Camouflaging, masking, blending in, compensating, impression management; we all do this to an extent. Imagine you’re invited to a work dinner with your colleagues. You get ready, thinking about what’s appropriate to wear, what to bring, and some topics to bring up (and avoid) if there are lulls in conversation. In autism, the stakes are higher, and the task is more difficult. When social skills do not come intuitively, getting through this event requires cognitive effort, concentration and learning, a bit like doing complex algebra on the fly.
How do these strategies differ? Camouflaging and compensating are two different processes. Camouflaging and masking refer to ‘hiding’ autistic traits to appear more neurotypical. This can include suppressing stimming or talking less than you’d like to about a favourite topic to try not to stand out. Compensatory strategies involve using intellect to find new ways to read and respond to social cues, so those with autism can get by in social situations (Livingston & Happé, 2017). Compensating can be superficial (e.g., laughing along with a joke) or more sophisticated (e.g., recalling similar past experiences and adapting learned responses to a new context). Cognitively, this might be similar to children with dyslexia finding a different way to learn to read (Frith, 2013).
What is the cost of compensation? A recent study found that people who engaged in compensating described it as an effortful process (Livingston, Shah, & Happé 2019). However, they explained that it gave them opportunities they might otherwise have missed. On the flip side, compensating seems to be a risk factor for mental health difficulties, and might even make it difficult to form a clear sense of self-identity. When asked whether it was worth it, many participants said that in hindsight it was, but imagine a world where there was enough awareness, acceptance, and valuing of autism that autistic people could fully participate in life without feeling compensating was required. What’s exciting about this area of research is that it suggests that there is more to autism than meets the eye (Gould, 2017). In the diagnostic process for autism, it is important to consider a combination of autism traits and characteristics, as well as the level of masking/compensation (Hull et al., 2019), the underlying cognitive processes (McPartland, 2019) and subjective experience (Parrish-Morris, 2019). Having a good understanding of all these aspects of autism will enhance the provision of supports and services for those on the spectrum.