Autistic masking has become the subject of immense debate over the past few years. It has been described using several different names, including “camouflaging” (Hull et al. 2017), “adaptive morphing” (Lawson 2020), “concealment” (Botha and Frost 2020), “compensation” (Livingston and Happé 2017), each with its own slightly unique definition or focus. It has been credited with responsibility for underdiagnosis among women (Hull, Petrides, and Mandy 2020), and a contributor towards autistic mental health difficulties (Beck et al. 2020), leading to what might seem like a fairly logical suggestion: why don’t we just ‘take off the mask’ and live our lives as authentically and proudly autistic? The answer is that the ability to express one’s authentic autistic self is much more complicated than an individual choice to unmask. This essay will explore why this is, and what we can do in order to make the world a safer place for autistic people.

One of the reasons that masking has been the subject of debate is our shifting understanding of what it entails. Some researchers have focussed on the social aspects of masking, and how it can be used to blend in in social situations by hiding autistic characteristics, acting like a non-autistic person, and engaging in behaviour such as making eye contact, even if it feels uncomfortable or unnatural (Hull et al. 2017). These strategies used to fit in within social situations are however just one aspect of masking. In our recent book Autistic Masking: Understanding Identity Management and The Role of StigmaKieran Rose and I define masking as “the conscious or unconscious suppression or projection of aspects of self and identity, and the use of non-native cognitive or social strategies” (Pearson and Rose 2023, p.3). This defintion aims to capture the incredibly broad and multifaceted nature of masking, which might invole hiding aspects of ourselves, or playing up to other people’s expectations in order to fit in, stay safe, or a mixture of the two. However, in order truly understand masking, we have to understand why it occurs.

Whilst most of us can identify with the experience of having to monitor and modify how we act or who we appear to be in social situations, the finer details of what drives masking and how it interacts with other aspects of our (multifaceted) identies is more nuanced. Masking appears to emerge during childhood (Howe et al. 2023), with the experience of stigma overwhelmingly highlighted as a key contributing factor which continues to drive masking across the lifespan. Stigma involves being marked in some way as different and “spoiled” in comparison to other people, an indication that we are somewhat ‘lesser’ in comparison to our peers. Stigma is related to a range of poor outcomes for autistic people, including heightened risk of victimisation and poor mental health (Botha and Frost 2020). External perceptions as a key motivation for masking highlights how important masking can be for safety. Autistic people have outlined how experiences of victimisation have led them to mask out of a sense of sef-preservation, in the hope that they could avoid further abuse from others (Pearson, Rose, and Rees 2023). As such, we cannot really understand masking (and the associated desire to “unmask”) without taking into account how other people feed into the need to mask in the first place—masking can be protective, or provide access to otherwise inaccessible spaces plus keep people safe from harm.

Relatedly, a wealth of research that has explored the experience of stigma among people in other marginalised groups (e.g. Black people, people who are LGBTQIA+), as stigma is not an experience unique to autistic people. Many other aspects of our identities (e.g., our race or ethnicity, our sexualities, our professions) are under scrutiny from people in different social groups. For autistic people who experience stigma in relation to multiple (or intersecting, Crenshaw, 2017) aspects of identity,  what we call the “mask” might include many masks, or many overlapping and intersecting ways of trying to stay safe in a world that treats you badly. This means that when we talk about a need to “unmask” in order to try and improve outcomes for autistic people, we sometimes merge the impact of masking with masking itself, deciding that masking is “bad” when it is the need for masking that is the problem (Gulley and Hammond 2022). What we call “the mask” is not really one thing, but is instead a combination of many things, including survival strategies, protective mechanisms, and social behaviours that develop over a lifetime of invalidation, negative social judgements and being pathologised or treated as deficient because of who you are.

So what does this mean for authenticity? Firstly, it means that when we talk about “the mask,” what we are really talking about is unpacking many years of trauma, grief, suppression, and survival skills. The metaphor of a mask is powerful, but it also implies a unitary “thing,” rather than a set of complex and interacting factors that we cannot simply combat by stimming publicly, refusing to make eye contact, or being “ourselves.” Many autistic people struggle to work out who they are (Lilley et al. 2022) due to years of modifying their identity in order to stay safe. “Unmasking” might involve a long, reflexive and arduous process that relies on developing a keen self-understanding, and feeling empowered to advocate for one’s own needs.

“Unmasking” is also not an individual process. The other, less addressed aspect of unmasking is that which is not under control of an individual. You can reflect, and develop a deep self-awareness and understanding of your own needs, but without society being a safer place for autistic people, the onus on autistic people to unmask is cruel at best and incredibly dangerous at worst. This is even more pressing for people who experience intersecting forms of stigma and marginalisation: expecting autistic people to unmask without also addressing white supremacy and racism, transphobia, etc. is a hollow and privileged position to take.

So how then, do we foster authencity?

For a start, we need to consider what can be done beyond the responsibility of the individual person. By acknowleding the wider systems at play that drive masking, in addition to factors that might be somewhat under the control of an individual, we can address the impact of masking at multiple levels. For an individual person, authenticity might mean recognition of their own autistic ways of being, including gaining insight into their sensory and social needs. Becoming aware of one’s own inauthenticity and ability to express this when “necessary” can provide a sense of agency and control to the individual. This can help them to learn to acknowledge their own identity and where masking is situated in relation to that, giving a more empowering approach and helping them to use masking to feel safe and in-control.

Because it not easy to change society, but it is very much necessary to do so in order to foster authenticity among all autistic people. A focus on (un)masking as an individual responsibility, and not a collective problem tends to favour autistic people who are not multiply marginalised, who are less likely to experience other forms of discrimination. It does little to change society beyond making it a little bit safer for a small number of autistic people to be themselves. Simmonds (2021) has outlined the difficulty in finding spaces where it was safe to unmask, due to experiences of ableism in Black spaces, and racism in autistic spaces. We are multifaceted, and as such, until it is safe to be our whole selves, autistic authenticity is not achievable as it cannot be isolated from other intersections of self-expression. This means fighting for the end of oppressive systems, in addition for pushing for autistic acceptance. Until it is safe for all of us, it is safe for none of us.

Photo of a steampunk-style Carnival mask, lying on sand.
Steampunk mask image by Annette from Pixabay