No matter what age you are, most people inherently feel the need to belong to something and to be accepted by society, and the same goes for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, in our case, this tends to be a little bit harder, so we tend to rely on a coping mechanism called “social masking” or camouflaging in order to keep up appearances. This can be emotionally and mentally exhausting for us, but more often than not, we feel that it is necessary in order to blend in with our colleagues and friends. Another coping mechanism that we also use is imitation, and I believe that this one is more prevalent in the teenage and young adult years, especially if you are still figuring out and finding your true self. In this post, I hope to explain both what camouflaging or social masking and what imitation is when it comes to being on the spectrum, and I hope that you will be able to glean some insight as I also reflect on my own experiences with it.
According to a research paper called “Putting on My Best Normal: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions”, camouflaging or “social masking” is defined as when one hides one’s atypical characteristics in order to appear “normal” and to be accepted by those around them. So, more often than not, when a person with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is doing this, they normally control or minimize behaviors that may be deemed inappropriate in social situations like stimming; they prepare points of topic to discuss or plot out replies in their head before saying it to their friends; or sometimes develop paritcular personas as if one is putting on a mask in front particular people. All of this behavior all adds up to trying to hide one’s true self and behaviors so that they can be looked upon as “normal” by their peers and the rest of the world.
More often than not, social masking and camouflaging is done in order to feel accepted by others, to be perceived as a functioning member of society. This is something that doesn’t really go away, because many feel the need to do this as well during job interviews and at the office so that they can not only maintain friendships, but so that they can maintain good social relationships with others, and not be discriminated against or be labelled as odd, which could be harmful as well, emotionally.
In my experience, even though I don’t really have to camouflage as much as I used to, I still do this from time to time, as it has become a coping mechanism, and a way to keep myself safe as well.
The biggest chapter of my life in which I did this a lot was when I was in high school. In order to be accepted, I didn’t really talk as much and tried to observe first before I said anything, and I remember really plotting out what I’d say or contribute to the conversation based on the topic that was being discussed at the moment. I also put up a big front, and tried to hide some of my interests that weren’t the same as my current friends’ interests in order to feel fully accepted by others. Of course, I never got rid of the interests I hid, but it did often make me feel that I was a completely different person at home and when I was interacting with like minded people online, as compared to my actual social life. However, I did it because I was afraid of not being accepted in a group of friends, as I did want friends and as I was tired of being looked upon as the “weird” one in school. Of course, it was tiring and draining, which is why it was such a relief when I could be myself at home and online.
I also did this when I was working in physical offices. I was more free to be myself when it came to my interests, but when it came to social situations, I had to put on my “game face” and try to rely on my memory bank as to how to react and adjust to particular situations, and would often plot out what I would say and how I would behave in order to keep up appearances.
Aside from this, there’s all the self-doubt and worry that comes after particular social situations when I end up replaying the social interaction in my head and endlessly worry about whether I did or said the right thing or not.
Now, social masking or camouflaging can be seen in both girls and guys, but is more prevalent with women. This is also why most women end up getting diagnosed late. We get so good at masking or camouflaging that it becomes harder to identify and diagnose us as someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Another coping mechanism that we use is mimicry or imitation. Aside from trying to hide our atypical behaviors, we tend to imitate or copy the behaviors and interests of our peers to be perceived as normal. Aside from imitating others, behaviors can also be learned and picked up from what we see and perceive as normal in media, such as tv.
Both social masking or camouflaging and mimicry or imitation are usually combined in order to give the individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) coping mechanisms and strategies to be able to survive social interactions. We also tend to go through a process of trial and error as well in which we try out certain things, and if it doesn’t work, then that particular coping strategy is scrapped.
This also becomes pretty much inherent in our system so that sometimes, I am not even aware that I am doing it until after I process things afterwards.
Now, while social masking and imitation is mentally and emotionally draining, and isn’t a positive thing as you are hiding who you really are; I do believe that there are some useful and good things you can learn and pick up, such as what behaviors are appropriate or not in certain situations. However, we shouldn’t be afraid of showing who we truly are, especially when it comes to our own interests and our own opinions about things.
I hope that this blog post helped you understand social masking/camouflaging and imitation, and in a way help you understand what we go through. If you have any more questions about this topic, let me know in the comments below; and feel free to let me know what other topics you would like me touch upon in the future!
Source: “Putting on My Best Normal: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions” by Carrie Allison, Laura Hull, Paula Smith, Simon Baron-Cohen, Meng-Chuan Lai and William Mandy, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2017