Masking, the act of camouflaging autistic traits to fit into social situations, is a phenomenon that impacts many people with autism. While much research has focused on masking in children and adolescents, there is a growing recognition of its presence in adults. Furthermore, recent studies suggest that gender plays a role in how masking appears and how it is experienced. In this article, I describe some of the differences in masking between men and women with autism, shedding light on this important aspect of the condition.
Masking is a term for how individuals with autism consciously or unconsciously adopt behaviors, expressions, or coping mechanisms to appear more neurotypical. It often entails mimicking social cues, suppressing autistic traits, and adapting to societal expectations. Although both men and women with autism engage in masking to varying degrees, research suggests that gender differences exist in the strategies employed and the impact they have.
Studies show that women with autism tend to exhibit more socially mimicry and camouflaging behaviors compared to men. They often put substantial effort into imitating others in order to fit in, which can hide their true autistic characteristics. On the other hand, men with autism might demonstrate more pronounced difficulties in social communication and less inclination towards masking. However, it is important to note that these gender differences exist as general trends and do not apply uniformly to all individuals.
The differences in masking behaviors between men and women pose significant challenges in diagnosing autism accurately. Traditional diagnostic criteria were primarily developed based on male presentations of the condition, which might not adequately capture the unique manifestations seen in women. The propensity for women to engage in camouflaging behaviors can result in underdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, limiting their access to appropriate support and interventions.
The masking process can exert a substantial psychological toll on individuals, regardless of gender. However, women with autism who engage in extensive masking may be at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and burnout. The constant effort to conform to social norms and hide one’s true self can lead to feelings of isolation, exhaustion, and a diminished sense of identity. Men with autism, who may mask to a lesser extent, could still face challenges in terms of forming social connections and navigating social situations.
Recognizing and understanding the gender differences in masking behaviors among individuals with autism is crucial for accurate diagnosis, tailored interventions, and improved support systems. Researchers, clinicians, and educators need to develop gender-sensitive diagnostic tools and strategies that account for the diverse ways in which masking manifests. Additionally, creating awareness about masking and its potential impact can help reduce expectations within the larger society and promote acceptance and understanding of autistic individuals, regardless of gender.
Masking is a complex phenomenon that affects individuals with autism, and recent research has shed light on the differences in masking behaviors between men and women. Women often engage in more camouflaging and social mimicry, while men may exhibit less masking but face their own set of challenges. Recognizing these gender differences is crucial for accurate diagnosis, appropriate support, and for promoting a more inclusive society that values and accepts autistic individuals of all genders.
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Autism Spectrum Disorder psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience.