What is Neurodivergent Masking in Professional and Personal Relationships

Hi, I’m Jodi Carlton, a neurodiverse relationship expert, and I want to share some tips with you about masking in the context of neurodivergence. Masking often comes up in conversations about autism and is frequently referred to negatively. However, I’m here to explain why masking isn’t necessarily a bad thing and to emphasize that masking is something everyone does to some extent.

What is Neurodivergent Masking?

Many partners in relationships with autistic individuals describe feeling duped at some point in the relationship when they think their autistic or neurodivergent partner has been masking who they are. Partners might feel that once the relationship becomes serious, the mask comes off, revealing a completely different person. Sometimes this is within weeks or months of moving in together or getting married. Sometimes it’s years later. However, the idea that masking is an autistic strategy to deceive or a “bait and switch” tactic is largely untrue – I’m going to explain why.

Masking is a Filter We All Use

Masking serves as a filter. It’s a way of moderating how we present ourselves in different situations. When my autistic daughter was about 10 years old, she started using a strategy called inside face/outside face. She even recorded a video blog about how to use it for other kids on the spectrum. As a young adult university student, she still uses this tool today in her social interactions. The inside face represents our unfiltered thoughts and feelings, while the outside face is the moderated version we show to the world. 

This strategy is a form of masking, a way to filter what comes out of our mouths or shows on our faces. Many individuals on the spectrum have to consciously learn and employ this strategy, especially in socially demanding environments like work. Those of us who are neurotypical do this naturally, all the time.

The “mask” is not just about facial expressions, though – it also includes our internal thoughts and feelings. In relationships of any kind, honesty is a good policy as a general rule, but filtering or masking is a social survival mechanism of the brain that prevents discord or conflict and promotes connection.

The Misconception of Being Duped

Neurotypical individuals also mask; we just call it by different names, like “wearing different hats.” We might wear a professional “hat” at work which is different from the one we wear as a parent or with our friends or family. While dating, almost all of us wear a mask, particularly in the beginning. 

Think about it – despite a preference for lounging around in sweatpants or pajamas, would most people show up on a date like that? Do we let them see our towels on the floor or sink full of dishes? How many women won’t let their husbands see them without makeup and how many people have hidden snack stashes. 

Moreover, neurotypicals often mask their own reactions to a partner’s words or behaviors that seem inappropriate or insensitive, until a threshold of discomfort is reached. When the neurotypical drops their own mask and expresses feeling hurt or angry, a neurodivergent partner is often mystified after missing other context clues that something is amiss. This is a core type of communication challenge in neurodiverse relationships that results in misunderstandings, confusion, and hurt.

Neurodivergent Masking is Actually Quite Hard

Underneath these masks that we wear around others, we are still the same person. We all take off the masks more at home when we’re tired and need to relax and unwind – most neurotypicals still mask to an extent even with a spouse or children in order to promote relationship harmony, but, let’s be honest, aren’t you grateful that the outside world doesn’t see some of the things you say and do in the privacy of your own home! Me, personally, I catch myself filtering my personal monologues when I am driving alone now that I have a dash cam that records my audio – I don’t want to be in a crash and have my audio commentary entered into evidence!

Filtering and masking is way more exhausting for neurodivergent partners because of the mental effort and energy involved in navigating social interactions. A partner who is mentally, physically, emotionally, or socially exhausted – or experiencing burnout – is not going to have as much capacity to mask and filter in everyday interactions. They may seem uncaring or unkind with words and actions, and it may seem like they have changed from the person a neurotypical partner remembers from early in the relationship. Although all of us do change over time, what is often perceived as a drastic change in personality or character is more likely due to neurodivergent overwhelm or exhaustion.

Awareness Prevents Hurt

Feeling “duped” is often a result of mistaking a neurodivergent partner’s behavioral changes as intentional deception or a lack of love or care, which of course is painful but often the hurt is a result of a misunderstanding. Neurodivergent partners aren’t always consciously aware of when they are masking and unmasking. Their brains are working hard all day due to sensory and executive functioning challenges, so when they come home, their brains need a break and they may not filter their words as much. This doesn’t mean they are inherently mean or that they don’t care about their partner and family; it’s just part of being in a comfortable, unguarded space. 

Neurotypical partners can avoid feeling hurt by recognizing signs of exhaustion or overwhelm and also by paying attention to other signs and behaviors that indicate a neurodivergent partner cares for them and loves them. I tell my clients to ask themselves, “Do I believe my partner is intentionally trying to cause me harm? Do I truly believe that my partner wants me to hurt?” If the answer is “no,” then it’s often best to extend grace and not take it personally. When we take offense where none was intended, our interpretation is the source of our hurt – not the behavior itself.

Avoiding Harm For All

In conclusion, now that you have a new understanding of neurodivergent masking, reflect on what aligns with you and your partner in your own relationship. Share with your partner and have a discussion about how you both filter and when you take off the masks. If you are neurotypical, share what you’ve learned with others – share this article. Be the reason that someone else gains important insight about their relationship that reduces confusion and hurt.

If you’re ready for even more insight along with a step-by-step model for communication in your neurodiverse relationship, I’ve got you covered for that, too: 

FAQs: Neurodivergent Masking in Neurodiverse Relationships

Neurodivergent masking burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that results from the sustained effort of concealing one’s neurodivergent traits to conform to societal expectations. This type of burnout can have profound effects on a person’s well-being and daily functioning.

You can describe it as a state where the effort to appear “normal” becomes so overwhelming that it drains physical, emotional, and mental energy, much like running a marathon every day without rest. This can result in chronic fatigue, emotional instability, and a need for more downtime. Emphasize that this isn’t about not wanting to engage or participate, but about the need to recover from the relentless pressure of masking.

Neurodivergent masking can lead to difficulties in thinking clearly, emotional instability, and physical symptoms like headaches or muscle tension, and chronic fatigue because the constant effort to mask drains energy. Gastrointestinal issues can arise due to heightened anxiety and stress. Additionally, heightened sensory sensitivity may occur, leading to an increased susceptibility to being overwhelmed by lights, sounds, and other sensory inputs. These physical manifestations reflect the toll that sustained masking takes on the body.

Yes, it is advisable to work with a therapist or coach who is trained and experienced in neurodivergence. The best insight will be gained from a professional who is also neurodivergent or has close neurodiverse relationships. A professional will help you create and implement strategies in your daily life to reduce burnout from neurodivergent masking as well as assist with improving interpersonal relationships through education and guidance.

Contact Jodi Carlton, a leading world expert in neurodiverse relationship dynamics and communication, to get personalized guidance about neurodiversity in your life and relationships.

Leave a Comment

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.




Relationship 2.0 Course

Leave a Comment