Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism is a Common Coping Strategy
As a psychologist with a focus on understanding and supporting adults with autism, I’ve come to recognize the significance of a phenomenon known as social camouflaging. Social camouflaging refers to the process by which individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) consciously or unconsciously mask their autistic traits in social situations. This adaptive behavior is particularly prevalent in people with autism, who often strive to fit in and navigate the complexities of social interactions. In this article, I will delve into the concept of social camouflaging, its potential benefits, and the challenges it presents.
Understanding Social Camouflaging
Social camouflaging is a complex phenomenon that involves individuals with autism consciously or unconsciously masking their autistic traits in various social situations. It’s important to recognize that social camouflaging is not a one-size-fits-all concept; it varies from person to person and can manifest in diverse ways. Here are some of the key aspects of social camouflaging:
- Mimicking Neurotypical Behaviors: Individuals with autism who engage in social camouflaging often mimic behaviors and social cues typical of neurotypical individuals. These behaviors may include making eye contact, mirroring body language, and using appropriate facial expressions. In essence, they are putting on a performance to appear more socially conventional.
- Adaptive vs. Compulsive Camouflaging: Social camouflaging can be categorized into two primary types: adaptive and compulsive camouflaging.
- Adaptive Camouflaging: This form of camouflaging is intentional and strategic. People with autism engage in adaptive camouflaging as a conscious effort to fit into social norms and expectations. They may do this to establish relationships, secure employment, or pursue higher education.
- Compulsive Camouflaging: Some adults with autism engage in compulsive camouflaging, often as a subconscious response to social anxiety. In these cases, camouflaging may be an automatic reaction to the fear of rejection or judgment, and individuals may not even realize they are doing it.
- Contextual Nature: The extent and nature of social camouflaging can vary depending on the context and the people involved. Some people may camouflage more in professional settings, where conforming to social norms is crucial for career success, while others camouflage less in familiar or comfortable environments.
- Masking of Autistic Traits: While engaging in social camouflaging, individuals often suppress or mask certain autistic traits, such as stimming (repetitive movements or sounds), discussing specific interests extensively, or struggling with sensory sensitivities. By concealing these characteristics, they aim to avoid drawing attention to their differences.
- Gender Differences: Research suggests that gender plays a role in the manifestation of social camouflaging. Many autistic women and girls are particularly skilled at camouflaging, which can lead to underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis. They might imitate social behaviors and interests more traditionally associated with their peers, making it challenging for clinicians to identify autism.
- The Masked Self: As people engage in social camouflaging over time, they may create what is often referred to as a “masked self.” This is a persona that they present to the world, which may differ significantly from their true selves. The masked self can make it difficult for individuals to express their authentic thoughts, feelings, and interests.
Why Do Adults with Autism Camouflage?
- Social Acceptance: One of the primary reasons adults with autism engage in social camouflaging is to gain social acceptance and avoid social rejection. They recognize that certain behaviors, such as stimming or discussing niche interests extensively, may be perceived as odd by others, leading to exclusion or misunderstanding.
- Employment and Education: Many adults with autism pursue careers and higher education, and social camouflaging can help them navigate these environments more successfully. Conforming to social norms can be crucial for career advancement and academic success.
- Reducing Anxiety: Social situations can be incredibly anxiety-provoking for those with autism. Camouflaging behaviors can serve as coping mechanisms, helping to alleviate some of the stress associated with social interactions.
Benefits of Social Camouflaging
- Improved Social Integration: Social camouflaging often facilitates better social integration and inclusion, as individuals with autism are more likely to form friendships and build relationships when they can mimic socially accepted behaviors.
- Enhanced Job Opportunities: In the professional world, social camouflaging can lead to improved job prospects and career advancement. Many adults with autism have reported that camouflaging has helped them excel in their careers.
Challenges of Social Camouflaging
- Exhaustion and Burnout: Maintaining a facade of neurotypical behavior can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. Many adults with autism who engage in social camouflaging experience burnout, leading to increased stress and anxiety.
- Authenticity and Identity: Social camouflaging can sometimes result in a loss of authenticity, as individuals may feel disconnected from their true selves. Over time, this can lead to identity crises and a sense of disconnection.
- Misdiagnosis and Underdiagnosis: The ability to camouflage can lead to misdiagnosis or underdiagnosis of autism in adults, as clinicians may not readily recognize the condition when individuals are adept at hiding their symptoms.
Supporting Adults with Autism in Their Camouflaging Journey
- Recognizing the Person’s Needs: It is crucial to approach each individual with autism as unique. Understanding their motivations for camouflaging and the challenges they face is a vital first step.
- Providing Coping Strategies: Help individuals develop healthy coping strategies to manage the stress associated with camouflaging. This may include relaxation techniques, social skills training, and emotional regulation strategies.
- Encouraging Self-Advocacy: Encourage individuals to communicate their needs and preferences in social situations. Self-advocacy can empower them to navigate social interactions more comfortably while being true to themselves.
- Promoting Acceptance: Encourage neurotypical peers and employers to foster inclusive environments that embrace neurodiversity. This can reduce the pressure on adults with autism to camouflage excessively.
Social camouflaging is a multifaceted and dynamic behavior observed in many adults with autism. While it can facilitate social integration and success in various aspects of life, it comes with its own set of challenges, including exhaustion and a potential loss of authenticity. As a psychologist, my goal is to support adults with autism in finding a balance that allows them to thrive while staying true to themselves. By recognizing the significance of social camouflaging and providing appropriate guidance and support, we can help individuals with autism navigate the social world with confidence and authenticity.
See this article for additional reading on this subject.
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Autism Spectrum Disorder psychologist in California with over 30 years of experience.