The term masking is used to describe the conscious or unconscious suppression or modification of behaviours in people with autism, ADHD or other neurodivergences. The goal is to appear neurotypical and more likely to be accepted in society by suppressing or altering the behaviours.
Why do neurodivergent people mask? Explanation, meaning, definition, psychology
Many people with neurodivergences have special behaviours, some of which are not socially accepted. These are mainly a result of the differently functioning brain. For example, neurodivergent people often find it difficult to correctly interpret and understand social situations and cues. This can lead to them not behaving as expected and being perceived as rude, unemotional, cool or arrogant, for example. Over-sharing of information that neurotypical people perceive as too personal can also be typical of people with neurodivergences. They are also often described as being too loud, too quiet, too brash, too calm or otherwise sharing too much or too little. Furthermore, many people with neurodivergence find it difficult to maintain eye contact.
Another behaviour of many neurodivergent people is so-called stimming. Stimming includes all actions that serve the purpose of self-stimulation for regulation. Many people with neurodivergence have difficulty filtering stimuli. This means that the brain cannot automatically and unconsciously decide which stimuli are relevant and need to be perceived and which are not. As a result, an unfiltered flood of travel (i.e. light, sounds, sensory information such as clothing, wind, and smells) pelts the neurodivergent brain. This can be extremely exhausting and overwhelming. To help withstand this overwhelm, stimming can be helpful. Through mostly repetitive movements, vocalisations or touches, the focus is directed to a single stimulus, which helps with regulation. The best-known stim is probably the autistic cliché of rocking back and forth. But rocking with the leg, clicking a biro or chewing on the lower lip can also be part of stimming.
All of these behaviours can make social interaction and making friends difficult. To be more likely to make friends, many neurodivergent people mask these behaviours and copy the behaviour of neurotypical people. They hope that this will make them more acceptable and easier to connect with other people. For example, neurodivergent people force themselves to maintain eye contact even though it makes them very uncomfortable, or suppress stimming so as not to disturb those around them.
Is there a problem with masking?
Masking is extremely strenuous for neurodivergent people. Since they have to constantly concentrate on how they behave, how they speak, what they say, where they look, how their body moves, how loudly or softly they speak and how long they speak, it is difficult to concentrate on the content of what the other person is saying at the same time. In the long run, masking can lead to severe stress and even burnout, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, loss of identity and even suicidal tendencies.
The reason for this is that masking is not only extremely mentally exhausting, but you are also constantly sending the message to yourself that you are not right if you do not mask. This is extremely damaging to one’s self-esteem.
What do neurodivergent and neurotypical mean?
Neurodivergent refers to people whose brains somehow function differently from those of most people. The best-known neurodivergences include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and Tourette’s. But giftedness or synaesthesia can also be counted among neurodivergences. People who do not have neurodivergences are called neurotypical.
What can be done so that neurodivergent people do not have to mask?
In order to relieve neurodivergent people of the burden of constantly having to mask, the most important thing is to create an awareness of neurodivergence and neurodivergent behaviour in society. Only in this way can acceptance arise. Because if everyone is aware that behaviour that may seem rude or cold may not be meant that way and is the unmasked expression of a neurodivergent personality, it is much easier to accept this behaviour. Awareness of neurodivergence and its associated behaviours is the most important step in making life easier for neurodivergent people. Just as the needs of people with physical disabilities are taken into consideration in many places and disability-friendly solutions are implemented in everyday life, the needs of neurodivergent people must also be taken into consideration. Just because neurodivergences are mostly invisible does not mean that they are less real than physical differences.