Neurodiversity and camouflaging

Neurodiversity and camouflaging
Photo by Leon Pauleikhoff / Unsplash

Camouflaging - or masking - neurodivergent traits is the act of covering up our differences so they are (hopefully) harder to spot. In this video I talk about why we do it, how it can become an issue, and what we can do about it.

Content warning: This talk contains mention of trauma, isolation, and mental health difficulties.


  • CAT-Q -
  • Belcher, Hannah L., Sharon Morein-Zamir, Will Mandy, and Ruth M. Ford. “Camouflaging Intent, First Impressions, and Age of ASC Diagnosis in Autistic Men and Women.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 52, no. 8 (August 1, 2022): 3413–26.
  • Lawson, Wenn. “Adaptive Morphing and Coping with Social Threat in Autism: An Autistic Perspective.” Journal of Intellectual Disability - Diagnosis and Treatment 8 (September 18, 2020): 519–26.
  • Hull, Laura, Meng-Chuan Lai, Simon Baron-Cohen, Carrie Allison, Paula Smith, K. V. Petrides, and William Mandy. “Gender Differences in Self-Reported Camouflaging in Autistic and Non-Autistic Adults.” Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 24, no. 2 (February 2020): 352–63.
  • Cage, Eilidh, and Zoe Troxell-Whitman. “Understanding the Reasons, Contexts and Costs of Camouflaging for Autistic Adults.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 49, no. 5 (2019): 1899–1911.
  • Raymaker, Dora M., Alan R. Teo, Nicole A. Steckler, Brandy Lentz, Mirah Scharer, Austin Delos Santos, Steven K. Kapp, Morrigan Hunter, Andee Joyce, and Christina Nicolaidis. “‘Having All of Your Internal Resources Exhausted Beyond Measure and Being Left with No Clean-Up Crew’: Defining Autistic Burnout.” Autism in Adulthood 2, no. 2 (June 1, 2020): 132–43.
  • Cassidy, S. A., K. Gould, E. Townsend, M. Pelton, A. E. Robertson, and J. Rodgers. “Is Camouflaging Autistic Traits Associated with Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviours? Expanding the Interpersonal Psychological Theory of Suicide in an Undergraduate Student Sample.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 50, no. 10 (October 2020): 3638–48.
  • Unmasking Autism, by Dr. Devon Price -


So hello everyone, apologies if you've just caught the beginning of that last live stream where my mic wasn't working.
Hopefully you'll be able to hear me now.
So we're going to be talking about neurodiversity and camouflaging today.
Camouflaging is also sometimes known as masking and we're going to be talking about what it is, how it shows up, why some of us do it,
why that can be an issue, why it can be a problem because it can be a significant problem for people and what we can do about it, how we can work with it if we are people given to camouflaging and masking.
And I want to share a bit of a content warning at the top of the show.
We're going to be talking about some issues around trauma around isolation and mental health issues that derive from those today.
So if any of those are an issue for you, please take whatever steps you need to stay safe and comfortable.
Please do ask questions during the show if you're watching this live and in the comments afterwards as well.
This show itself is the result of a question from my previous one and a request from the previous live stream that I did.
So thank you very much to Anya for suggesting it.
Now, one of the interesting things again, this is quite a personal one for me.
I'm very high masking in terms of my autism and ADHD and it's one of the reasons that I didn't get spotted until later.
And late diagnosis is very much a thing related to high masking.
It very often goes together.
So let's have a quick talk about what actually we mean by camouflaging.
So what I mean by camouflaging is hiding our neurodivergent traits when they're not welcome, when they're not okay, when it's not acceptable to be us.
Now, this is very similar to other marginalized and minoritized communities where this practice is called code switching or passing or a range of other different things.
Now, not every neurodivergent person does this, can do this actually, and it's something that only some of us do.
It's really not always conscious, particularly by the time we're adults.
It's something that we kind of do automatically and just show up.
Certainly for me, it's actually more like a feeling of absence.
I only notice that I've not been masking rather than that I am masking because it's such an automatic thing for me.
It's also not just about covering up those kind of the weaknesses.
I think when we say masking, people assume we mean kind of papering over the cracks.
We mean like striving really hard to make up for weaknesses.
Whereas actually quite a lot of masking, particularly in adults is hiding the strengths that come with it.
A good example of this is the kind of ability to tangent and jump topics, but stay actually answering something in inner space with ADHD brains.
And that we often limit our tangents.
We limit our jumps because we know that they can be uncomfortable for people who don't share that strength.
And so we tend to hold back unless we're with someone else who can do it.
And this links to the idea of hyper-adaptions and masking.
