Autistic Teens and Masking

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Autism: A New Perspective
Autistic Teens and Masking

Masking for autistic individuals means they always have to be thinking about how they are presenting to the world around them. You have to make external presentation such that the people around you feel comfortable. 

Now, we all mask to some extent. If you’re at a job interview, you are going to be presenting a version of yourself that you think your potential employer wants to see in you but autistic people have to do that all the time. 

When they’re out in the world and interacting with others, they are always having to think really hard about how they come across to people and how people are reacting to them.

Letting go of masking is when you are able to understand that you don’t have to present a version of yourself that is at odds with who you are. 

Dr. Sarah Wayland talks about autism and masking, specifically for teens or young adults in this episode of the RDIconnect® podcast, Autism: A New Perspective.

Autism: A New Perspective is Available on iTunes!

Full Transcript

Kat Lee: Welcome back to Autism: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child. And we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee, and in this special podcast, we talk to Dr. Sarah Wayland about autism and masking. Let’s listen in.

Kat Lee: It’s my pleasure to visit Dr. Sarah Wayland. I’m going to visit with her about such an important topic, masking and autism. And Sarah, you have written a book recently that we also wanna talk about where you dedicate, I think, a chapter to this subject. So we are so grateful that you joined us to visit with us.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: Yeah, I’m so happy to be here, and I’m excited to talk about this incredibly important topic that most autistic people definitely have to navigate.

Kat Lee: Let’s just start with the basics. Can you explain to us what masking or camouflaging is? 

Dr. Sarah Wayland: So, what it means is basically thinking about how you are presenting to the world around you. Right? Your external presentation is such that the people around you are feeling comfortable, okay? We all mask to some extent. So, for example, if you’re at a job interview, you are going to be presenting a version of yourself that you think your employer, potential employer wants to see in you, right? And so you’re answering all the questions and giving them answers that are the answers you think they want to have. So, autistic people have to do that all the time, right? When they’re out in the world, they interacting with somebody who’s not autistic. And sometimes even other autistic people, they are having to think really hard about how they come across to those people and how those people are reacting to them.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: And so sometimes they realize, I’ll just use an example. Some autistic people have a very blunt communication style, and so they’ll just say what they see and they don’t sugarcoat it or whatever, and that’s the way they communicate. But they’ve realized that if you do that, then people get offended and they get mad at you. And so they’ve learned, okay, if I have something I need to say, I need to sugarcoat it and make it sound more palatable to that person. We all do that to some extent, but for them, it’s so much more often and more environments than the rest of us. You know, like when I’m at home with my family, then I can just be myself and I’m… I try to be nice to them because I love them.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: But I don’t have to fundamentally be a different person than who I am, right? I don’t have to present a version of myself that is at odds with who I am. But autistic people have to do this all the time. And they don’t… Sometimes they don’t even have that safety at home to just be who they are and be loved for who they are, and not constantly, oh, you should do this this way. Or, you should do this that way, or whatever. Just corrected and guided to be different than they are. And so they, I’ll use another example. Stimming, when somebody needs to self-regulate by stimming, so maybe maybe they wanna flap or one of my son’s paces back and forth, right? That’s just what he does. And at home, I’m fine with him pacing, I don’t care.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: But he actually was at a job and his supervisor’s like, “Why do you need to get up and pace every 15 minutes or so?” And my son had to explain like, “The reason I have to do that is to self-regulate.” But it made his supervisor uncomfortable. And if my son were a different person, he would’ve been like, oh, like the supervisor was uncomfortable, so I need to not do that. Which means then he is like, not self-regulating, and that means it’s just getting more and more stressful for him at work. And when he gets home, he may need to pace a whole lot, right? And so that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about here. Like and so autistic people are aware sometimes that what they’re doing is upsetting to other people or distracting or whatever. And so they try to change their own behavior, but it’s often at the cost of them being able to be their best self.

Kat Lee: I also wondered about just something you said about trying to be the person. So even how you smile or how you connect or be the person that you think other people want you to be. Sarah. Wow.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: Right? And in the book, one of the things we did is we asked a lot of autistic people what their experience was of different aspects of their autism. And one of them that just blew me away was in the chapter we wrote on nonverbal communication. So this is like gestures and facial expressions, tone of voice, how you hold your body, all these nonverbal ways we communicate with each other, which by the way, is a lot of how we communicate with each other. And many people told us that what they do is, they have to think about things like how they’re holding their hands, right? And many people wrote, ugh, the hands, ugh, I never know what to do with my hands. And so they’ve all like developed… Like I gesture a lot, as you can see, I gesture a lot while I’m talking. And I don’t think about it.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: I do not think about how I gesture and my gestures very naturally emphasize what it is I’m saying. Like, I use them to emphasize parts that I think are important and to downplay things that may not be important, whatever. But it’s an additional communication channel for me. But I don’t think about it. It’s nothing I think about. And these folks were telling us that they do things like they… They know their hands are weird. They feel very self-conscious about their hands. And so they’ll do stuff like okay, I’m having a conversation, so I should hold my hands in front of me, right? Or put them behind my back and clasp them behind my back. Put ’em in my pocket if you’re not in a culture that that’s inappropriate for. But they’re just thinking so much about what they’re doing with their hands.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: That’s one aspect of what they’re thinking about while communicating with other people, right? So you’ve got hands, you’ve got your facial expression, right? Like, oh, if I want them to think that this isn’t making me mad, I need to make sure I smile the right way when I say it, and it can’t be too much of a smile, ’cause then it looks like I’m making fun of them. Like they’re analyzing every little aspect of what they’re doing and trying to figure out like, how do I do this, just so, so that the other person will feel comfortable.

