anxious, and to know that your child may be experiencing significant anxiety without outwardly demonstrating this. Tools such as the Incredible 5 Point Scale can help children to show how they are feeling in the school setting.
6 Even if your child’s behaviours do not present in school, there are lots of simple strategies that the school can use to reduce anxiety, such as:
keeping things as structured and predictable as possible
using visuals to support instructions
avoiding non-literal language
giving clear warnings prior to change
There we go! That's my masking chat. I hope that was useful. I would love to hear from you. Do you think your child masks? If you know they mask, what do you do to help them? Please reply to this email and chat to me. I would absolutely love to hear from you!