Autistic Masking or Impression Management?
In this episode, we discuss Dr. Amy Pearson and Kieran Rose’s newly published book entitled, Autistic Masking: Understanding Identity Management and the Role of Stigma. We discuss what Autistic Masking is, compare the topic of Impression Management in Personality Psychology with Autistic Masking, talk about state versus trait theories and how masking is different and can be a lot more serious, about intersectionality and trauma, and about how all of this impacts autistic identity and the need for research in this area.
This Week’s Guests
Dr. Amy Pearson is a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland in the NE of England where she is also an autistic autism researcher. Returning guest, autistic self-advocate Kieran Rose, is a published author, speaker, consultant, trainer, researcher, and neurodivergent educator in England who is the father of three neurodivergent children and has spoken with thousands of autistics over the last twenty years, both in a personal and professional context.
What was the impetus for writing this book?
Kieran starts that Amy and he published a paper together about masking in 2021 because they had a lot of frustration around the way that autistic masking was being researched, which they felt was a lot of victim-blaming and had been used to describe the way that nobody had bothered to find autistic girls and women as if they’ve been hiding all of this time. There were a lot of other misconceptions they felt were quite superficial as well. When that paper was published, it made quite a wave, so they realized there was a lot more to say.
It’s written for an academic audience and not meant to read from front to back. Each chapter can stand on its own and can be used as a reference. They have tried to make it as reader-friendly as possible.
What is Autistic Masking?
Amy and Kieran define masking as a conscious or unconscious suppression or projection of aspects of self and identity and the use of non-native social strategies. Masking can be what we consciously think about doing, or something we might have internalized over a long period of time. You may have started masking because it makes you feel safer, or it helps you to avoid victimization or negative social judgments, and then over time you just don’t realize you’re doing it. Masking is suppressive. It’s about giving people what they expect and giving people what they want to see.
The understanding of autistic masking is in its infancy now and will shift over time, Amy says. It’s both exciting and frustrating being at the forefront of this research, Kieran adds, which is a part of the evolving neurodiversity movement. There’s so much work to do and so much change that’s needed, he says. He thinks a lot about how the work in the future will be perceived, thinking about how the previous work is seen now. Everything is fluid, dynamic, and changing. What we’re talking about are theories, he says, but hopefully they’re better theories than before, because they’re less stigmatizing and ableist.
How is Impression Management different?
In my Master’s work in Personality Psychology, my advisor’s work focused on Impression Management. In the questionnaires we constructed, we always included self-deception items to measure impression management. Everyone manages the impression they give on others, but autistic masking is very different and can be the difference between life and death. It’s about safety. If you do not mask, there are severe consequences.
When you are engaging in Impression Management, Amy explains, which can be a transactional or contextual shift, it’s about value expression. You think about which parts of yourself that you need to highlight, and which parts you will hide for the time being. Both are still a part of you, Amy explains, and you are choosing which bits to let out in that situation. It’s about a switching the multi-faceted aspect of yourself. In autistic masking, it’s about avoiding stigma or trying to fit in, and whereas the context-dependent part of masking either involves that suppression or projection of those authentic aspects of you, autistic masking then leads to an inauthentic self-expression.
It’s difficult to pick apart what’s authentic and what’s a coping strategy, Dr. Pearson continues. It’s about how it makes people feel. If they don’t feel like themselves, it splits it out from general Impression Management. It will need to be split out in research. Kieran says that it feels fuzzy. It’s about what’s feeding into the Impression Management: the stigma around all the microaggressions and invalidation you’ve received over the years.
Kieran would love to see research in the autistic population. Kieran thinks that if he found a pocket of autistics who haven’t experienced that stigma and disconnect growing up and always felt accepted and loved, it would make a great control group.
Kieran had a client who grew up on an island where they were very much accepted until they moved to the mainland at age 20 where everything changed due to how the people around them perceived and treated them. It lead to numerous mental health challenges. Then, I added, there are some who are unable to mask outwardly, and that turns inward where they internalize that something is wrong with them, which affects their mental health.
State versus Traits
I brought up the debate in Personality Psychology between traits and situations where you have certain personality traits that have a large genetic component and are pretty stable after age 7, versus situational models that claim that personality can vary and be manipulating depending on the situation. It reminded Amy of a subject in one of their studies who explained that when she was in a domestic violence situation, those who really knew her wouldn’t have recognized her at all in that relationship.
