Hiding one’s self in social situations is a common coping strategy for women with Autism. It is a way of trying to fit in with others and make connections by concealing one’s natural personality, suppressing noticeably unwanted behavior, and mimicking what is thought of as socially normal.
Camouflaging involves suppressing, hiding or otherwise controlling behaviors that are seen as socially inappropriate. Masking, an aspect of camouflaging, involves presenting a different identity to the outside world. Both camouflaging and masking are, for many women, essential in social situations, even though this means preventing others from seeing their true self.
The Diagnostic Problem
Studies show that women are less likely to be accurately diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder than men with similar levels of ASD traits, and those who are diagnosed are more frequently older, have more challenging needs, and more likely to have been previously misdiagnosed with other mental health conditions, like personality disorders or eating problems.
Furthermore, anxiety and depression are more common among women with Autism than they are in men, who tend to have conduct problems and hyperactivity. As a result, women are often misdiagnosed more so than men and diagnosed at a later age.
To add to this complication, the diagnostic tests used by clinicians to assess Autism Spectrum Disorder or Autism Spectrum Disorder, as it is now referred to, are based on the characteristics presented by men and don’t necessarily reflect the behaviors women typically present with. As a result, women who don’t meet the typical male presentation of Autism Spectrum Disorder tend to be misdiagnosed.
Problems of Camouflaging in Women
In general, camouflaging leads to the perception that a person functions well, without any noticeable problems, even though that is not necessarily true. In new situations they are not prepared for, women who mimic other socially successful people struggle to socialize successfully. Often they try to compensate by working even harder to mimic what they think will enable them to fit in better, leading to self-defeating escalation of camouflaging and masking.
Ironically, it’s common that women who camouflage their true personality wind up being successful in areas that are typically seen as feminine, such as teaching, nursing, and dental assistants. This is not to say that women with Autism are overrepresented in these fields, rather women in traditionally feminine occupations who have Autism Spectrum Disorder and are good at camouflaging often fit in well in those positions.
While some women are successful as a result of camouflaging, others don’t fare so well. Many women feel that the relationships they formed through camouflaging are based on deception, and therefore their relationships are false. This reinforces their loneliness and isolation, as they feel no one truly knows or understands them. Others regret deceiving friends or loved ones. Many feel they have lost the sense of who they really are. By playing so many different roles, it becomes hard to keep track of their authentic identity, adding to the anxiety and stress they already feel engaging with others.
One of the most frequent consequences of camouflaging is exhaustion because of the mental and emotional concentration and discipline it takes to hide one’s real self. The pressure to maintain a different image is hard for many women to endure, leading to increased anxiety and stress. Constant monitoring of one’s success at camouflaging adds to an overall level of worry.
Camouflaging is an important aspect in the lives of many women with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It enables women to socialize successfully and to engage in many aspects of life that would otherwise be difficult for them to manage. However, it comes at a cost, and it is the hope of many women to find strategies that will minimize the negative effects of camouflaging and realize their authentic individual potential.