Everyone, of every neurotype, masks to some degree. Masking, as you might already realise, is where we hide a multitude of our authentic traits, behaviours and needs in order to blend in with those around us. Instead we act, we perform, we attempt to blend, to fit in, and seem less different. But only on the outside.

Here are some examples of short-term masking that I suspect could be applied to anyone, across the whole of neurodiversity (that’s every unique person in the world):

Anyone whose ever spent time with their in-laws and concentrates really hard on toning down their language for the whole visit!

Anyone who has been for a job interview.

Anyone who posts on social media saying how great their life is, when they’re actually feeling absolutely rubbish.

Anyone who puts on an uncomfortable outfit for a night out with friends.

Anyone who drinks too much on a night out, because that’s what you’re supposed to do to ‘have fun’, and you don’t want to come across as a party pooper.

All of these and endless others are forms of masking that everyone, everywhere, does at some point in their lives. We adapt who we seem to be, in order to fit in, socially and in the workplace.

That’s fine, in the short-term. The problem for neurodivergent people is that we find ourselves having to do this for such a large proportion of the time, for fear of being considered ‘odd’ or ‘weird’, in order to keep our jobs and relationships intact, that it takes us a huge amount of energy – day in, day out.

Bearing in mind that we start masking as young children, over time this takes an unbrearable toll on our mental health. Masking alone can cause really serious mental health problems, it leads to emotional dysregulation in the form of meltdowns, shutdowns and burnout. It causes depression, increased anxiety and stress, leads to unemployment and social isolation. And the worst part is that we can’t tell anyone. In fact, we probably haven’t even been aware that we’re doing it at all, until either our mental health takes yet another dive and all of the pretence has to stop (very commonly as we age) or until we read about masking, maybe post-diagnosis, and recognise that this is what we do.

It’s not our faults that we mask, not at all. In many situations it seems to be the only way we can get by to function as a passing neurotypical, to earn a living, make friends, keep friends, keep family, get through a medical appointment etc. We may even look at others around us and, at times, crave just to be like them, those people who seem to move through the world so effortlessly.

Sometimes just knowing that we’re going to don that mask for a little while can make the whole thing easier, knowing we can come home and be ourselves again, after that brief period. It’s still exhausting, it still costs us valuable spoons and the less we can get away with doing it, the more authentically we can live our lives and the more energy we’ll have to do the things that give us joy!

An important point on masking: the better we are at it, the less likely we are to be identified as in need of support. So, this social survival mechanism, doesn’t just exhaust us, it doesn’t only force us to live in perpetual exhaustion and stress, it is actually depriving us of even discovering our true identities, and finding our communities. It’s also preventing those who may support us in the medical profession, in education, at work etc, from being able to do so – we’re such great actors we’re fooling everyone, even ourselves.

Here’s an interesting article from an autistic woman, Dr Hannah Belcher. She has also written a book called Taking off the Mask. Her book offers practical ways to deal with camouflaging. It’s still on my shelf, unread, at the moment, but I will leave a review in our women’s community casual book club when I have.