Masking Symptoms of Autism Delays Diagnosis

As a spectrum disorder, there are a wide variety of symptoms that describe Autism. The developmental nature of the disorder means many symptoms don’t stand out until individuals struggle later in life. While children who are diagnosed in elementary school receive early intervention and support, when someone isn’t diagnosed until adolescence or early adulthood, they have often developed “compensatory” strategies to help them cope with difficulties they face. While masking symptoms of autism can help teens integrate socially and feel like they’re living a “normal life,” a later diagnosis can lead to other mental health issues and difficulty receiving the help they need.

The Development of Compensatory Strategies

A recent survey on compensatory strategies used by adults with autism highlights that compensation is an adaptive response to external societal pressures. Although they can have a negative impact on one’s well-being by trying to hide parts of themselves and pushing themselves in uncomfortable situations, people with autism use compensatory strategies in order to pursue personal goals in line with society’s expectations. This stems from wanting to to achieve the personal, academic and career success they deserve, even though some of the expectations do not accommodate the needs of people with autism. 

Some examples of compensatory strategies include:

  • Holding back true thoughts
  • Suppressing atypical behaviors, like self-stimulatory behaviors
  • Planning and rehearsing conversations
  • Learning rules about verbal and non-verbal behaviors
  • Going out of their way to be helpful
  • Making eye contact
  • Asking others questions about themselves

Rather than asking for help or advocating for their needs, people with autism often struggle silently in order to gain the approval of others. Learning these strategies takes a lot of observation, planning, and time. While they may feel like they have taught themselves the social rules they need to know, social norms are more fluid and flexible depending on the situation and change over time, which can make it difficult to trust that the rules they are following are appropriate in any given situation. 

Reasons for compensation:

  • Wanting to fit in
  • Social acceptance
  • Physical safety
  • Connecting with others
  • Reducing fear of saying or doing the wrong thing in social situations
  • Not wanting to stand out as needing additional accommodations

Consequences of compensation:

  • Sounding too rigid
  • “Lying” to or “deceiving” others
  • Amount of effort it takes being on high-alert
  • Exhaustion
  • Increased social anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Pressure to be someone they’re not’
  • Lack of authentic social support

“We suggest that the overall impact of compensation and masking really depends on the individual, and the strategies they are using,” researcher Laura Hull explains. “Camouflaging was frequently described as being mentally, physically, and emotionally draining; requiring intensive concentration, self-control, and management of discomfort. However, some people also say that their compensation and masking strategies have allowed them to make friends, form relationships, and get jobs they enjoy.”

One of the biggest consequences is that by pretending they can handle overwhelming situations, they are putting themselves at a disadvantage when they decide to reach out for support by underestimating the difficulties they experience. Owning their experiences is the necessary first step to getting help, educating others, and reaching their full potential authentically.

New Focus Academy Can Help 

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. While many teens with autism have tried to mask the symptoms they experience, identifying situations they struggle with helps us create personalized treatment plans to help them meet their personal goals. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The social skills that teens on the autism spectrum learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interactions, organization, and improve their self-management skills. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits. 

For more information, call us at (844) 313-6749. We can help your family today!

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