How Unidentified Autistics are Taught to Socially Camouflage and Mask
I’m an austic therapist, though I didn’t know I was autistic until my 30’s. Even after learning about autism in graduate school for mental health therapy, I did not think I could be autistic because I possessed excellent social skills. I knew how to ask insightful questions, offer a balanced back and forth, maintain appropriate eye contact, show I’m interested with my body language, and more.
Everything I just explained is actually evidence of my autism. When I’m performing these behaviors, I think about them and consciously do them. Many times, I’d prefer to hold my body in a different way, close my eyes, or not respond, but I don’t because I know it’s not the “polite” thing to do.
I was taught how to be appropriately social. My parents and family members unconsciously taught me how to camouflage (blending into society and hiding signs that I’m autistic). They didn’t know I was autistic, they just wanted to help me be more socially appropriate.
For example, my uncle noticed that I liked to stare at people, especially strangers a lot (I still do). He told me a long story to help me learn why it was rude to stare at other people. I learned how to avert my gaze.
My mother taught me over and over proper posture, even though it is far more comfortable to contort my body in different ways (still is).
My grandparents demonstrated appropriate eye contact in a conversation. I still cannot manage to look someone in the eye when I’m telling a story (it feels like it’s physically impossible), but I make up for it by making really good eye contact when someone is talking.
Over the years, I absorbed from my environment the “right” way to socialize, hold myself, and interact.
As a therapist now, I work with late-identified autistic adults.
I hear over and over from them how their well-intentioned family members and friends taught them camouflaging behavior as children.
A father who instructed them not to fidget or play with objects in their hands (what is known as stimming and actually helps autistic individuals to focus better).
An aunt who taught appropriate volume of voice.
A mother who instructed them in what to wear and how to style their hair.
I understand that most of these people were trying to help. In many ways, what my family taught me about social behavior did have benefits. It made other people more comfortable around me. It helped me learn socializing skills. I still use many of those skills as a therapist.
However, the massive amount of camouflaging as a child led to depression and anxiety. While I could blend in externally, I suffered internally and felt off, weird, and somehow broken, which I share more about in my essay I Thought I was Broken Until I learned I was Autistic.
When we’re taught to ignore our natural expressions and ways of being, it also teaches us to dissociate from our feelings and needs. As a kid, I thought if I just tried harder, I would eventually feel normal, belong, and enjoy the same things that everyone else did. I think feelings of depression and anxiety are a normal response to such an experience.
Part of reckoning with an adult identification of autism is seeing yourself and your childhood with different eyes. Suddenly things make sense. Suddenly I’m not broken, but simply built differently. I also see how people recognized my difference and unconsciously taught me camouflaging skills. I now can provide myself what wasn’t provided me - I let myself feel and think how I want.
I also get to choose. I can see the camouflaging skills I’ve developed and choose whether to employ them now or not.
Thank you for reading. If you would like support processing and integrating your autistic identity, I provide therapy for that very thing.