December 30, 2018

When autistic people hide our true selves, what happens?

Recently, a scientific study tried to answer that question. The results were published in a paper, which you can read here:

The paper is awesome, but it’s long and technical, so here’s a summary.

When we try to act less autistic in front of others, it’s called “camouflaging.” Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But until recently, there hasn’t been a good way to measure it.

Why does that matter? Well, autistic people have been saying for years that camouflaging is stressful. To prove it, though, we need data. So, with help from autistic adults, researchers created a new questionnaire to measure camouflaging.

Previous studies have tried to compare how autistic a person is on the inside with how autistic they look on the outside. Women usually have a higher gap between the two. But there are two problems with the gap approach.

First, it requires measuring internal autism, and we don’t have an accurate way to do that yet. Autism is currently diagnosed by behavior, which is external.

Second, it doesn’t measure unsuccessful camouflaging. Someone who tries to hide their autism, but cannot, will have the same gap as someone who isn’t trying at all.

Another study observed autistics in social settings, and listed any actions that seemed like camouflaging. But they didn’t ask actual autistics about their intentions.

A better approach is to let autistics report our own experiences. That’s what the new questionnaire does. It asks questions about how we camouflage autistic traits, and why.

Even people who aren’t autistic sometimes have similar traits, and sometimes hide them to make a good impression. So, the questionnaire was given to both autistics and non-autistics.

Once the researchers had some data on camouflaging, they wanted to see how it affects other areas. So they also got people to answer five more questionnaires, ones that already existed – for autistic traits, social anxiety, general anxiety, wellbeing, and depression.

Then they did some math. Specifically, they used “factor analysis,” which is a way to take a bunch of data and find any patterns in it.

The first thing they noticed is that strategies for camouflaging seem to fall into three main categories.

“Compensation” is trying to learn social rules, by copying what others say and do.

“Masking” is changing what your face and body are doing, to seem less autistic to others.

“Assimilation” is trying to fit in, by hiding discomfort and acting more like others.

Then, they noticed what else happens when we camouflage.

Autistics who use masking also tend to show fewer autistic traits.

Autistics who use compensation also tend to have lower wellbeing.

Autistics who use any kind of camouflaging also tend to have more social anxiety, general anxiety, and depression.

Camouflaging may prevent some people from meeting the diagnostic criteria – even if they’re actually autistic. Since the new questionnaire identifies how much a person uses camouflaging, it may be helpful for diagnosing autism in the future.

It also proves that camouflaging can cause problems. So, what’s the takeaway for autistics? As much as possible, be yourself.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.