To fit in and move through a world that’s often unaccepting, cruel, or even abusive towards people who are different, many Autistic people hide — or “mask” — their Autistic traits, such as by avoiding eye contact or talking about special interests that capture their intense focus. But Autism masking can be harmful to a child’s mental health.
“In the leading therapeutic treatment for Autism in kids — ABA, or applied behavioral analysis — they actually train kids to mask,” says Devon Price, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor at Loyola University in Chicago and author of the new book Unmasking Autism: The Power of Embracing Our Hidden Neurodiversity. “They tell them ‘Make eye contact even if it’s painful. Sit still and don’t flap your hands, even if it’s painful and stressful for you to sit still like that,’” he says. “Unfortunately, a lot of people who go through things like ABA therapy come out of it with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Parents often encourage masking because they assume it helps Autistic kids thrive by helping them to blend in. But that’s a big mistake, and there are better ways to help them thrive. Non-Autistic adults need to better understand Autism and change how they approach it — and the best way to start is by avoiding these three major mistakes.
Mistake #1: Believing in Autism Stereotypes
“The more prevailing stereotypes of Autistic people are still very much that we’re cold, that we aren’t social,” Price says. He notes that even professionals sometimes hold these false beliefs. Other stereotypes include “that we’re difficult, that we’re selfish, that we don’t have empathy for other people, that we can’t have compassion for other people.”
Many of these stereotypes originate with a lack of understanding from non-Autistic (“neurotypical”) people. “People read into our body movements and non-verbal signals in really incorrect ways,” Price says. “There’s a lot of research that backs up that, basically, Autistic people do have non-verbal communication skills, that we do have empathy and compassion. It’s just that the non-verbal signals we give off are different from neurotypicals. And neurotypicals can’t read us very well,” he says.
For instance, if an Autistic kid isn’t making eye contact, it’s not a sign that they’re lying or insolent. “It’s just how Autistic people self-regulate social and sensory overload and how we manage interacting with people, is that a lot of us need to avoid eye contact,” Price says.
Along with those stereotypes, also throw out misunderstanding of who can be Autistic. “Autism can look like a little girl who loves twirling in place and is obsessive about horses.” Autism can also look like “kids — especially kids of color — who unfortunately get branded as a behavior problem in their classroom, for example, for exhibiting the exact same behaviors that in a white kid would lead to a diagnosis and getting social supports,” Price says.
Mistake #2: Expecting Your Kid to Act Like Other Kids
Price encourages parents to “give yourself a second to pause and question every knee-jerk reaction you have when your kid or another Autistic child does something that strikes you as questionable or non-compliant or defiant or anti-social.” For instance, if your Autistic child melts down when you tell them to stop playing a favorite video game and get ready for bed, it could be that they need help making that transition away from a special interest onto the next activity.
Many neurotypical adults assume that Autistic kids don’t want to form emotional connections, but that isn’t true. “We do know from the literature that Autistic people are incredibly emotionally sensitive,” Price says. “They really are lonely and desperate for social connection a lot of the time and care about other people.”
But often neurotypical people don’t see Autistic people for who they truly are. “We come across as robotic to other people, but that really is just a reflection of other peoples’ biases,” Price says. For instance, if your child responds to someone else’s feelings by shutting down, it may mean they’re empathizing to the point of being overwhelmed. Price recommends that when this occurs, parents ask self-reflection questions, such as ‘Am I maybe not being fair here?’ and ‘What might life be like from my child’s perspective that might explain their behavior?’
Mistake #3: Ignoring Their Special Interests
In his research for the book, Price interviewed Autistic adults who had masked for years or decades. Choosing “some kind of social ideal to live up to…we really become that identity” to fit in, he says. “You really get out of touch with who you are when you’re playing that role for years and you’re stifling yourself.”
Parents can help guard against their Autistic kids going through the same thing. “Cultivate spaces for your child where they can pursue their passions and meet people who are passionate about the subjects that they’re super passionate about,” Price says. “Giving your kid a space where they can really let their freak flag fly among other people like themselves with similar passions, that can be a really good stigma buster.”
Price notes that masking isn’t always bad, but it’s important to know where the line is. For instance, maybe you’ve noticed your child imitating other kids to fit in. “Sit down with them and talk with them about the social skills they’re developing and how and when to use them,” he says. “You really want your child to have this understanding that social skills and tools exist not to make us fit in, but to move through the world as we are and get our needs met.”
Help your child find opportunities to meet Autistic friends. If you’re in the United States, Price recommends joining your local chapter of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. “Meet Autistic adults, talk to them and have your kid meet those Autistic adults. Nothing helps us more than community support,” he says. “Just surround yourself with as many Autistic people as you can.”
Parents’ number one priority? “Listen to your kid and believe your kid,” Price says. Don’t just listen for verbal communication. “Behavior is communication,” he notes.
Some situations that may make Autistic kids uncomfortable are unavoidable, like taking your child to the doctor’s office. But understand that this can be extremely difficult for your child. For Autistic people, “sensory issues are experienced by us like physical pain,” Price says. Make plans to help minimize your child’s discomfort or avoid it if possible. “Trust your kid when they say they don’t want to be somewhere or that something’s really unpleasant.”