Masking – What is it and why it happens?

Masking is something that is becoming more talking about and not just a random term used by children and adult mental health care providers and experts.

Masking is something that means a large number of children fall through the net of mental health care and educational needs.

Masking means children are not getting the help and understanding they should and parental worries are brushed off and dismissed.

This post is written from our perspective and I don’t claim to be a professional in any capacity, and I don’t have knowlege around masking in adults.

Our son masks. He’s very good at it. He shouldn’t have to be, but he is. We have learned how to deal with that, and how to help him not feel the need to, over the last few years, but he still puts on a good act every now and then, and even fools us still, sometimes.

What is masking?

Masking is a process in which individual changes or “masks” their natural personality to conform to social pressures, abuse or harassment. In children and adults with a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum or behavioral issues, masking is common and is often why they are misdiagnosed, or have a delayed diagnosis and don’t get the help they need.

Masking is a form of camouflaging that children (and adults) do when they are struggling with what the rest of the world sees as ordinary situations, so they can cope and perform to the world’s standards. Social expectations and ordinary interactions and activities can be particularly stressful and hard for children with a sensory processing disorder, autism, and ADHD.

For example. A child may act totally normally during class, and appear to interact and particate well. Teachers and adults around them don’t realise that the effort they are making to appear to be taking part normally is in fact an act. As soon as the child is able to, they will stop “performing” and the act is dropped. Usually when they feel safe to be themselves or that they dob’t have to act, or when they are exhausted and can’t manage any more.

We all mask a bit, it’s something humans do. Let’s face it, I don’t always feel like I want to go to the work meeting I need to attend, looking smart, and appearing to be ready to chat, learn and interact, but I do it because it’s expected and part of normal life.

The difference between children who mask regularly and and the rest of us is the effort and cost.

Nearly everyone makes small adjustments to fit in better or conform to social norms, but camouflaging calls for constant and elaborate effort. It can help women with autism maintain their relationships and careers, but those gains often come at a heavy cost, including physical exhaustion and extreme anxiety.” (source here)

The harder a child has to work to fit in to meet expectations when they are struggling to process life, because their brain works differently, the harder they will find managing themselves. If a child has to constantly mask to manage school and social situations, then their behavior at home may be more challenging. Parents may face issues like bed-wetting, tantrums and meltdowns, poor sleep, issues going to sleep, eating problems, aggression, and emotional outbursts because they have had to work hard to manage and can only cope for so long before they let their guard down. School refusal, violence towards family members, poor hygiene, self-harming and other emotional responses can be a result of having to “mask” to take part in normal life. These things happen as a result of the intense effort that the child has to make but is then trying to deal with the emotional consequences or backlash. Or they feel “safe” to not have to mask so their behaviour at home is idderent and they may be anxious, withdrawn, tearful, angry or appear hyperactive and manic.

Masking is the reaosn why many girls are not proerly diaginsied with long term issues, and is also the reason why many children slip through nets at school when parents are begging for help with behavrioual issues at home. Teachers and other people who spend time with children in situations where the child masks to conform will not see what is going on behind the scenes and will struggle to understand why a parent is claiming their child is an almost different person at home or outside of school. Parents often feel dismissed or misheard and don’t get the help they need to help their child.

Masking is basically what you could crudely call “faking it until you make it”. And it’s the reason we eventually pulled our child from the formal education system. Our child is very good at masking. We are helping him to learn he doesn’t always have to.


This is the first of three posts. Our other posts on how we deal with masking and what masking looks like for us will be available soon.

Posted in Sensory Processing Disorder and tagged Autism, Masking, sensory processing disorder.

One Comment

  1. Such a good issue to discuss. I think the implications for masking, long term and short term, have the potential to be very significant. Noticing the potential, knowing what might be happening and what masking is about should help in being more mindful of the process. xx

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