Masking Neurodiversity: A Complex Strategy

By Ethan Milner, LMSW

The term “Neurodiversity” includes a spectrum of presentations including Autism and ADHD. We use the term because it is believed that these presentations are rooted in the ways a person’s nervous system is organized. This can be an intricate and nuanced idea to navigate, as there are so many different expressions and iterations of what a person’s neurological makeup can look like.

There are, however, some unifying concepts that affect people with many different expressions of neurodiversity. One such concept is called “masking,” and is a complex strategy that neurodiverse populations employ for many reasons. Sometimes people “mask” their neurological needs because of shame, peer pressure, parental influence, or generally feeling the need to “fit in” more easily. Sometimes people mask for safety reasons, such as to avoid bullying or to protect their employment status. Sometimes people also mask because they’re intelligent, they observe the behavior of others and assume that it is just how things have to be.

Imagine a person who has great sensitivity to light. This is common with ADHD and Autism but extends beyond just these labels. If they walk into the office and immediately turn off all the overhead lights because it will help them go through their day, what might the consequences be? Surely someone will say something, perhaps even with angry emotions. Suddenly there’s a difficult social situation to navigate. What do you say, how do you portray your own emotions, how do you decode the emotions of the other person, and what about job security? Then, what if that all goes fine but you get some “looks?” Will coworkers think of you differently?

The solution many neurodiverse folks choose is to mask that original need. In this particular scenario, the person might just choose to suffer through it and be uncomfortable all day. In turn, they may have fewer internal resources at the end of the day – less patience, less energy, less focus – just because they’ve had to ignore their needs all day. This causes exhaustion/fatigue, irritability, and even more serious consequences like anxiety, depression, and dysphoria.  It would be like a neurotypical person spending the entire day in a room that’s 85 degrees, and rather than try to make themselves more comfortable, they tell themselves they’re weird and different for being overheated.

Although research into these issues is still being conducted, masking can have some long-term and serious consequences. Reports indicate that neurodiverse people who mask chronically can experience serious forms of exhaustion and burnout, which can look like major depression and even more seriously, like the loss of abilities and skills. Early inquiries seem to tell us something about the impact of masking: that although sometimes necessary, it can come with great costs.

The emerging responses are rooted in the idea of acceptance. If we can create a society in which masking needlessly is no longer a social expectation, perhaps we can make more space for our neurodiverse friends, relatives, and colleagues to be more fully themselves. In turn, making such space can help those folks who need to mask unlearn the painful lessons of their past – that there would be great social and emotional consequences for unmasking. The more a person can accept their own needs and traits without having to combat external factors, the more effectively they can allocate their own internal resources.

Ethan Milner is a licensed clinical social worker who has worked with neurodiverse populations for the last twelve years. His emphasis is on acceptance and communication rooted in the individual’s values and goals. He runs a workshop series for neurodiverse adults, helping them to navigate through the complexities and challenges and to build skills and strengths along the way.  Ethan has also spent his 22 years in the field helping folks navigate trauma and emotional challenges from a strengths-based perspective. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his two cats, Brandine and Cletus.

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