Understanding Autistic Masking in the Workplace

Becca Lory Hector, CAS, BCCS

Becca Lory Hector, CAS, BCCS

About the Author

Becca Lory Hector is the director of training at AANE and an openly Autistic professional on a mission to close the disability gap in leadership by working with companies to attract and retain disabled talent via their DEIB initiatives. She is an autism and neurodiversity advocate, researcher, consultant, speaker, and author, and focused on Autistic quality of life research. She is also an animal lover with a special affinity for cats who spends most of her “free” time with her many animals and her husband Antonio.

Masking, or social camouflaging, is a favorite social strategy for many neurodivergent people. It’s also a learned trauma response. 

Throughout the course of our lives, be it directly or indirectly, Autistics are told that our natural state of being is inherently “wrong.”  For many of us, this criticism begins at school age and continues well into adulthood and into the workplace. In an effort to survive, and eventually as a successful but harmful coping mechanism, we learn to regularly mimic the ways of the neuromajority despite what our bodies and brains may want or need. Ignoring our basic needs for things like silence, dim lighting, or movement becomes our status quo. And we suffer, all in an effort to camouflage our differences for the comfort of others.

The concept of masking among Autistics involves consciously, and eventually unconsciously, hiding or minimizing our Autistic selves while emulating neurotypical behaviors. Masking is a survival skill most of us developed during childhood when our authentic responses to our world were met with questions, corrections, and judgment. From a very early age, we find that it is easier and less painful to hide who we are than it is to be judged for being our authentic selves.

In the workplace, masking is particularly exhausting as we are often prohibited both by social judgment and office policy from being able to meet our needs. Whether it is our sensory sensitivity, our lack of facial expressions, our limited change in vocal tone, or our direct and exacting communication style, we are constantly required to adjust our actions to fit neurotypical standards as a part of our professional success. And that is all on top of maintaining our regular workload. 

But why do we do it? 

The reasons for Autistic masking in the workplace have almost nothing to do with autism itself. Autistics tend to give some of the following as their main reasons for the need for workplace masking:

  • Fear of unconscious bias, stereotypes, & stigma
  • Desire to connect with colleagues
  • Concern about mistreatment and/or repercussions
  • Eagerness to succeed/be promoted
  • Need to belong

But, while masking is often a successful tactic in the short term, over time, even the best maskers amongst us will succumb to burnout and be forced to leave our jobs.

In small doses, masking can mean quicker, less risky exchanges with colleagues and managers. But in the long term, masking is an unhealthy, unsustainable coping mechanism that causes immeasurable mental distress.

What masking in the workplace looks like definitely varies from Autistic to Autistic to Autistic. But it can include anything like forcing or faking eye contact, minimizing our passion, memorizing social scripts, tolerating sensory discomfort, mimicking clothing style, gestures, and language of our fellow workers. And, let me tell you, masking is so much more WORK than the work we are paid to do. Yup, that is correct. Masking is not just unhealthy for us, it also adds to our workload.

The bottom line is that masking does NOT create sustainable employment, but most Autistic employees don’t feel safe to unmask at work.

Creating a culture of psychological safety in the workplace is a crucial step in allowing Autistic employees to feel secure enough in their roles to gradually unmask and be their authentic selves while still being treated with dignity and respect.

To begin creating a psychologically safe space for Autistic employees to unmask, employers need to recognize that masking is an ingrained defense mechanism built on repeated traumas experienced over the course of our lifetimes. Masking is developed over years if not decades, so employers cannot expect it to be quickly and easily dropped. In fact, it may take quite some time for Autistics to forgive how we have been treated in our workplaces and even more time for employers to earn our trust back. 

Since masking at work stems from fears of discrimination, disbelief, and other forms of ableism such as judgment from coworkers, and barriers to career advancement, a large portion of working Autistic people feel that it is unsafe or inaccessible to have their needs met at work, which directly results in an inability to sustain employment long-term.

How do we begin to fix this? By creating truly diverse and inclusive workplaces, which means making a few changes to how organizations treat their staff. Some of those changes include:

  • Clearly communicating inclusion efforts company-wide
  • Normalizing access to accommodations by making it a simple, safe, and effective process that is easy to find, and follow
  • Providing company-wide educational and training opportunities that reduce bias, stigma, and ableism
  • Ensuring visible inclusion in all components of your workplace, and for the full lifecycle of your employees
  • Fostering a culture where belonging is a priority

Thanks to continuing workplace Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) efforts, we know diverse workplaces are more innovative, productive, and financially successful than more homogeneous ones. We also know that inclusive workplaces which prioritize flexibility help foster a sense of belonging among ALL workers. And, lastly, we know when everyone has the opportunity to work to the best of their ability, it results in a more robust and efficient economy.

As we allow Autistic individuals to feel more comfortable in our workplaces and other shared spaces, we will begin to see more authentic Autistics being sustainably employed. More and more, Autistics will be supported to ask our clarifying questions, to speak up and directly in meetings, to say no to social events outside of work hours, or to tend to our sensory needs. It is crucial that as organizations begin to hire authentic Autistics, that we are met with respect and understanding rather than repercussions and judgment. That is how we begin to foster truly inclusive workplace environments and how we enable Autistic employees to focus on their contributions to the company instead of masking their true selves.

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