‘Masking’, also called ‘camouflaging’ is a common practice for autistic people in any setting where we feel we may be singled out, mistreated, bullied, or abused. And, since we live in a neurotypical world not designed for us, feeling at least a bit unsafe is a part of our daily experience–hence the masking.
Masking Is a Trauma Response
When an autistic person masks, it means they are consciously or unconsciously attempting to hide or at least minimize their autistic traits while simultaneously emulating neurotypical mannerisms such as facial expressions, tone of voice, vocal cadence, eye contact, etc.
Masking is not done out of any intent to be malicious or sneaky. It is a trauma response and a survival mechanism. Many autistic people, when we were children, were questioned, corrected, and bullied into not doing the things that our minds and bodies naturally did as a result of our brain wiring–thus resulting in hypervigilance about how our way of being causes others to react to us.
For example, flapping our hands, rocking side to side, toe-walking, vocal stims, echolalia, talking about our focused interests, having a flat facial or vocal affect, avoiding social situations, being blunt, and avoiding eye contact were all deemed “wrong” and in need of immediate and often loud, jarring, and constant correction.
Because we internalized the message that our way of processing the world and soothing our senses was “incorrect”, “off-putting”, or “weird”, we learned quickly that we weren’t safe to be our authentic selves, and that we needed to mimic the neurotypical people around us in an attempt to fly under the radar and stop being singled out so often.
The Importance of Psychological Safety in the Workplace
Many autistic people have lower energy levels than our neurotypical counterparts because we have to manually do many of the things their brains do automatically.
For example, we have to manually filter out distracting sensory information, consciously remind our faces to respond to the corresponding emotions we feel inside, adjust our vocal tone and cadence so as not to offend, and rewrite the blunt, direct communication in our heads into something more acceptable by neurotypical standards milliseconds before we speak aloud.
Some of us, myself included, also have to monitor our every bodily movement to avoid tripping, stumbling, falling, and knocking things over due to poor proprioception (the ability to tell where the body ends and other objects begin) and poor spacial relations (a wall, for example, may be much closer than our senses register, resulting in us crashing into it).
Imagine having to manually concentrate on all of those things while also working, turning in projects on time, and being social around the office!
That’s the reality of masking, and it’s exhausting.
This is why a culture of psychological safety is so important in the workplace. Your employees need to know that it is safe for them to be themselves, for them to slowly unmask and still expect to be treated with dignity and respect.
How to Create a Safe Space to Unmask
As I said earlier, masking is a trauma response. It is an ingrained defense mechanism that has developed over years or even decades to keep the autistic person safe, so it can’t be easily dropped (nor should that be the expectation).
If you want to truly be an inclusive company, you have to do more than just hire autistic people and make a few adjustments to their workload. Being truly neuroinclusive means allowing the autistic person to be themselves.
When you first hire an autistic person, you’re likely going to get the fully-masked version of them. Over time, as they feel more comfortable in their environment, you may notice changes in them, but this is actually a positive thing!
They may catch you off-guard with a blunt statement or not laugh at one of your jokes (where they did in the beginning), their face may appear blank, their eyes may dart around and avoid yours, they may flap their hands in a moment of excitement, and/or they may decline more and more after-work social events.
Again, this is a good thing.
In fact, what you do next will be the true test of whether or not your company is actually inclusive, or if it just says so on paper.
If you begin reacting to their behavior change (which is really just them unmasking and feeling more comfortable) as though it’s offensive to you, you’ve already lost. They will clam back up, put the mask back on, and burn out fast.
However, if you carry on as though nothing has changed (because it really hasn’t), and if you honor their preferences and needs without taking them personally, you’ll have succeeded in being truly inclusive, and that will win you a loyal employee who is able to focus their energy on being an asset to your company—instead of on masking during every interaction to keep safe.