I’m an adult PDAer author, advocate and artist who masks, and who has a ten-year-old PDA daughter who masks too.
This blog article explores PDA masking:
- what it is
- why it is carried out
- whether it is more common for PDAers than “general” autistic people
- whether masking is a universal PDA trait
- what are its benefits and costs
What is masking?
Masking means hiding true feelings behind a display of emotions we don’t really feel. Often the masked front presented will be one of happy calmness hiding internal stress and anguish. Sometimes also gentle emotions may be masked with aggressive ones. I had a very interesting conversation recently with a trans PDAer who said that, when trying to be the boy she thought she should be, she acted tough and aggressive, and that this had felt empowering until she realised she didn’t want to be like that; that this was not her authentic self.
A form of masking is social mimicry. This means copying other people’s words, mannerisms, and body language, etc. This may often be to fit in and get along with people.
I often find myself automatically adopting the accents and mannerisms, etc, of people I’m talking with.
What do people mask?
This, I think, is a very important question that's worth examining in detail.
The word “masking” has become synonymous with autistic oppression and injustice.
Masking is commonly viewed as learnt, forced oppression which can and should be cast off so that autistic people can be authentic and free.
Forced masking is unnatural
It's about autistic people being bullied into hiding their natural differences so they act like neurotypical people
An example of forced masking is ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) which has been proven to cause long-term psychological damage including PTSD and tics
This is the type of masking people think of when they talk about “dropping” masks.
Why else might people mask?
I, however, believe masking to be more multifaceted than this.
Yes, I think it can be an evil forced onto autistic people in order to suppress our natural, true selves,
BUT I don’t think this is always the case
I think sometimes, we may instinctively wish to mask, and that doing this can even –shock horror!– be healthy and positive (we’ll come back to this).
I witnessed what I believe was instinctive, rudimentary masking in my daughter when she was a toddler. As soon as she was able to communicate it, she fiercely denied being hurt or upset.
For example, if she painfully bashed her head so blood was streaming down her face, she’d be upset if we tried to comfort her, and insist she was OK.
This was really hard to parent because my entire instinct was to soothe and comfort her, but trying to do this caused her to panic and become even more upset.
I learnt in the end to calmly open my arms wide without making an issue out of it so she could come to me for a cuddle without her pain being acknowledged. I’d like to clarify that we, her parents, had never disapproved of our daughter displaying distress.
To my mind, her determination to hide her pain came from an instinctive drive to mask her vulnerability.
If we look at animals, we can see that this type of masking is a common, natural drive.
We keep pet rabbits, and our vet told us that rabbits, as prey animals, instinctively hide pain and stress so they don’t appear weak.
A vet’s website says:
“hiding pain is a behavior animals developed long ago in the evolutionary process. This was necessary to protect themselves from predators during times of injury or sickness. Even though they’ve been domesticated for thousands of years, this adaptive advantage has remained ingrained in our pets to this day.” URL: https://grandvalleyvet.com/pet-pain-why-animals-hide-it-and-what-you-can-do-to-help
I can relate to having felt I must mask my pain for no reason I can retrospectively identify. An example that comes to mind is when I had a new job starting in a bar in central Turkey (a place that had become my second home). The night before I started this new job, I bashed my toes on the step of a stone stair so hard that they went black and swelled up. Instead of telling my new boss that I couldn’t walk or stand without massive pain, I pretended to be fine and hid my difficulty. In retrospect, I know he’d have been sympathetic if I’d told him I had this injury. But my instinct had been to hide it.
Another example: as a child, I was in the school playground during a break and had a pack of square chew sweets for my snack.
One stuck in my throat.
It was agony. I struggled to breathe and panicked that I couldn’t swallow it ever, but my instinct was to act like I was fine so no one would know I was distressed.
I eventually managed to swallow it, but I masked my relief as well. I just hadn’t wanted anyone to to spot that I’d struggled.
So in addition to forced “bad” masking, some masking is instinctive behaviour, that’s actually carried out by animals.
This type of masking can’t just be “dropped” in the way that people assume ALL autistic masking can and should be.
If it’s a natural instinct (like blinking if something comes towards our eyes) how can it be “dropped”?
And how can it be “healed” if it wasn’t caused by trauma?
Masking as a communication aid
I believe that the social mimicry aspect of masking can serve as a vital communication aid for those of us who lack intuitive wiring to know what to say and do to connect with others.
I respect that many autistic people have no desire to mimic others so as to communicate with them. I’m not judging right from wrong, but I do know that I, personally, have a desire for my communication to “succeed” (as in the person I’m speaking with correctly interpreting what I’ve tried to say).
I relished the tutoring I had in training as a person-centred counsellor because I got direct, informed, expert feedback about how effective I had been at communicating empathy, genuineness and positive regard.
I’d like to add that, for me, I do not naturally know how to communicate my true feelings and rely on masking/mimicry in order to do this. This is different, I think, from trying to fool people that I feel other than I do. For me, I cannot naturally communicate what I really feel without masking. I’m aware that this might sound contrary. I believe my neurology lacks a level of social-reading capacity that neurotypical people possess. On top of this, I genuinely want to engage as fully as possible with people and embrace using tools that enable this.
In this light, I think masking can be thought of as a natural drive (not always, but sometimes).
So, I think it’s important to bear in mind that not all masking is forced onto autistic people by others.
Masking as the only way I can communicate
This may sound odd, but I don’t think I can communicate with anyone, not even my closest family, without masking.
To me, this isn’t about being false, but about needing the interface of a mask in order to express myself.
It confuses me when autistic people talk about dropping their masks. I think, “how?”
I often hear people saying that they, or their children, drop their masks at home. Maybe they do, but for me, I think it’s more that I feel more relaxed at home because the masks I’ve developed to interact with my family members are so well-practiced and comfortable that I can carry them out on autopilot.
So beyond forced “bad” masking and instinctive masking, there’s a third type:
Masking used voluntarily as a helpful & desired communication tool
Whereas forced masking is clearly unhelpful for individuals,
And instinctive masking in neither good nor bad (it just is)
Masking that helps people communicate because they WANT to communicate must surely be thought of as a positive asset?
Is masking more common for PDA than general autism?
I believe that the commonness of masking is one of many things that differentiates PDA from general autism.
I gained my adult autism diagnosis in 2013.
I’d sought my diagnosis after coming across a female autism traits list and being grabbed by a description of social mimicry.
I felt a rush of relief that my life-long ordeal of being socially-driven but lacking the perception to know WTF to say and do to socially connect was finally acknowledged.
“What an unfortunate concoction of neurological wiring,” I lamented with passion, “for those of us fitting the female-pattern autism profile.”
But I then learnt that the majority of fellow female autistics seemed to view masking and social mimicry as evils they could and should relinquish for their personal well-being.
This confused me. As I said earlier, fellow autistic people’s view that masking and social mimicry are things neurotypicals would love us to carry out, but would be bad for us was not something I related to at all.
It wasn’t until I connected with fellow PDAers that I felt I’d found my tribe.
A tribe in which many of my peers shared my pained desire to fit in and get along with people, but keep messing up.
One of the many differences I picked up through chatting with adults identifying as PDA, and autistic people who didn’t, was that PDAers were more likely to view their masking as natural and instinctive, whilst “general” autistics seemed more likely to view masking as a harmful evil forced onto them by neurotypicals.
This prompted me to carry out informal peer research to find out if PDAers view masking and social mimicry as more natural and instinctive than the general autistic population do.
The positive results from my informal peer research alerted Grace Trundle, a doctorate student from University of Nottingham’s Centre for Forensic and Family Psychology, specialising in PDA, to carry out formal research, which she published in 2020.
She presented her findings at a PDA conference I co-organised with Spectrum Savvy and Julia Daunt in Bristol. Excitingly, Grace’s findings confirmed what I had found through peer research: PDAers do appear to carry out more social mimicry and masking than general autistics.
Of 224 participants from a general population sample, there was a significant positive correlation between PDA trait scores and camouflaging scores. PDA scores predicted 37.5% of variance in camouflaging scores, compared to just 9.9% for general autism.
Why might masking be more common within the PDA population?
There are, I think, a number of areas to consider when exploring why PDAers seem to mask more frequently than the general autistic population.
Social interaction & communication difficulties
PDA, like general autism, entails experiencing difficulties with social communication and interaction.
While some definitions of PDA describe our social understanding as “shallow”, I believe this to be misleading because I think we can be very perceptive and pick up things about people that others don’t notice.
However –and I acknowledge that other PDAers’ experiences may be different– I do own that I frequently miss nuances in conversations, and people have often confounded me by seeming to think I’m an idiot.
A recognised trait of PDA is having a social focus (which may become obsessive).
Specific social focus is not a trait associated with general autism.
For me, I’ve always been drawn to other people, and felt a need to communicate and join in.
And I admit that I have developed obsessions about people. Sometimes cool social tribes, but mostly about men. My crushes have been traumatic for me because they take over my thoughts and feelings and don’t let me let go, even if it becomes obvious that the man in question is not interested.
I actually turned vegan when I was 18 (many years before veganism was common) in an attempt to occupy my mind with something other than the man I’d currently been obsessed with.
Fantasy & role-play
Propensity for fantasy and role-play is also a recognised PDA trait that’s not associated with general autism.
This has often expressed for me as immersive daydreaming, but I also enjoy imagining I’m in a certain role when carrying out physical actions.
For example, I may imagine I’m making a YouTube film when cooking a meal, or I imagine I’m staking a place out if waiting for someone.
Some of the untruths my daughter tells seem to have been rooted in her immersive daydreaming. I think for her (and I can remember doing this too as a child) she has a need to communicate and be listened to with interest, but she places no value on whether what she says is real or imagined. In fact, I think invented “facts” are more comfortable for her to share because she is in control of the information so can present herself to us as the peer-popular child she wishes to be.
So, I think this connects to masking.
PDA traits that make masking likely
- Social interaction & communication difficulties
- Social focus
- Propensity for fantasy & role-play
Combine to make masking likely.
Our social interaction & communication difficulties frustrate our natural social focus, but we can use our ability to role-play to compensate.
Masking enables us to carry out the social interaction we want to do, but otherwise can’t.
Another core trait of PDA is having very high anxiety.
In talking with fellow adult PDAers, many, like me, were unaware that they experienced anxiety at all because it’s their normal state.
Just like people tend not to notice their breathing.
PDA anxiety is not something that pops up out of the blue so we notice its arrival,
But something that’s been with us since we were born.
And it never goes away.
Parents of PDA kids frequently talk of their children fibbing, even if caught red-handed. My own daughter does this, as did I as a child (and younger adult).
Being caught and cornered caused me massive panic, and my default defence was to lie in order to try and save myself.
Fibbing has recently been proposed as an alternative protective adrenaline response to the better-known trio of Fight, Flight and Freeze.
This is certainly what my fibbing-when-caught felt like for me: my fibbing was driven by overwhelming panic.
According to an article in the online ADHD magazine, ADDitude Mag:
With complex and advanced language (not available to our primitive ancestors), we have the ability to verbalize both factual and/or fictitious reasoning instantaneously at point of performance, most notably in times of stress and threat.
Like Fibbing, Fawning has been proposed as another adrenaline response to sit alongside Fight, Flight and Freeze.
This is where we seek to please others and put our own needs last in order to feel safe.
According to a drug rehabilitation centre’s website:
Fawning is a response marked by people-pleasing behaviors, conflict avoidance, unable to find one’s voice or ability to stand up for themselves in the face of a threat, and taking care of the needs of others to one’s own detriment. URL: https://www.ashleytreatment.org/learning-about-stress-responses
Many adult PDAers describe Fawning as their default adrenaline response, often adding that they hate it.
I myself often default to Fawning and slip into assuming others are right and I am wrong and that my needs are of no consequence.
Fawning is thought to develop from childhood trauma if neither Fight, Flight nor Freeze were effective self-protection strategies.
I believe that we PDAers, having naturally high anxiety, can feel traumatised by things that might impact others less.
The term was coined by Pete Walker, a C-PTSD survivor and licensed marriage and family therapist specialising in helping adults who were traumatised in childhood.
With relation to PDA masking, I think the Fawn response may cause us to wish to be like others and hide who we truly are because we believe we’re not good enough.
Yet another F adrenaline response is “Funster”
This is where adrenaline triggers people to cope with social stress & anxiety by playing the clown.
The Funster response is not well-documented, but it's something I'm very aware of having reacted with personally; noticed in my PDAer daughter; and which fellow PDAers, and parents of PDAers, have strongly noticed too.
I can attest that when I've been possessed by what I think of as the Funster mode, this has been when I've felt intense social anxiety. My social panic has compelled me to take on a fun, joking, clown persona that I've not felt in control of. For example, when on holiday with my best friend and her boyfriend (who I didn't feel relaxed and confident with) I spent the duration of our shared time in full on clown mode. Consciously, I just wanted to make them laugh. Internally, I was in constant panic. I've been very aware of my daughter behaving like this in situations when we have people around she doesn't know well. After initially hiding and being mute, she transforms into a cheeky prankster who gains attention by naughtily annoying people (for example, climbing under the table and undoing their shoelaces).
An uncounted number of PDAers, young and old, have internalised presentations of PDA meaning our meltdowns and other stresses are internalised (aka masked from view).
Internalised and externalised PDA are sometimes referred to as introverted and extroverted, but I feel internalised and externalised are better descriptors because they describe how we deal with our meltdowns, etc (pulling them inside, or letting them blast out).
Research and awareness has centred on externalised presentations. For example, the EDAq, to date the only scale developed to assess PDA, drops scores for PDA children who don’t try to control their teachers or peers.
Externalising PDAers will have obvious meltdowns, may avoid things loudly, and be driven by their natural PDA need for personal control to boss others around, such as other children and teachers in school.
Internalising PDAers will often seek to avoid demands quietly (for example, by saying thank you for a film recommendation, but never watching it). And we are unlikely to have bossed classmates or teachers around.
Internalised PDA meltdowns may manifest as irritability and irrational quibbling, perhaps lashing out with words that we know will wound our loved ones.
This is how my meltdowns manifest. It feels like I’ve been possessed by a demon with access to my my memories so it can use them to hurl hurtful, spiteful words at people. Ultimately, this meltdown demon wants me to regain a sense of personal control, but –ironically– I am not in control of my words or actions at this time. I witness my spiteful behaviour with helpless shame and horror, as if I’m watching someone else. I try to contain the explosive power of my meltdowns, but it’s like trying to write neatly while holding a pen with a boxing glove.
So, we internalising PDAers effectively mask our PDA traits.
We are not “less” PDA, but our PDA is internalised, and this can be thought of as masked.
Saying this, I’ve spoken with externalising PDA adults, such as Julia Daunt, who say they mask too.
I really do think this an area that’s ripe for research.
Hiding face to feel safe
Just as some of us feel compelled to mask our meltdowns,
Some of us feel horribly self-conscious and scrutinised if we’re observed doing everyday things. E.g.:
Walking into a garden when neighbours might be watching
Getting tearful watching a film
Being surrounded by a crowd, say in a shopping centre
This sense of vulnerability to other people’s scrutiny can be hugely distressing. Practical solutions can be:
Growing a long fringe
(Or just avoiding people all together!)
Masking & PDA control-need
The drive to want to avoid being seen can conflict with our natural PDA control-need (which is about having control of our own world, rather than of other people). Myself, and other PDAers I’ve spoken with, have responded to this feeling of unwelcome scrutiny by adopting attention-grabbing styles.
This way, we’ve felt more in control when we’ve felt stared at (People are staring at me because of how *I* chose to dress).
I “went punk” aged 16 and was very conscious of constructing an image and identity for myself. My punk image, including thick black eyeliner, made me feel protected and safe. I wouldn’t let people see me without my black eyeliner on.
PDA kids (and adults), as for the general autistic population.
Both myself and my 10yo daughter are selectively mute. I am less affected these days, but my daughter remains very mute in school.
When I am stuck with selective mutism I feel verbally paralysed by what I think of as a “fear wall” that’s sprung up around me like a force-field so that I can’t speak to people. I hate its existence, but can’t shrug it off no matter how much I long to do so. I can set out determined to chat with people and forge friendships, but my f**king fear wall jumps up and immobilises me so I can’t speak.
My own experience of selective mutism has aided me in empathising with my daughter’s experience.
She doesn’t like to admit to being selectively mute, or to having any social issues at all, but things she has said have resonated deeply with me. And both me and her dad are very aware of the ultra-high anxiety she experiences if she feels caught out for being spotted as different from her peers.
She would panic and be confused if a teacher told her they can see she’s masking and doesn’t have to!
She wants more than anything in school to not stand out as different. (To avoid feeling scrutinised).
This is a where a child runs around as if playing with other children in the playground, but it becomes apparent that they are not playing with anyone else at all if they are observed for long enough.
The term “spare games” was coined by a 9yo PDA girl Libby Hill met who was an excellent masker. Libby says she has since met many other PDA and general autistic children who do this.
There’s a risk that professionals will miss it and assume the child is playing with their peers and has no social interaction issues.
My daughter’s school SENco spotted her “spare gaming” when she was seven, and told us in a recent meeting that, now aged ten, she still does it. Staff have urged her peers to invite her to play, but she’s told us she prefers to play solo without the irritation of others.
I behaved similarly as a child, but my conscious motivation was to play despite the other children shunning me. So, I ran around imagining I was in woodland with tame deer, etc. I sometimes became aware that I might look very weird skipping around on my own. I think I then made an effort to make my gameplay blend in more with the other children.
My daughter also seems to be acting out her immersive daydreaming during her “spare games”, but her fantasies are about playing with her classmates. We were long confused about why she was coming home from school determined to regale us with blatantly fanciful tales about her high jinks with her classmates. It wasn’t until her SENco told us that she’s still engaging in “spare games” that I joined the dots.
Libby Hill has told me that the girl who coined “spare games” had, like me, been desperate to play with others in real life, but other “spare gamers” she’s met have, like my daughter, preferred solo play.
So, I think there’s a few points to consider here:
- Professionals may fail to spot “spare games” and assume the child is socialising normally
- Not all “spare gamers” want to play with others
- “Spare gaming” appears to be linked to fantasy and role-play
- “Spare gaming” may not always involve social mimicry and masking
RSD (rejection sensitive dysphoria)
RSD has been thought of as an ADHD trait
But many PDAers report being afflicted by it too.
It causes us to be certain people have rejected us
(despite lack of real evidence)
And feel heart-broken because of it.
Perceived rejection sits in my gut like broken glass
Refusing to shift no matter how much I try to rationalise it.
It can dominate and shadow my life for months, sometimes years.
The "fear wall"
Some PDAers I’ve spoken with have said that they, like me, feel permanently separated from other people, as if stuck behind a wall of glass.
This separating wall of glass prevents me from communicating my direct experiences to others.
It’s like I’m trapped in a bubble that I can’t break out of so that I can’t just be “me” and express myself freely and easily.
I think of this as my “fear wall”
The components of my “fear wall”
I suspect that a combination of innate PDA:
- social interaction & communication difficulties
- social focus
- innate high anxiety
- rejection sensitivity
combine to create my “fear wall”.
My social focus draws me to socially communicate
I feel extremely anxious if I perceive that my communication attempts have failed
And also crushed by RSD
But I lack the instinct of how to avoid repeating mistakes.
The toll of repeated failures triggers crippling anxiety when I’m faced with unfamiliar social situations: this is my “fear wall”.
Constructing my mask
Like all good actors, I have a repertoire of learnt lines, facial expressions & mannerisms, etc.
In other words, masking and social mimicry serve to satisfy my innate PDA social-focus by using my fantasy & role-play propensity to bypass my “fear wall”.
The masking I carry out is not about deceiving others about what I truly feel, but actually about finding a means to communicate my true, genuine feelings. This might sound completely illogical, but please bear with me.
Fashioning a working mask of “communication life hacks” enables me to satisfy my innate social-focus drive to interact with others by bypassing my lack of social communication intuition, and poking a window through my "fear wall”.
Masking, in this light, enables me to communicate the things my fear wall has previously blocked.
And mostly what it’s blocked has been my true, deep, innermost feelings. So –and this is a big “so” for me– masking is the only way in which I can communicate my genuine feelings because it enables me to break through that pesky wall of fear.
Masking as an extension of true identity
A 2021 research dissertation about PDA-specific masking by Stephanie Waudby, Psychology Masters student at Manchester Metropolitan University qualitatively assessed descriptions of masking provided by adult PDAer bloggers.
“Interestingly, the data from the present study shows that PDA masking can operate as an extension of true identity, rather than being in place of it.”
“Personal accounts from the blog data unanimously describe PDA masking as an instinctual, natural process that is often carried out unconsciously.
“Not everyone deliberately masks. Not everyone can control their masking or even realise they mask at all. This is what my masking is like.” (DS1)
“It feels like an unconscious, automatic process. It’s like I’m always behind glass. I can’t just switch it on and I don’t think I can ever fully switch it off at all.” (DS3)
“I have an instinct to bend my being (mannerisms, expressions, gestures, vocabulary) in order to interface with whomever I talk to.” (DS4)
These statements strengthen the anecdotal evidence suggesting that PDA masking is not a strategy that is used consciously but instead something innate that can be accessed without awareness.”
Is masking a universal PDA trait?
Although masking seems to be more common for PDAers than general autistics, some PDAers say they don’t mask.
The only formal research carried out into this area that I’m aware of is by Grace Trundle. As we’ve seen, her 2020 study found that PDA scores predicted 37.5% of variance in camouflaging scores (compared to just 9.9% for general autism), but she points out:
“it is important to note that predicting 100% of the variance would be a perfect relationship (e.g. year of birth would 100% predict age), meaning that in the relationship between PDA and camouflaging, 62.5% of the variance in camouflaging scores is unaccounted for and thus other factors must be influencing the relationship.”
In other words, being PDA does not guarantee camouflaging (aka masking and social mimicking). Although I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that the scale Grace Trundle used to measure PDA was the EDAQ, which down-scores internalised PDA.
There is still so much unchartered PDA territory to map!
What are the benefits and costs of masking to the individual?
We’ve seen that masking is entirely negative if forced (e.g., through ABA)
But can be unforced/instinctive
And be a communication aid the individual actually wishes to use
We’ll now explore some more benefits and costs of masking
We’ve also seen that masking can be used to make us feel safe in the face of overwhelming social anxiety.
To use my terminology, it punches a hole through my fear wall.
Masking a calm, relaxed persona serves as a shield protecting me from scrutiny and judgement.
Without an effective, learnt mask, I’m confounded by tongue-tying social anxiety that leaves me horribly frustrated and mute.
Having a mask I trust to be effective comforts me when I engage in social situations.
If I lack a repertoire of what to say and do, I feel very ill at ease. Masking therefore reduces my social anxiety. And even allows me to relax and enjoy the company of others.
Comforting as it can be, masking does tire me. It’s like being on a theatre stage acting in front of an audience. It uses up a lot of mental and emotional energy.
Even time with my close family exhausts me.
I think this (along with the toll of endless, every day demands) is why I need much more quiet time than people generally need.
I need repeated stints of extended quiet time to recharge my “battery”.
Fellow adult PDAers I’ve spoken with have said they sometimes enjoy masking. I can totally relate to this.
An example that comes to mind is when we went on holiday to Rabat in Morocco a few years ago. I researched acceptable dress for women. Aware also that Muslim women are expected to behave demurely, I thoroughly enjoyed dressing in loose clothing covering my hair, arms and legs and walking the streets in a demure fashion. The novelty of this role-play excited me.
I’d have soon hated it if we’d stayed there long enough for the novelty to wear off.
I actually yearn for opportunities like this, especially if I’ve had no opportunity to use one of my hand-tailored masks.
For example, I’ve spent a lot of time in central Turkey, and taken great pains, despite my dyslexia, to learn Turkish.
Visiting the region always fills me with delight to be able to exercise not just the language I’ve learnt, but the specific mannerisms, social knowledge, behaviours, and talking style, etc I developed to fit in and get along with Turkish locals.
And I really do relish my connections with them.
I think I found the Rabat experience particularly thrilling because it allowed me to use many components of my Turkish-mask.
How is this different from a neurotypical person adapting their learnt reactions to better fit new circumstances?
My thoughts are that learnt reactions are masks, regardless of neurotype.
Exactly what masking constitutes, I believe, is something that will benefit from further research.
I think neurotypical males represent a group that carries out more masking than others do (e.g., putting on a tough guy front). Whether or not this behaviour is learnt or instinctive is an area of often impassioned debate, but –I think–the fact remains that NT males mask heavily.
So, it’s not just about autism & PDA
And, as we’ve seen, masking is much more complex and varied than being about autistic people being forced to hide our true feelings.
There are at least three types of masking, but 99% of attention has been on the bad, forced kind
However, not all masking is “droppable” or bad