In the military, armies use camouflage to hide soldiers and equipment, preventing attack from enemies. In the animal kingdom, several animals use camouflage, imitating the colouration of their surroundings to avoid predators. In each instance the use of camouflaging is for survival mode. Many autistics use a form of camouflaging to navigate our way through life.
While many of us are familiar of the term ‘wearing a mask’ to deflect others from how we’re truly feeling and appearing how we want others to see us, social camouflaging is the consistent effort to suppress our natural instincts in order to conform with social behaviour, to go undetected as being autistic.
It can almost feel like you’re mastering a new acting role, you begin to learn how to hide your personality and quirks to portray the character you think society wants to see. It’s trying to master facial expressions though they don’t align with how you feel on the inside. It’s adopting the style of this new character, even though it’s extremely uncomfortable. We forfeit our typical dialect to connect with others, whilst disconnecting from ourselves.
For many autistic people camouflaging begins from a young age and we are not always aware that we are doing it. It’s a subconscious coping strategy to desperately avoid being excluded and ostracised. As autistics we often experience bullying and camouflaging can become our way of combatting that. It is important to note however that not all autistic people social camouflage.
From my own personal experience when I was a child I’d always think, “I feel different to other children, but I don’t quite know why. It’s as though they already know what to do, how to act and how to be friends, why wasn’t I made that way? How can I be more like them?’.
I was undiagnosed in childhood, but I camouflaged by:
- Stopping myself engaging in self-regulatory and self-stimulating behaviours. I used to rock back and forth, but as others became more aware of this I forced myself to become statuesque, sheer stillness, which was unnatural for me because I needed movement to manage social and sensory environments.
- I stopped myself talking about topics I was interested in, eventually abandoning those topics and adopting the interests of others to fit in.
- I began subconsciously studying others behaviours and trying to merge myself to fit into moulds of others for acceptance. I would change my style, the way I spoke, researching what my peers were interested in to extreme lengths to be able to get through break times and lunch times.
- In school I forced myself to engage in conversations and class discussions, to show I was listening through looking. Forcing myself to maintain eye contact so I wouldn’t be picked on for day dreaming again. Until, I reached my front door and the meltdowns manifested their way into my nightly routines.
I remember as a pre-teen googling ‘How to be normal?’. What I didn’t realise is that my normal is normal, it’s just different. It’s normal for the autistic experience and it’s not wrong, I am not less and I shouldn’t have to be ashamed for being myself.
As I’ve grown older I camouflage by actively forcing myself to make as much eye contact as I possibly can, or else I use the staring at the bridge of the nose technique. I’ve adopted common phrases to converse with people. If I am about to go into a new situation or any form of social environment it can feel like I have to switch autistic brain off and my chameleon camouflage on. I may spend several weeks before psyching myself up and anticipating how I need to act. Under stress, if I am burnt out or extremely uncomfortable the camouflage can fade and the mask begins to slip, but often the difficulties I experience are hidden in plain sight. I’ve also had periods in my life where I’ve camouflaged really heavily, and other times where I’ve been quite vocal and open about being autistic.
*There are three camouflaging techniques we may use:
- Compensation – Finding ways around things we may find difficult. In example, practicing facial expressions in the mirror, using social scripts to converse with others, forcing ourselves to make eye contact.
- Masking – Hiding parts of our autism. In example, Not talking about our special interests and passions to appease others, hiding our feelings and mood, trying to not become non-verbal and keep up with conversation. Suppressing stims, thoughts and anxieties until we are in a safe place.
- Assimilation – Trying to fit in with others to avoid being detected as different. In example, adopting styles, gestures and dialect of others.
What we may gain from camouflaging is social skills and coping strategies that help us to maintain relationships. Camouflaging can also aid us in school and work environments. However, while their may be some gains, the costs of camouflaging are expensive.
Camouflaging costs confidence. Many autistics struggle with self-esteem, for those who are diagnosed it may be that we’re often reminded of our behaviours being wrong, or not neurotypical, and the attempts to fix that. If we are undiagnosed it’s often the script of ‘You’re really weird,’ ‘Your odd!’ ‘You’re a loser.’ It costs confidence because although camouflaging can be a subconscious coping strategy, once we are aware we are autistic we might still camouflage ourselves to fit in with the social environment of the world. As a consistent camouflager we can begin to lose touch with our identity and we can struggle to distinguish whether we’re behaving in this way because we want to or because we like it or are we still aiming to maintain this disguise?
The mental effects of social camouflaging can include depression, anxiety, stress and suicidal thoughts. It may even lead to eating disorders if for example a person camouflages through keeping up with popular culture, dieting and exercising and taking that to an extreme. It can affect the way we maintain friendships, navigate our daily routines and completing tasks whether those tasks be personal or work related. Camouflaging costs energy, it is physically and emotionally exhausting. It can definitely lead to autistic burnout because we are using this energy to camouflage and using our social energy too. When we become aware that we are camouflaging we may play reruns of our interactions and behaviours over the course of the day, preventing us from sleeping, while preparing for the next day of disguise.
For many autistic people, camouflaging that began in childhood and was undetected has cost them diagnosis and support. Although studies show that autistic women use camouflaging techniques it is without question that men certainly do too. The importance of spotting camouflaging behaviours and techniques we use is that if a person is undiagnosed as a child and uses these strategies to navigate their life, any mental health difficulties may be misinterpreted and therefore the person doesn’t receive the support they need.
In an ideal world it would be amazing if we didn’t have to camouflage ourselves and that we could be accepted for who we are, awesome human beings who just happen to be a different neurotype. Autistics may always feel like we have to camouflage and mask our behaviours, but I hope that through more research, accepting and understanding we can express ourselves freely.
We are all different and we are all unique and that deserves to be embraced because differences make our world a more interesting place.
- Three camouflaging techniques source: