Seven themes, comprising 16 subthemes, were clustered into three stages of the camouflaging process, as detailed in Fig. 1. Motivations (Assimilation and “To know and be known”) describe the reasons why respondents camouflaged their ASC, including the aims they hoped to achieve as a result. What is Camouflaging? (Masking and Compensation) describes the concept of camouflaging itself, including the techniques used. Finally, the short- and long-term consequences of camouflaging are described through the themes “I fall to pieces”, “People have a stereotyped view”, and “I’m not my true self”. Names of themes and subthemes are taken directly from quotations from respondents. The number of participants who referenced each theme at least once is displayed in Table 2.
Motivations for Camouflaging
Assimilation: “Hide in Plain Sight”
Respondents described wanting to camouflage in order to ‘blend in with the normals’. Most respondents reported a social expectation from the general population that individuals with ASC need to change in order to be accepted by others. Respondents’ social and communication difficulties, and their unique behaviours and interests, meant that they stood out from the crowd during social situations. It was felt that the general population viewed this as unacceptable, and so respondents felt a pressure to change their behaviours in order to seem ‘normal enough’.
[I camouflage] to reduce the threat of feeling uncomfortable through being unable to measure up to social expectations. (Male, 62)
I don’t want to draw attention to myself by appearing to be different. (Female, 30)
However, a few respondents suggested that their motivations to camouflage were similar to those of the general population; camouflaging was simply seen as the way in which everyone tries to fit in or hide less desirable aspects of their personality:
Most neurotypicals are camouflaging nearly all the time they are in public. (Male, 79)
A more pragmatic aspect of this motivation was the desire to obtain jobs and qualifications, which respondents felt were less accessible when they were more visibly ‘autistic’. Many respondents described how they would not have achieved as much had they been more open about their ASC characteristics. Camouflaging during these situations was thought to improve employment opportunities, and so enable them to become a ‘functioning member of society’.
I’m pretty sure no-one would ever hire me if I didn’t camouflage in job interviews. (Other, 27)
Camouflaging helps to survive in school and college and it is important for keeping jobs. (Female, 27)
The desire for assimilation was also prompted by concerns for their own safety and wellbeing. Many described being ostracised, verbally or emotionally attacked, and some even reported physical assaults when they had not camouflaged their ASC:
When I was younger and more obviously odd and strange I was thought of as stupid and also badly physically and mentally bullied. I also lost employment. I want to avoid the bullying mostly. I have even been spat at in the street. (Female, 49)
Most attributed this to their perceived differences compared to others, and used camouflaging techniques to minimise these differences and hence reduce the threat. This was particularly the case when describing their experiences in childhood and adolescence; respondents often reported that relations with others improved as they got older and were better able to camouflage their ASC.
If I had known how to camouflage earlier, perhaps I wouldn’t have been such an outcast as a child. (Other, 41)
“I Want to Know and Be Known”
The other key motivation for camouflaging was to increase connections and relationships with others. Due to their inherent social difficulties, many respondents reported struggling to make friends and form romantic attachments, despite this being a strong desire. Camouflaging was seen as one way to overcome the initial obstacles to connection and allow for future relationships to develop.
Many respondents wanted to be accepted by others and be able to socialise, but recognised that they lacked the skills needed to make small talk, interact comfortably with strangers, and relax in social situations. This limited their ability to get to know people better. As will be discussed further in the theme ‘Compensation’, camouflaging offers solutions to some of these issues. The payoffs in terms of easier social interaction were a strong motivation for many respondents to camouflage their ASC with others. However, several respondents felt camouflaging was only necessary for the initial stages of a friendship or relationship; once a connection was established, the respondent felt more comfortable showing their ‘true’ ASC characteristics.
I know it is necessary when I am first getting to know someone. After I have known them for a while and they know I have Asperger’s and they are accepting of my quirks, then I can let my guard down more. Connections have to be made initially on neurotypical terms. Then, hopefully, on my terms as well. (Female, 46)
For some, the risk of failure and associated embarrassment created severe anxiety during social interactions; by camouflaging and using structured techniques, respondents could reduce some of this uncertainty and so were more confident in their ability to socialise. Respondents felt that camouflaging would lead to success in a variety of social situations, when compared to their default behaviours or responses.