Now hyper-adaptions are things that we've got incredibly good at through practice to make up for the fact that we were struggling with some aspect of life within this context, within this neurotypical context.
Some examples of hyper-adaption and one of the big ones that I see is hyper-empathy, which is getting over that barrier of empathy for someone who doesn't share that much of your lived experience.
And being able to empathize really strongly with other people just to be able to do that at all and have developed that as actually a strength.
And a lot of neurodivergent people actually end up using this as a strength.
Another example is hyperlexia, you know, having lots of words and using lots and lots of words very accurately.
This is where you get so many autistic and even dyslexic authors and writers, I think, you know, that you overcome and use different pathways,
but you've adapted to the difficulty of doing something in that different way and become really, really strong at it.
And this can often form part of the camouflaging that we perform.
Now, all of this, as you can guess, definitely has a very high chance of covering over some of the difficulties.
We might be really struggling with it, but we don't know that other people aren't necessarily struggling with it as much.
Or it looks okay from the outside, even though it's exhausting or difficult for us.
So when we ask for help, we don't actually get it.
Now, this is a really big problem and we're going to talk about some of the difficulties in a bit.
So I'll come back to that later.
If you're considering listening to this and going, oh, maybe I'm masking, maybe this is a thing for me.
Then the cat queue, which is linked to here, is an inventory, a test you can do that looks for traits of camouflaging autism specifically.
It won't help you with other neurodivergent traits.
And it must be said that camouflaging, masking, behavior is more commonly associated with autism than it is with other neurodivergent conditions.
Though it's definitely a thing with other neurodivergent conditions as well.
It's just that there's more work been done, more research been done on the autism.
So if you're thinking about this and you're wondering about this, it's a good place to start and understand.
This is particularly true if you're not sure about what you're experiencing.
You think you might have some autistic traits, but they're not showing up in normal ways.
Because one of the big ways that masking can affect how things present is that they show up in un-stereotypical or different ways.
And I also want to note that I'm recording this on International Women's Day.
And there's quite a lot of the research suggests that masking, camouflaging behavior is higher in autistic women than it is in autistic men.
So it's hopefully somewhat appropriate that we're talking about this today.
So I'd like to talk about why we do this. Why would we start doing this?
Why would we behave this way?
The big one of these is it's about fitting social expectations.
It's about behaving in ways that are appropriate, that are supposed to be.
Even when they don't fit how we should behave, how we would like to behave, how we would respond to things.
One of the big areas of this is gendered expectations and that, particularly for autism and ADHD,
some of the behaviors that are commonly associated with autism and ADHD are more acceptable,
particularly for white men and boys, actually, than any other group, so that masking can tend to be lower.
And the research bears this out. You'll see that if you follow up some of the references here,
then you'll see that it's much more likely that people from ethnic minorities and women are more likely to mask than white men.
One of the other reasons to mask is about wanting to succeed, wanting to do well.
And this can start very early on. This can start at school and then follow through to work.
What is expected to be successful or what is rewarded is often not behaving in ways that we might naturally behave.
So we learn to cover those up. We learn to mask them.
We learn to make sure that people can't see the difference as much as possible.
Another big part of this is wanting others to feel comfortable.
Behaving differently can lead to people feeling very uncomfortable sometimes and that can mean that they distance themselves from us
or it can mean that they kind of project that discomfort onto us, see us as things that we're not.
So we learn to manage that and cover that up.
Another really, really big area and reason to mask is to protect ourselves from the bullying and harassment that can arise if we're neurodivergent.
Being neurodivergent puts us at much, much greater risk of experiencing this all through our lives,
whether we're talking about school or work or wherever.
There are a lot of reasons why this happens and I might do a whole show on exactly some of the dynamics around this.
But it is a real issue.
Masking is a way of avoiding being a target. Essentially, it's a way of covering that up.
Now, a lot of the masking or some of the masking that we may do is likely to be rooted in some form of trauma.
Either we've been punished for things that we didn't understand or didn't have control over or we've lost friendships,
we've experienced social trauma, we've hurt people who we didn't have any intent of hurting, any of this stuff.
And that can lead and had a whole bunch of overwhelming experiences that we don't really know how to process.
Over time, that can lead to quite significant trauma and can lead to the mask being entirely automatic
and that's not really having a choice as to whether we do it, if we see the trigger, it just happens.
And that kind of obligate masking where we can't not mask can become a real burden.
That's very much something that actually I experience and quite a lot of people who are quite high masking
is I can't really turn the mask off even when I'm on my own.
Actually, one of the times the only time I can really fully unmask is when I'm with other people who think and experience the world more like me
and are also unmasked themselves.