We know so little about identity as a concept among autistic people, Dr. Pearson continues, whereas we have years and years of social psychological research. We have none of that for autistic people about how they conceptualize themselves. We need more research before we can truly understand autistic masking, Amy says. We need to understand autistic self-conception before we can truly understand how masking works.
Kieran continues that this was part of their frustration with the current narratives which are so focused on a social environment, then coming out of it again, i.e., ‘autistic’/’not autistic’, and where it’s an attempt to compensate from your lack of ‘being normal’ to fit in, because neurotypicality is the ‘right’ way to be. Also, he asks, what is the understanding of authenticity? Within that meaning, that’s where the answers lie, he believes.
When I think about people whom I perceive of as authentic, I think of the trait definition where you can use their traits to predict who they are. When I think about other people who tend to be more of a chameleon, I think more about state concepts where the behaviours can be controlled by manipulating the situation. It makes you question your own authenticity if you tend to mask.
I explained how while I believe there’s an aspect of the environment that highlights different aspects of personality, when push comes to shove and someone has to stand up for themselves, let’s say, your traits determine how much capacity you have to do that, versus your adaptability to show a trait. Amy says that’s where there’s a big source of distress, especially around late identification.
Getting a late autism diagnosis has you questioning which part of yourself is authentic due to the state switches you’ve experienced in your life and in past relationships, for instance. It can also interact with Alexithymia and delayed processing, such as not fully understanding how you felt about a situation until you were out of it and how it changed you at the time. It all feeds into not really knowing who you are, she states.
Safety and Intersectionality
When you are autistic, Kieran says–even if you or others don’t know you’re autistic–you are seen through a lens which sets you up to be stigmatized and pathologized and corrected across every aspect of who you are as a person: how you think, how you feel, how you move, how you act, how you sleep, how you learn, how you communicate, how you socialize, how you play, etc. Every possible way that you can exist is subjected to some level of invalidation and correction, which isn’t always explicit, but there’s also subtle microaggressions such as, “You don’t really feel that“.
Many autistics are told that their emotional states are wrong, how they respond to things is wrong, their behaviour in situations is deemed as wrong, then in systems such as school, there are structural rules that exist, which are arbitrary and are based on one group of people’s experiences, who happen to be the majority, and these experiences are contextual. They change geographically, culturally, and even from house to house they might change, Kieran continues. The stuff that autistics need and create are invalidated.
As an autistic, you need to respond to the environment you’re in, and this gets to the aspect of safety. You see how you’re treated and perceive how you will be treated accordingly, then you project acceptability. On top of that, there’s that extra level of intersectional safety that’s needed. If you are a black or brown autistic person living in the United States, you are more likely to be shot if you behave in any way that is not typical. People who are gay or have different gender identities have increased risks as well.
As an autistic person, you are subject to harm, stigma, mistreatment, invalidation–willingly or not–and on top of that, if you have an intersectional experience that crosses other marginalized identities, then you are more likely to be at greater risk, including a risk of physical harm. Masking is a useful tool, on the one hand, because it keeps one safe, but the cost of it on your emotional and physical well-being is enormous, Kieran explains. Across every domain of your life, it can have a major negative impact when you’re not in control and the situation is in control of you, Kieran asserts.
From a trauma lens, there can be big traumatic events that happen, but sometimes there’s an accumulation of mini-traumas that you respond to and eventually start unconsciously responding to. These experiences can make you be less adaptable than you might naturally be, as a result of the CPTSD, and age can influence how adaptable you’re willing to be as well. There are so many variables to consider.
It makes sense that when autistics meet other autistics as adults, they tend to have a feeling of comfort around each other. We are slowly seeing a shift in society about people pushing for being able to be themselves rather than having to fit into a normative box. Dr. Pearson says that it’s great to push for autism acceptance, but without dismantling and dealing with ableism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., autistic people still will not be able to be themselves. There are multiple facets to who we are, she explains. Autism is one aspect of what shapes who we are, and how big this aspect is to someone varies from person to person.