It enables me to be with other people in a way that is relatively comfortable for me and for them. I avoid looking like a socially clumsy idiot. It avoids the embarrassment and awkwardness of getting things wrong. (Female, 56)
What is Camouflaging?
Masking: “I’m Hiding Behind What I Want People to See”
Masking encompasses the aspects of camouflaging that focus on hiding one’s ASC characteristics and developing different personas or characters to use during social situations. Both of these emphasise a distinction between the respondent’s ‘true’ or ‘automatic’ behaviours, and what they present to the rest of the world.
Camouflaging was partly performed through suppressing, hiding, or otherwise controlling behaviours associated with ASC that were seen as inappropriate in the situation. The extent to which this happened could vary depending on who the person was with; camouflaging tended to occur less often with close friends and family members, although some respondents described camouflaging at all times.
Respondents described attempting to minimise their self-soothing or ‘stimming’ behaviours, and their responses to sensory overstimulation, in order to make their condition less obvious to others. These techniques included using objects as ‘props’ to meet sensory needs in a subtle way, and giving themselves regular excuses to leave overstimulating environments and calm down.
I prevent myself from doing any particularly visible or otherwise noticeable stims: I still find myself doing things like shaking my leg repeatedly without noticing, but don’t make any noises people would think are weird, don’t full-body shake (like with the leg but…all of me), or do any finger movements or tapping etc. that would annoy people. (Female, 20)
Masking enabled respondents to present a different identity to the outside world, one that covered up those parts of themselves they were not happy with. The combination of controlled behaviour and appropriate conversation produced through camouflaging was often described as essential during social interactions, even though this meant concealing one’s actual personality.
I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop wearing the mask. It’s a defence mechanism really. It is easier to have people you’re friendly with, than taking the mask of[f] and revealing the real broken you. (Female, 18)
In some cases, this went as far as portraying an entirely different character, and several respondents likened it to acting or performing a role, complete with costumes. The character or aspects of the role could change across different situations:
I camouflage by putting on a character… I treat my clothes rather like costumes, and certain items of clothing help me to uphold certain personality characteristics of which character I am on that occasion. I have a repertoire of roles for: cafe work, bar work, uni, various groups of friends, etc. They are all me at the core, but they are edited versions of me, designed to not stand out for the ‘wrong’ reasons. (Female, 22)
One way to easily identify the appropriate role to play was to mimic the behaviours of others during a social interaction. Behaviours could be copied directly from the person in front of them, or could be identified and learned from observing others interacting, and even from watching television and films. Some respondents went as far as to copy clothing style, mannerisms, and even interests from others.
I try to copy socially successful people by trying to imitate their speech and body language and trying to understand their interests. (Male, 71)
Compensation: “To Exceed What Nature has Given”
The other aspects of camouflaging centre around developing explicit strategies to meet the social and communication gaps resulting from an individual’s ASC, which we call compensation. These camouflaging techniques include specific non-verbal communication strategies and guidelines for successful conversations with others. Respondents often described these techniques as ‘rules’ or expectations from others that had to be met, even if they themselves felt these rules were not necessary.
Explicit, compensatory strategies were reported by many respondents as a vital way to improve non-verbal communication with others. These strategies aimed to help the individual perform behaviours used in typical social encounters, which they would not necessarily perform naturally. Respondents described how these camouflaging techniques required intensive monitoring of the way they presented themselves, in order to ensure they were being performed as correctly as possible.
Forcing and maintaining appropriate eye contact, or attempting to look as close to another’s eyes as possible, was a common compensatory technique reported. Respondents also made an effort to display facial expressions of emotion or interest, even if they didn’t feel this inside. Different expressions were identified as important for different situations, and so many respondents described keeping a mental list of how to behave depending where they were.
I look in people’s eyes when I first meet them/or in formal/professional situations even though I wouldn’t naturally, because I know you’re supposed to. (Female, 26)
I try to look people in the eye and make faces that fit the situation. (Other, 27)
Many respondents noted that their preferred levels of emotional expression and body language did not match those of others around them, and so over-emphasised these behaviours in order to communicate better. This included non-verbal and verbal signs of interest in the interaction, which were also used to encourage others to continue speaking and so take the pressure off the ASC individual to respond appropriately.
