Neurodiversity Celebration Week: The impact of masking in the workplace.

By Dr Alice Siberry

What do neurodivergent people want you to know about being neurodivergent? That most of the time, they spend their time and energy attempting to minimise, hide or mask their neurodivergence, in order to better fit in with the majority of society!

What is masking?

Sometimes known as camouflaging, masking is where a person hides or disguises parts of themselves in order to better fit in with those around them. For most, it is an unconscious strategy that all humans develop and engage in (Belcher, 2022), however for many neurodivergent people, it is a conscious effort to belong and more generally, avoid failure. Although commonly associated with the autistic community, it is reported that dyslexic, dyspraxic and people with ADHD also mask their differences. For example, ADHDers might completely cancel their plans rather than arrive late, to avoid comments about their tardiness.

There are many reasons why neurodivergent people mask. The most prominent is to ‘fit in’ with peers either at school or work. Others include avoiding judgement or stigma about their diagnosis or challenges, to appear / be more successful in the workplace, and to maintain friendships and connections. Despite the efforts that go into masking, Dr Hannah Belcher (2022) found that masking does not actually change the judgements that non-autistic people make towards autistic people’s behaviours!

What does masking look like?

Neurodivergent people might engage in the following behaviours in order to better suit societal pressures and expectations:

  • Rehearsing conversations and scripting them before engagements
  • Copying a person’s tone of voice
  • Planning responses or providing an ‘expected’ answer to a question
  • Perfectionism – as a result of Imposter Syndrome and/or Rejection Sensitivity Disorder
  • Engaging in small talk
  • Faking smiles and facial expressions
  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Acting as if sensory information does not affect you
  • Reducing stimming (self-stimulatory) behaviours

Healthy masking vs unhealthy masking

Unfortunately, although it is challenging for neurodivergent people to completely reduce their masking behaviours, in doing so, neurodivergent people reinforce stereotypes that without masking, they will fail in neurotypical society.

Unhealthy masking (where someone masks all the time) increases the risk of mental ill health, stress, and exhaustion (to the point of complete burnout). It can also contribute to the delay in diagnosis, which is the case for many women in particular. The impact of masking can lead to emotional dysregulation, which is sometimes described as the ‘coke-bottle effect’; the neurodivergent person masks all day before coming home and ‘exploding’ due to exhaustion or overstimulation.

On the other hand, many neurodivergent people describe ‘healthy masking strategies’, ones that help them navigate the neurotypical world more effectively. Some neurodivergent people will comment how this is necessary to function day-to-day. For some, a healthy amount of masking can make social interactions feel more fluent, for others it can assist with getting tasks finished and overcoming blockers (i.e., an autistic person with auditory processing challenges makes a phone call to a colleague to overcome a barrier). Healthy masking can be constructive, so long as the person has plenty of time to decompress after!

Many people often suggest that we need to support people to ‘stop’ masking completely. The reality is that most neurodivergent people (particularly those diagnosed in adulthood) will be unlikely to ‘stop’ masking all together, not in a society that still holds a vast amount of stereotypes and judgements about neurodiversity as a whole. However, as noted by Dr Felicity Sedgewick and colleagues (2022), there are different types of masking, some which are subconscious and learned. It would be more realistic to support people in ‘reducing’ masking behaviours, in order to reduce the risks of unhealthy masking.

Resources on masking:

  • Belcher, H. (2022). Taking off the mask. Practical exercises to help understand and minimise the effects of autistic camouflaging. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
  • Miller, D., Rees, J., and Pearson, A. (2021). “Masking is Life”: Experiences of Masking in Autistic and Nonautistic Adults. Autism in Adulthood, 3 (4)  
  • Sedgewick, F., Hull, L and Ellis, H. (2022). Autism and Masking: How and why people do it, and the impact it can have. Jessica Kingsley Publishers

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