Kat Lee: I get tired just thinking about it.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: It’s exhausting.

Kat Lee: Yes. I mean, it is exhausting like how… No, and you’re right, we’ve been in situations where we’ve had to do that, but as a consistent all the time way of life, very, very tiring.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: Yeah. Yeah. It’s tiring. And so this is one reason a lot of autistic people, after being in a social situation where they’ve had to analyze every aspect of what they’re doing and think about the impact it’s having on the people around them, they’re just exhausted. And so they’ll go home. I remember one guy we interviewed said that he’s a successful professional and he does public presentations and his workplace, they have parties, right? Where they all get together and it’s a social thing. And he says… And it’s funny ’cause when you interact with him, you would have no idea any of this is happening for him. Like he just seems like an average guy. But he has to prepare himself for these social gatherings. He knows he’s gonna last about 45 minutes.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: So he’s there, he’s on for 45 minutes, then he has to gracefully exit. And by the way, that’s not as long as most people usually stay at those kinds of things. So he’s aware that he’s violating an expectation, but he’s also learned that if he stays longer, it won’t go well. Like, he’ll stop being able to camouflage and then people will be freaked out by that. And so then he’ll go home and he said he actually needs two days to recover from that. Two days because it’s so much work for him. So that’s… That downtime after a social engagement. And you know, that’s something that you’re gonna have to think about, how do I put that into my day so that I can restore and then present as the self I need to present as in whatever situation? So there’s being able to be yourself. There’s also recovery time for the moments when you couldn’t be yourself.

Kat Lee: Sarah, one of the things that struck me reading this chapter in your book was that this masking can actually keep someone from getting the help that they need.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: Oh my goodness. Okay. So yeah, autistic people who camouflage are very used to not presenting their true selves. That’s one piece of it. The other piece is some people, some autistic people and some non-autistic people just present as kind of flat, right? So they just present as very calm, very even. And if they’re having a big emotion, it actually isn’t coming out through those nonverbal channels. And sometimes, autistic people have learned that when they do express themselves in the way that they’re feeling inside, other people freak out on them. And so they’ve learned, I can’t do that with other people. I cannot do that because it just upsets them so much, right? And so one place we see this a lot is in healthcare. So somebody will go into the doctor’s office and they’ll say, “I’m in incredible pain.” Right? 

Dr. Sarah Wayland: And if they’re one of these people who just always presents flat, which isn’t camouflaging, but it is something that happens, then the doctor’s like, “You can’t possibly be in as much pain as you’re telling me you’re in.” And the person will be like… Because they’ve only experienced their own body, they’ll be like, oh, well, maybe this isn’t that terrible pain or whatever. Likewise a person who’s learned that if they express the pain they’re really feeling, like they might be screaming right? And people, healthcare people don’t like dealing with you when you’re screaming at them, right? Just like the rest of us. And so they’ve learned, okay, don’t ever express the depth of what I’m feeling. And so they say, I’m feeling the thing, my stomach is in so much pain on my right side, and I can hardly stand up. Except what the doctor sees is somebody who’s standing up because they’re so used to ignoring what their body needs in order to fit in, right? And so then they don’t get taken seriously by doctors, and the consequences are dire. They don’t get diagnosed. Healthcare outcomes are not as good for autistic people because their doctors don’t realize what they’re experiencing.

Kat Lee:: I think this would stretch across so many areas of a… Help from an emotional perspective, help from if you’re struggling with the work that we do on trying to live a growth seeking dynamic life, but everybody sees you as living a growth seeking life, even though you’re not, and you want to, but you’re fine. That’s what I hear happens with this, with masking and camouflaging. It’s like, you’re fine, you’re fine.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: Oh, yes. And that’s through, yeah. So this is one of the things that happens, especially as people who get diagnosed late. And by late, I mean, not at three or something you know? So there are lots of kids who don’t get diagnosed, for example, until they’re in middle school, high school, adults. Like, we’re starting to understand so much more how autism can present and that these folks camouflage all the time. And we actually had an experience with the book where we sent it to actually a very dear friend of mine who works in autism land, and he read the book and he came back and he wrote a song called, When is a Duck not a Duck? And basically he was saying, if it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, isn’t it a duck? 

Dr. Sarah Wayland: And he was saying that referring to like, if somebody’s camouflaging like this all the time, and they are dealing with the world in a pretty reasonable way, and it’s going okay, is that autism? Is that really autism? And we were stunned by this because it’s exactly what you’re talking about. Oh, it must not be a problem for you, except people don’t seek out a diagnosis unless something’s kind of problematic for them. It’s expensive. And who wants to hear that you have something that you know is different than you thought was going on? Like, it’s hard to process that kind of news. And so, if somebody’s seeking out a diagnosis, it’s because they feel like something is not going well in their life and they can’t understand what’s going on, and they’re trying to figure it out.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: And this is a really important point that we make in the book, is that you cannot judge a duck by its cover, right? You cannot… Just because somebody is fitting in very well, you have to get in what their internal experience is. And you know, there’s a quote in this book that I actually put in the autistic strengths chapter. Because as you heard, like these autistic people are trying to analyze everything that’s going on. They know things about behavior that you and I have no clue about, because they’ve had to figure it out and analyze it and figure out how to implement it for themselves, right? And so this guy wrote, “A lifetime of masking, and having to work hard to read other people’s body language means that I’m unusually good at both.”

Dr. Sarah Wayland: He’s unusually good at it, right? “When I’m fully engaged, I can read intentions better than most people, and I can signal complex intentions such as I’m lying and I’m trying to hide it. It’s exhausting to be fully engaged like that. But when I am, the fact that I’m doing it deliberately gives me a competitive edge. I only usually do it when it matters. Providing support counseling when people are angry or upset, during interviews, important social events, networking at conferences, and winning social deduction games.” So this is what he wrote about what he’s learned. So it’s not all negative, right? Like, there’s some incredible strengths that he’s developed that I’ve never had to develop, right? I’ve never had to do that kind of work. And so he knows things I don’t… I’m not even aware of, right? 

Dr. Sarah Wayland: But it is work. And so somebody like him who is so good at this, right? That… And he was diagnosed very late, like he’s an adult with a job. And you know, when he got diagnosed, it like suddenly made sense to him and to the people that he loves, and his family and so on. Like, they were like, Oh, this, like helps us explain, because when he’s doing that, then he would collapse afterwards. And so his colleagues at work would never have known that there was an issue. They would never have known, but he knew there was an issue. And the only way you were gonna get at that is to look at his internal experience as opposed to the way he presents externally because he was so good at camouflaging.

Kat Lee: I love that he expresses his experience. And it really… It really speaks to me when I think of some of the children, the young adults that I work with who may not even have a lot of language, but their inference and their ability to read intent is incredible. And their skills of perception are very high because of that compensation that they have had to have in place. And I don’t know this is true, but I suspect sometimes that people don’t realize that a person who doesn’t have speech would be also in this camp, but very solidly more.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: Oh my gosh, more, I mean, more so I think those folks, because they have to compensate for the fact that they can’t use the words coming outta their mouth so easily to help other people feel comfortable with them being around, right? So and you know, Kat, you’re touching on something that is a common misconception I think people have about autism, which is that autistic people are not tuned in to the emotional temperature of the room around them. In my experience, most of them are very tuned into it. Some people get very overwhelmed by it very quickly, and so they have had to kind of shut it out, right? So then it looks like they’re not emotionally tuned in when in fact, the real problem is it’s gated out because they can’t take it in without staying regulated themselves, right? And so that happens.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: There are some autistic people who don’t read the emotional temperature in the room. That’s absolutely true. But in my experience many, many, many, many autistic people actually have it as kind of a superpower. They may not know why the emotion is happening, but they definitely understand. I remember another woman we interviewed said that she… She could feel like her colleague, four cubes away from her at work, had had an argument with her husband, and she could feel the energy of this person’s unhappiness and couldn’t work because her colleague four cubes away was so upset. And she wasn’t crying openly. It was just the energy that this person who we were talking to could feel from that person four cubes away.

Kat Lee: So how, how do we help parents who wanna help their children? How do we help young adults and older adults who may be listening? What are some words of hope that you can give and or advice? 

Dr. Sarah Wayland: Well, one reason I read that passage from that strengths chapter was to point out that the flip side of the challenges that autistic people may have is that it actually can also become a strength, right? And so believe that. Believe that your child can figure these things out, but oh my goodness… Or your adult friend or colleague, or whatever, right? But also know that it comes at a cost, right? And like I said at the beginning, we all have learned to adapt our behavior to whatever situation we’re in. So that’s… It’s a normal part of the social world we navigate. But just know that the autistic people in your life are having to do that at a level that’s just impossible for most of us to even conceive of. So, one, it is possible to learn these skills.

Dr. Sarah Wayland: Two, it takes a lot of effort, a lot of effort. So three, you need to provide downtime where they can recover from having done all that work. It’s so important. The recovery time is so, so important. And just know how much work it is for them so you don’t keep putting them in these really stressful situations with no possibility for a break. So I think that’s one of the things for me as a parent that I’ve had to really learn is that my kids do need a tremendous amount of downtime in order to be able to navigate the world outside, which requires them to be flexible and dynamic thinkers, which they are capable of doing when they have the resources to do it.

Kat Lee: And thanks for joining us for Autism: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child. And we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee. See you next time.


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