A client of Kieran’s had a client who loved to bounce. Every time Grandma came over, she would say, “Oh, you aren’t doing that again, are you?” “Oh, you’re making me dizzy.” Over time, the child stopped bouncing. It’s these little tiny things that build up over time, Kieran explains. Why did she bounce? She was regulating and enjoyed it. It eventually became a negative thing. It’s a form of gaslighting, based on things that someone else thinks you should be doing.
Schools institutionalize these narratives of only being able to learn by sitting school, not shouting out the answer, etc. It’s a controlled environment, and if that’s not your natural native way of being, it’s hard. Schools use the term ‘behaviour’, Kieran says. They’re talking about the things the child does that they don’t like, based on an arbitrary idea of what that child should be doing. Offhand comments heard often enough can cause major redirections, suppressions, or changes in behaviour, he explains.
Another beef him and Amy had with the research narrative on masking was the talk around ‘high functioning’ autism, which excludes non-speaking people, people with intellectual learning disabilities, and autistic people who have physical disabilities. When we exclude certain types of human beings from these narratives, it’s problematic, Kieran asserts. Not all children are subjected to that level of invalidation. There’s a superficial masking narrative about autistic people wanting to fit in–no, it’s not a choice, Kieran states. They’ve unconsciously responded to how they’ve been perceived and treated, just like any human would.
Parenting and Clashing Needs
Even parents absorb the autism narrative, I shared. Some things are just a kid being a kid. Kieran adds that the level of policing that autistic kids are being subjected to and that level of ‘everything gets blamed on the autism’ are so problematic. Particularly for parents new to the autism diagnosis, that narrative becomes self-stigmatizing and then you also get stigmatized by society. Then you have an intervention that promises to ‘make your kid like others’, implying that your child is broken.
If you have a child who wants to talk all the time, but you can’t listen all the time, Amy says, it’s about finding ways to recognize your own needs and being able to communicate that. “Let’s talk for this long and then move along“. Find a way to support kids and not make them feel shame, but get across that you can still be yourself. That doesn’t mean you get to do these things all the time, though.
Tying it into DIR
It made me think of comedian Sarah Silverman’s I Love America show where she–a democrat from the northeast–connects with hardcore Republicans in the south. This is why I think it’s so important to meet autistic adults because you get to have examples of people and see who they are, otherwise you just have the narrative that almost expects you to discriminate. We want everyone to see the aspects of the person that shines. I hope that’s what we do in DIR/Floortime.
Regulation (the first capacity of the ‘D’, Development) and Relationship (the ‘R’ of DIR) are the ‘situational factors’ or ‘nurture’ that impact the ‘I’ (Individual differences of the DIR model), i.e., personality or nature factors–although the ‘I’ also includes situational factors like family situation, etc.
At the end of the book, Amy and Kieran discuss fostering identity and who’s responsibility it is to change. They end the book in terms of shifting responsibility away from autistic people who are doing all of the work, trying to be acceptable for others who control the narrative. They also ask where the understanding of what that change looks like comes from. And I hope that’s what we’re doing at the International Council on Development and Learning (ICDL), I shared.
Those who learned DIR/Floortime originally learned it in a medical model way, even though Dr. Stanley Greenspan was ahead of his time in looking at Individual differences and emotion, but there are still people doing DIR as an ‘intervention’. Then, there are others who really get all of this and have moved along with the times and are on top of what autistic self-advocates are saying and the neurodiversity movement.
GET THE BOOK HERE
You can find Autistic Masking: Understanding Identity Management and the Role of Stigma on Kieran’s website, on Amazon (North America), at Chapters/Indigo (Canada), at Barnes and Noble (USA), and at other places where they sell books.
This week’s PRACTICE TIP:
Can we pay extra attention to expectations that we put on our children and make sure that we are not expecting them to conform to a normative standard that comes unnatural to them?
For example: When your child communicates differently than other kids, are you able to advocate for your child’s communication style to help others appreciate how your child communicates? If your child stims by, for example, flapping their arms when excited, are you able to share in their excitement and share that with others versus asking them to stop or be quiet, or making them stop? Are there ways you have noticed that your child can be suppressed from being themselves by you or others (or school)? Let’s allow our children to be who they are, naturally! Feel free to comment below.
I want to thank Dr. Amy Pearson and Kieran Rose for sharing their time to discuss their book on Autistic Masking with us and discussing the various nuances in how it manifests and is understood. I hope that you learned something valuable and will share it on social media and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below.
Until next time, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!