Masking in autistic females: why we don’t “look” how you expect

Very early in my journey towards a diagnosis, I read that autism is more commonly diagnosed in males than females. When I looked into this further, it became clear that autism is commonly missed in females due to multiple factors, including a lack of knowledge about how it is presented in females, misdiagnoses and masking. I wanted to talk a little about how autism “looks” in women and girls. I know that every person is different, but the difference in how it is presented in males versus females is something that even I was not aware of, and it is the reason I was not diagnosed until the age of 21.

This is a common experience in women. Often autistic traits are flagged in childhood by family members or teachers, but these are missed in young girls because the signs are not in line with “typical” signs of autism in boys. This is because girls commonly “mask” or “camouflage”, which is seen as a coping mechanism in response to a realisation that we aren’t fitting in with other children. This is something that I learned to do, and I remember doing it as young as 5 years old. I would watch other children play during breaks and lunchtimes at school, and try to mimic their behaviour. I learned what was socially appropriate during conversations through trial and error. This was not an easy process, and involved a lot of stress and anxiety because I was aware that other children could notice my differences.

I recently found a research article which looked into the experiences of other autistic women that were diagnosed at a later stage and these women all used masking as a way to hide their autism (Bargiela, Steward and Mandy, 2016). The authors proposed that masking be involved in the “female autism phenotype” which is a unique set of characteristics presented by autistic females. I would really recommend checking out this article because it also discusses why society may be biased against autistic women because their traits are not commonly known. I would like to clarify that masking is used in autistic males as well as females, but I wanted to highlight it because it often prevents females on the spectrum from being diagnosed, or they do not receive a diagnosis until adulthood.

Masking is our way of fitting in with the world. It takes a lot of effort and energy to do this everyday, and this often results in meltdowns when we are in a safe space and can let out all the emotions and stress that we cannot show around other people. Some autistic people may decide to stop masking at any point, but I have found this to be quite difficult so far. I don’t believe that masking is necessarily a bad thing and it can help many people learn to navigate the world a little easier while we process everything.

Please let me know by commenting or getting in touch through email what you think about masking, and what you think of the blog overall!

Full article details:
Bargiela, S., Steward, R. and Mandy, W. (2016). The Experiences of Late-diagnosed Women with Autism Spectrum Conditions: An Investigation of the Female Autism Phenotype. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder, 46, pp. 3281–3294.

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