Social camouflaging means hiding behavior that may be less socially acceptable and putting extra effort into appearing neurotypical: It has negative consequence in terms of recognizing and diagnosing girls with autism
It is not uncommon for adolescents to want to fit in with their peers. Starting at relatively young ages, many individuals seek social acceptance, and find comfort in relating positively to others. This is a healthy part of social development. However, sometimes, this overwhelming desire to fit in can have negative effects on an individual’s identity development and self-esteem.
Social camouflaging, or the idea that one is hiding behavior that may be viewed as socially unacceptable and putting in extra effort to display more ‘neurotypical’ behavior, can include suppressing repetitive or obsessive behaviors (Egeskov, 2019). While more research needs to be done to better understand the gender differences in social camouflaging, current research supports that men are more commonly diagnosed with autism than women, and suggests this may be due to women’s ability to social camouflage or mask their autism (Hull, Petrides, & Mandy, 2020). This ability prevents women with autism from being diagnosed at earlier ages. Thus, as girls with autism grow into young women, it is important to know the signs of social camouflaging early on so as to better support them.
Motivations for Social Camouflaging
Many young girls and women with autism, like typically-developing adolescents, have a desire to fit in and form friendships. Doing so is one of the primary reasons why young girls and women with autism may social camouflage. Girls and women with autism may believe that the only way they are able to fit in and form friendships with others is by masking autistic features and imitating neurotypical behavior. Other reasons why girls and women may social camouflage could be to avoid discrimination or negative responses from others or to get a desired job. While these motivations are valid, the costs of social camouflaging can be quite significant.
Costs of Social Camouflaging
Girls and women who social camouflage face serious risks and negative effects on their emotional, mental, and physical identities. Social camouflaging requires quite a lot of effort, and can lead to increased mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion and reduced energy (Russo, 2018). Social camouflaging can also lead to an increased sense of loneliness, a lost sense of identity, and inauthentic relationships (Russo, 2018). Probably most significantly, social camouflaging can cause females to avoid an autism diagnosis even when they are full adults, risking proper support. All of these effects can have bitter consequences for confidence, self-esteem, and overall identity for girls and women.
How can I Tell?
So, how do you know if your loved one is social camouflaging? Knowing the signs will allow you to provide the appropriate support. Typically, someone who is social camouflaging may hide their behavior that might be viewed as socially unacceptable and replace it with mimicked social behavior. Mimicked social behavior can mean imitating gestures, forcing eye contact, or mimicking actions during a conversation or exchange. Girls and young women may also force various facial expressions to fit in, like smiles, or prepare for conversations (such as jokes or topics) to support their desire to mask what they may perceive as negative behavior.
How to Support
Social camouflaging can be a very delicate subject to discuss with a loved one. If you suspect your young girl with autism is social camouflaging, check out the ways you can support this process below.
- Earlier diagnosis
If you have any reason to believe that your child has autism, it is important to get them diagnosed sooner rather than later. Doing so prevents your child with autism from being misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, and receiving the proper support or treatment. As discussed earlier, this is especially important for young girls and women, as an earlier diagnosis might prevent social camouflaging tactics, and mitigate the risk of the negative effects social camouflaging can have on young girls’ identity.
- Consider your language in framing autism.
Unfortunately, society can cast a negative light on individuals with autism. Behaviors like stimming or fixated interests can be seen as more of a deficit than a strength. For anyone with autism and anyone who has a loved one with autism, society’s perception can be heartbreaking and difficult to navigate, and is one of the many reasons why young girls may be inclined to social camouflage. How we frame autism in our language matters. Utilizing more of a strengths-based approach rather than a deficit one when considering the characteristics of autism can have a huge influence on how an individual with autism perceives themselves.
- Use your strengths-based language to have positive discussions about autism with your child.
For an individual with a disability, positive self-talk is imperative in having a positive mindset about their different abilities. For young girls and women with autism, having this conversation early can make a huge difference in whether or not they feel inclined to mask characteristics of their autism. Positive discussions may start off with the young girl or women acknowledging their strengths and differences, and discussing how that has positively impacted their experiences.
- If you know a young girl or woman with autism who does social camouflage, work with them on finding situations where they may not have to social camouflage as much.
Excessive social camouflaging can be detrimental, but there are some situations when it might be useful. Working with your loved one to figure out those situations where they may not have to social camouflage as much might increase their happiness and confidence in their identity.
While this article focuses on how to best support young girls and women with autism who social camouflage their autistic features, it is important to note that social camouflaging could be common amongst many individuals with autism, regardless of their gender. The tips above could be useful and applied to anyone with autism who social camouflages, and it is important to always ask an individual with autism how they would like to be supported in minimizing social camouflaging.
Egeskov, C. (2019, March 8). The Art of Masking: Women with Autism [Web log post]. Retrieved December 2, 2020, from https://www.tiimoapp.com/blog/art-of-masking-women-with-autism/
Hull, L., Petrides, K.V. & Mandy, W. The Female Autism Phenotype and Camouflaging: a Narrative Review. Rev J Autism Dev Disord 7, 306–317 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-020-00197-9
Russo, F. (2018, February 21). The Costs of Camouflaging Autism [Web log post]. Retrieved December 2, 2020, from https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/costs-camouflaging-autism/