He’s very boisterous, loud, funny, and loves to be the center of attention. He is one of the most outgoing people you’ll ever meet.
He doesn’t share anything about his personal life. Any question you ask about his background, his family, his work, what he does when he’s alone, anything about himself he finds a way to defect and evade. Everything is one-sided with him. He’s so guarded.
Nobody knows him. Maybe he doesn’t even know himself.
Masking is a phenomenon where adults on the autistic spectrum practice and perform certain behaviors in order to appear normal. In some cases, this might consist of an outgoing, gregarious appearance. Or, it might take the form of a very private, impenetrable exterior. There are as many variations of masking as there are ways of pretending who one is. However, in each case, the underlying intention is to appear as neurotypical as is necessary for that person in that particular situation.
Research indicates that women mask more often than men, and it is for this reason, women tend to be diagnosed less often and later in life than men. But this doesn’t mean masking is specific to women.
Why do Men Mask?
The answer is, for the same reasons that women do: to fit in and avoid negatives social consequences. Many men experience masking not as a choice but as something they have to do to avoid being alienated from “normal” society and protect themselves from being marginalized, rejected, criticized, and disapproved of. Men are as concerned about being alienated and rejected as anyone else, although there are certainly men on the spectrum who are not so troubled about social rejection.
Masking among men with Autism Spectrum Disorder is a coping strategy in the face of societal misunderstanding. It is a reaction to the fact that our society has very ingrained notions of what is preferable and expected behavior. Behavior that deviates from these norms is met with negative consequences.
Many people think that men on the spectrum, because they are autistic, are not invested in fitting into society. The fact is, these men are likely to spend as much time and energy trying to fit in as neurotypical men do.
What’s the Solution to Masking In Men?
In a way, this is a misleading question as there is no one solution, and it may not be realistic to assume there is a solution. As long as there are differences among people, disapproval and discrimination is likely to exist. On the other hand, we as individuals and as a society can work collectively to build a greater understanding of neurodiversity. Through that understanding, we take measures to reduce the need of autistic men and women to avoid negative consequences by masking.
A Final Thought
The more I talk with men on the spectrum, the more aware I am of how common masking is and the variety of ways that men camouflage who they are. Given that masking is a part of being human, in that none of us can convey to the outside world the totality of who we are inside, this should come as no surprise. Yet is a lesson to remember. If we want to truly understand neurodiverse men, we will do well to look beyond the outside and try our best to see what lies inside.
To quote on old proverb, “To understand and be understood makes our happiness on earth.”
Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Spectrum psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. To ask a question or schedule an appointment, please call 415-922-1122.