Camouflaging: Behind the mask

On the 8th December we held the second Autism Research Journal Club session on the topic of Camouflaging and masking in autistic adults.  

Masking is something talked about quite a lot when it comes to autism and other neurodiverse conditions. It is the suppression of autistic behaviours and differences, often to try and fit in. It has been shown to be both a conscious and subconscious process as people don’t always realise they are masking.  

According to the research, camouflaging appears more common in women. Studies looking into camouflaging in women have demonstrated that masking is more common when women report a greater number of symptoms, or when they are more aware of their challenges. In our discussion, we felt this was indeed highly likely.  We considered different potential factors for this. Some reasons could be: desire to maintain relationships with peers, to fit in school, during education and the work place, also during a variety of social contexts. We pondered whether societal expectations of women could have an impact on the higher rates of masking within females. These factors could be a partial explanation for why diagnosis is higher in males and females are often diagnosed later in life. This in turn led an attender asking whether societal standards are the reason for autistic people feeling the need to mask. There is a possibility it could be because deviations from the societal norm are seen to decrease productivity in a capitalism-based society with structural issues versus the individual and fear of difference. These fears then cause negative responses to those who are different, in turn making those feel a need to fit it.  

Other discussed factors included biological and cognitive disparities. One study’s results caused a significant discussion as to the meaning. It stated that there was ‘a negative correlation between emotional expressivity and positive expressivity in autistic females; however, this correlation was not observed in autistic males.’  In our discussion, we considered what the implications of this may be, and suggested that perhaps happiness is not expressed as much as other emotions. When considering context behaviour there could be a variety of factors influencing this, such as inability to express or reinforcers to regulate emotional expression.  Only two of the studies looked at neuroanatomical regions and camouflaging. One of these proposed that smaller volume in the medial temporal lobe and cerebellum were associated with higher camouflaging in autistic women.  

We recognised that masking has a large impact. Long-term masking has been shown to contribute to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. It’s also common to experience burnout and exhaustion after masking for long periods of time. We were curious about whether individual methods of camouflaging could affect mental health differently. The article referenced correlations between camouflaging and various other factors. The article found that a higher education level was associated with higher compensation in autistic adults. Not much else was said in the article about this correlation, so we discussed our interpretations. We considered that as we get older environments become more specific such as at university or in the work place. Would this mean an individual is more inclined to mask to fit those requirements, or would it be harder to mask because of them?  

At the end of the session, we discussed the participant factor of research. It is fairly well-known that autistic individuals will mask to fit in and that self-report bias is a big consideration when taking any data from self-report forms. We wondered whether participating in research can be uncomfortable for autistic individuals and whether this would impact their masking and self-presentation.  Overall, we felt it may be worth considering whether longitudinal studies could provide an opportunity for comfort, and less chance for masking, perhaps yielding more accurate results. 



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