What Does High Masking in Autistic and Neurodivergent Females Look Like?

Meet Wendy, A High Masking Autistic Woman

A topic that has recently sparked growing interest is the concept of high masking in autistic and other neurodivergent females. What better way is there to discuss this topic than by chatting with a woman who is autistic? 

Wendy, a former client is an inspiring autistic woman and also a mom and wife to a neurodivergent husband and children. She reached out to me wanting to share her insights and experiences with masking on my podcast, YOUR Neurodiverse Relationship

In this enlightening discussion, Wendy bravely opened up about the exhausting act of fitting into societal norms. Her candidness offers a glimpse into the challenges and triumphs faced by many neurodivergent women, shedding light on an aspect of autism that is frequently misunderstood, especially in women. Through our conversation, we hope to bring greater awareness and understanding to this vital topic.

Mimicking Others In Childhood to Fit In

high masking in autistic and neurodivergent females

Wendy begins with sharing a recount of her childhood, where social blunders often put her on the outside of social groups. She observed others closely and mimicked their behaviors to fit in, signaling the beginning of her masking journey. 

[00:03:53] Wendy: Watching people growing up as a child in a school setting, especially as a girl, I made a lot of social blunders that really put me on the outside of social groups and that was really hard for me during my development. I just learned to watch what everyone else is doing and do what everyone else is doing in order to be accepted by people. And then as I got older, led to asking the question, why are they doing what they’re doing in this situation?

So, yeah, so that’s how I got interested in it. It helps me to feel like I’m learning and understanding people a little bit better when I can read and have someone actually lay it out, like this is how it works. Then that helps me to be like, oh yeah, okay, I saw that. I see that in real life. 

[00:04:53] Jodi: So in the beginning for you, when you were growing up, the masking was more of a duplication or a copy mimicking would you say?

[00:05:02] Wendy: I think so. Especially when I got in my late teens and twenties, when I was able to branch out from like the kids that had known me since I was in elementary school and meet new groups of people, I would frequently get the comment, “Oh, Wendy’s coming out of her shell.”

I sat and observed enough to know what behaviors would be acceptable in a certain group of people and what of MY behaviors would be acceptable to the group of people. I had also learned to copy other behaviors that I observed they were also doing. 

[00:05:49] Jodi: So when you started coming out of your shell was after you’d had that time to observe and to figure out that group or to figure out that person and then once you felt like you understood what they were all about or what was acceptable to them, that’s when you would start also filling in those behaviors yourself. Is that what you’re saying? 

[00:06:12] Wendy: Yeah. Some of that, and also some of I can do THIS with THESE people, but this OTHER thing with these OTHER people.

Systematically Studying Social Skills in Others

Wendy goes on to share how, as she grew older, she questioned why people acted the way they did in certain situations, leading her to delve into social psychology. She explained that, unlike neurotypical people who absorb social skills naturally, those on the spectrum have to learn them in a systematic way. This includes developing scripts for various social scenarios, practicing these scripts, and dealing with the anxiety that comes with social interactions.

[00:08:01]  Jodi: What you learned in social psychology, what would you say is different for that autistic experience versus maybe the neurotypical experience of learning about masking or how we do it differently?

[00:08:17] Wendy: Well, I think the amount of effort we have to put into it when we’re on the spectrum. I also have kids who are dyslexic readers and I think it’s very similar to reading with dyslexia. As someone with dyslexia, I just can’t say “I have dyslexia. I don’t have to read.” Someone on the spectrum can’t just say, “I’m on the spectrum. I don’t have to socialize.” That’s not healthy. 

[00:08:49] Jodi: Or, “I don’t have to be appropriate.”

[00:08:51] Wendy: Right. Exactly. But someone with dyslexia has to be taught the way to read in a very systematic way. Someone on the spectrum has to learn the social skills that neurotypicals just absorb naturally.They have to learn them in a much more systematic way. They have to put a lot more thought into developing a script for themselves. 

I’m about to meet my new neighbor. I just moved into a new neighborhood. I’ve had to meet so many new people in the last month. Every time it happens, I get a little bit anxious. What am I going to say? Am I going to say the right thing? How do I approach a conversation with someone that I have no relationship with at all? What are the correct things to say to this person? 

[00:10:48] Jodi: So a lot of people have social anxiety, even neurotypical folks have social anxiety. I would say what I heard differently for you is when you pair that anxiety with the scripting piece, because a lot of people who are neurotypical may have social anxiety, but it’s not that they don’t know the script.

It’s the anxiety of having to go through with it. Whereas you are describing the anxiety is because you’re not sure how to go through with it. Am I describing that 

[00:11:23] Wendy: Yeah, I think that’s pretty well it.

Masking Versus Being Inauthentic

One of the common misconceptions we tackled in this episode is the idea that masking is synonymous with being inauthentic. Wendy illuminated this by sharing a conversation she had with her husband about rejoining a social group they had been away from. Although her husband’s true feelings were complex, Wendy suggested a simple, polite response appropriate for the situation. This highlights the nuanced and often necessary act of masking to navigate social norms and maintain relationships.

[00:12:50] Jodi: Let’s talk about this idea that masking equals being inauthentic. What are your thoughts on that? 

[00:13:00] Wendy: I had an interesting conversation with my husband because we were about to reenter a social group that we had been away from since the beginning of COVID. It had been two years. People are gonna be like, “Oh, are you happy to be back?” Or things like that.

[00:13:22] And he was like, “I don’t know what I’m gonna say,” because he was still feeling a little bit hurt from some of the fallout. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I basically gave him a simple script. I just said, say this simple thing,” Oh yeah, we missed everybody so much. We’re so glad to be here.” Was it a mask a little bit because his true feelings were like, ” I am very hurt. This is very painful for me,” but it was not appropriate for him to unload that on the first person who’s like, “Oh hey, are you glad to be back?” 

[00:13:59] Jodi: Yes. Okay.  So what you’re saying is that these are some of the nonverbal dynamics of social relational interactions that are very hard to nail down, very hard to quantify and even script out.

Exhausting Mental Effort and Cognitive Processing

Subtle social cues like vocal tone and body language play a significant role in social interactions. For neurodivergent individuals, interpreting these cues can be challenging and exhausting. Wendy illustrated this with her own experiences and acknowledged that her day-to-day interactions with her children were different from those in varied social or professional settings.

Wendy elaborated on the immense cognitive effort required for autistic individuals to participate in social interactions. She noted that processing speed is often slower, making it difficult to keep up with the rapid flow of social cues. This can be especially draining for those working in environments with constant social interactions.

Thank you so much to Wendy for talking with me for opening up about how masking affects her life as an autistic woman in this episode of the YOUR Neurodiverse Relationship podcast! Listen to other episodes on any major podcast platform or watch the videocast on YouTube.

Contact Jodi Carlton, Neurodiverse Relationship Expert 

Are you navigating neurodiversity in your life and relationships? Jodi Carlton, a leading world expert on adult neurodiverse relationship dynamics and interpersonal communication, can help. Contact Jodi today!

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