So it's a really interesting how pervasive that obligation can be and how easy it is to kind of continue that pattern.
And speaking of continued patterns, one of the big issues that we face as neurodivergent people is a whole load of neurodivergent traits are hereditary.
That means we inherit them from parents and likely they inherited them from their parents and back and back and back.
So this can be a real issue if someone in that chain had been taught unhelpful ways of working with those conditions,
had been taught that they needed to mask and that there was trauma associated with that,
because they will probably pass that on out of care because when we when we have a trauma response like that,
it's about safety and security and we want our kids to be safe and secure more than anything.
So we pass that on because we've learned that you have to behave like this to stay safe and secure,
but that can be really problematic because it means we can pass problematic things on and we might well,
if we start exploring masking, find out that quite a lot of what we've picked up is actually picked up from our family
who have essentially taught it to us because they had learned that they needed to do it to stay safe.
So they've taught it to us as well.
And I want to talk a bit about why masking is such an issue.
Now, I think there is some discourse around that essentially masking is something that's a useful adaption.
It's something that we should do or that if we can do is sets us in a more privileged position than people who don't do it.
Now, I think to some degree that may be true, but it's also a case that we may well have experienced environments
where we were forced to mask and where we've developed in ways that wouldn't necessarily weren't our natural ways.
So we've had to learn it's kind of cost us something along the way.
The opportunity cost of learning to mask is quite significant compared to all the other things we could have been learning and developing,
and we could have been focusing on strengths instead.
And this plays out all the way through into adulthood.
There's a really big effort required to mask.
Even if we're not doing it consciously, it's taking that background effort.
It's using our ability to pay attention and exhausting us very often.
It's one of the big reasons that we might burn out as because we're masking all the time or spending a lot of time masking.
And another reason that camouflaging is a burnout risk is because we'll be doing things that we think others want us to be doing
rather than doing the things that we want to be doing.
And that is a huge energetic burden over time.
It means doing a whole load of things that don't actually meet our intrinsic needs.
And so there is a real, real risk when we spend a lot of time masking camouflaging of burnout.
Another aspect of this is for a lot of us because it is so resource intensive
that if we are camouflaging, we will find that in some circumstances we can do it.
But when we're tired, when we're ill, when we're overwhelmed, we can no longer do it.
And this can lead to all sorts of difficulties.
It can lead to people believing that we're faking very often, and that's very easy to internalize.
This idea that just because I can do it at extreme effort at big cost sometimes means that I'm fine and I can do it always
is something that is really, really easy to internalize.
And that can lead to imposter syndrome around our own difficulties and our experiences that we're having
and lead us to really start to discount some of our own experiences and not listen to those internally.
Unfortunately, one of the really, really big risks of camouflaging and masking is loneliness and isolation.
Because we never really let anyone see ourselves as ourselves because we've learned that that's not safe.
We can, it can lead to feeling very isolated, very lonely, because we never have that really close
or very rarely have that close interpersonal connection where we're actually being witnessed, seen as who we are.
And over time, that can build into a wider lack of belonging, a sense that we don't really fit in anywhere and don't feel that we fit.
This can also show up professionally, where we can be as successful as we like by external measures.
But we never feel that that really is us or something that we've achieved or something that really is something that's going to stay and last.
It can feel very precarious, like we're about to be found out all the time.
Another big area that camouflaging can be an issue is actually in hiding strengths.
And we've already touched on this, that sometimes we will just hide strengths because they're not welcome in a situation.
It kind of gives us away.
It's also the case that very many of the, what we perceive as weaknesses, they're the other side of the coin of strengths.
So they're there.
It's just that we're hiding and in hiding the weaknesses, we also hide the strengths.
Another reason that we might camouflage is because of this.
As I mentioned, the inconsistent ability is if we can show up strong one day, people are going to assume, oh, well, okay, they can do this and they can always do this.
Whereas if we know that's not true, we might also know that it's unsafe to be perceived as strong in a certain area.
Because if someone sees us as strong in a certain area, they can assume we can do a whole bunch of other things or we don't need support.
Or we will always be able to show up like that.
So we learn to hide it.
One of the big areas that this, that the masking and camouflaging causes problems for organizations is we also learn not to speak from our own perspective.
We learn not to say what we're actually thinking and what we're actually understanding about the situation.
And because these differences in perspective are so valuable to everyone else, because we're all perceiving different aspects of the truth.
But, you know, you've got a whole load of people all seeing things in broadly similar ways.
And so they see some things and they miss some things.
And so you've got someone looking from a different perspective and they're seeing different things.
They're also missing things, but the fact that they're seeing different things is really, really important.
And as neurodivergent people, that's very often us.
And so by not being able to say those out loud, not speaking those, everyone else in the collective loses out on that perspective.
A final issue with camouflaging and masking is, as I mentioned, when it's trauma related, it's often unmoderated.
It's uncontrolled.
It's all or nothing.
It takes a small trigger to get you started on that pathway and you're full on.
You're doing whatever it is and it's a really strong response.
This has a whole load of difficulties.
It can be difficult for other people around us because they don't understand why they've got such a strong response so quickly.
It can be exhausting for us because we're having to do some huge amount of effort that we maybe didn't need to.
We're responding too strongly to something in the current circumstances.
Because it's masked, because we feel on some level that it's not OK to have any sign of being that way or feeling that way or showing up that way.
And ultimately, being able to work with this and being able to soften the response is really, really helpful.
What we want to do is be able to moderate control, find a dimmer switch, because sometimes it will be helpful to be able to camouflage.
We might not be able to be our full selves in every situation.
But what we want to be able to do is make that a conscious decision and pick and choose when we camouflage and when we don't.
And I want to talk a bit about how we can do this and how we might be able to do this.
So the first thing I want to say is when you're looking at exploring this, really take care about choosing therapy.
Because there are some therapeutic approaches out there that are really designed to increase masking and camouflaging behavior rather than decrease it.
The biggest one in the space is ABA, which is applied behavioral analysis used with autistic people and is really not from my perspective a healthy thing for many autistic people at all.
Because it increases the camouflaging, the masking and all of the downsides that come with it.
Ultimately, this is going to be about finding your own way through all of the different things and working with them in your own way.
But these are some of the things that I found are helpful in doing that.
One of the big ones is celebrating our strengths.
As I mentioned, you know, they're kind of two sides of the same coin anyway.
So the more we are comfortable with our strengths, the more we are comfortable with what is necessary to create those and support them with everything about ourselves and that relationship.
Being in spaces where you're really allowed to show up as you, where you're welcomed for being you, everything that you add, everything that you contribute is a really, really healthy way of experientially understanding that and kind of starting to shift some of those really deep assumptions.
Because it's all very well me kind of saying this and you might be thinking and agreeing this kind of consciously and cognitively.
But these things run very deep and it's only through experience and the experience of it working that we can really get used to get it into us in a different way.
Another way to explore this is to think about what neurodivergent ways of relating look like.
Quite a lot of masking is social and relational.
And so this camouflaging behavior, it shows up in all of our, in our personal relationships and in our working relationships.
Finding styles of relating that are actually more true to you and how you like to show up in relationships.
And finding people who value that and enjoy that can be a hugely rewarding way of working with some of this.
One of the other aspects of this I wanted to pick up is that I've spoken to quite a lot of people and who've done quite a lot of work on trauma explicitly and on their own experiences of trauma.
And one of the big things that shows up that kind of points to you camouflaging masking is the normal expectation I think is when you do trauma work,
you're going to become on some level less weird, kind of more normal.
Your responses are going to become more normal.
And one of the big experiences of people doing camouflaging masking who undergo trauma work is actually that they become on some level weirder.
But they're more comfortable with it and they enjoy it.
And that's certainly been my experience as well.
So it's worth noting that if you do do trauma work and you're like, why am I getting stranger?
This was supposed to make me kind of more normal.
Then the answer is potentially that's because some of your camouflaging masking behaviors were rooted in the trauma that you have unpicked.
Another big thing that comes up for people is unpicking our own internalized prejudice to our own responses in the world.
It's incredibly easy to in fact, it's almost it's very hard not to pick up a fair amount of internalized ableism just because of the messages that we hear all the time.
And we're going to in kind of internalize a lot of those and pick those up.
So really working with our own feelings about how other people behaving certain ways relate to our behaving certain ways is a huge part of the work and is really, really helpful in feeling more at ease with ourselves and are more inherent, more direct, easier ways of behaving.
Ultimately, we want to be able to choose to camouflage or not.
It's a mask that we can choose to put down and choose to pick up again if we need to.
And moving towards that place is really, really valuable work.
I want to just shout out to a really helpful book in this space, which is unmasking autism by Dr. Devin Price.
I think it's particularly useful if you are high masking, relatively low as support needs, and you are looking at autism and thinking about why it doesn't show up conventionally for you.
So please do ask any questions in the comments.
I would love to hear from you and share any topics, any further explorations that you would like me to hear.
You would like to hear me speaking about.
There are lots of notes available on the website for this.
The references and the transcript will be available shortly after the show.
So I hope this has been useful and I look forward to seeing you on another stream soon.