My autistic lack of non-verbal signals are read as hostility, arrogance or indifference by people, so I have to act the good will that I genuinely feel. (Female, 45)
I’m not good at knowing when it’s my turn and I also tend to just blurt out things or keep talking when I should have stopped, so I prep myself always in social situations to have a reminder or tag or internal buzzer about not speaking too much and trying to do more listening, nodding, agreeing. (Female, 49)
In addition to these non-verbal techniques, respondents reported developing rules or guidelines to compensate for some of the social difficulties they experienced during conversations. These were more generalised and so could be prepared ahead of time and applied to different situations. These camouflaging strategies were used to help the ASC individual get through ‘small talk’ or more in-depth conversations with minimal stress, and to make the chat more enjoyable for their social partners.
One rule was to ask questions of the other people. Explanations for this varied between respondents, but included minimising the amount of time they had to speak, giving them more time to prepare things to say, and ensuring the ASC individual did not take over the conversation by talking about themselves or their own interests.
I’ve recently tried to institute a rule about asking more “you” questions - how did that make you feel, what did you do next, what do you think about a given thing - instead of “me” or “I” statements. (Male, 29)
My issue is talking too much or saying the wrong things. I tend to think of one or two questions to ask the person and most people are so happy just to talk about themselves that it stops them shining a spotlight on me. I find asking questions is the best deflection and camouflage ever. (Female, 49)
Respondents were often aware that talking only about themselves and their interests was not socially acceptable and so developed strict rules to control their self-focused talk. For some, camouflaging also involved not divulging personal details about themselves, whether to protect themselves from being taken advantage of, or to maintain privacy.
I say as little about myself as possible as the more I say, the more likely it is that I say something inappropriate OR give away too much information about myself which can then be used against me. (Other, 31)
I remain silent when I might otherwise have spoken, knowing that I can’t always tell whether or not my comments would be welcome. I make generic comments rather than offering specific ones that might reveal my more unusual traits. (Male, 29)
Respondents also described spending time before an interaction to prepare topics of conversation, including questions to ask, anecdotes to relate, and potential responses to others. These made them feel more in control of the interaction, and reassured them that they would have structured ‘scripts’ to follow rather than having to spontaneously ‘chat’:
I usually also think up stories and how whole conversations might go before I have them so I have responses practiced as well as potential things to say if the conversation ‘dries up’. (Female, 20)
However, it is important to emphasise that not all respondents developed such structured rules for conversation; some simply had the goal of speaking as little as possible in order to get out of the interaction quickly.
In these social situations, I do not talk about anything of interest to me, I avoid talking much and just pretend to be interested in what people are saying. (Female, 42)
Consequences of Camouflaging
“I Fall to Pieces”
By far the most consistent consequence of camouflaging described by respondents was exhaustion. Camouflaging was frequently described as being mentally, physically, and emotionally draining; requiring intensive concentration, self-control, and management of discomfort. The longer a camouflaging session continued, the harder it became to maintain the intended level of camouflaging. Many respondents reported needing time to recover after camouflaging, where they could be alone and release all of the behaviours they had been suppressing.
It’s exhausting! I feel the need to seek solitude so I can ‘be myself’ and not have to think about how I am perceived by others. (Other, 30)
In addition to this exhaustion, after a camouflaging session was over some respondents would experience extreme anxiety and stress. Respondents felt significant pressure, whether from themselves or others, to camouflage successfully, but many were uncertain of how effective their camouflaging strategies were. Twenty-one respondents (10 male, 11 female) reported being unsuccessful in their camouflaging attempts or reported that they had not achieved the outcomes they intended.
I try to ask them about the things they like, question after question, to keep conversation going but sometimes it doesn’t work and they leave me. (Female, 27)
Camouflaging therefore often involved a constant monitoring of the situation, as if training oneself in self-monitoring, self-awareness, and monitoring others’ reactions, both during and after the interaction occurred, which induced stress and even greater anxiety.
My head will be racing as if I’m interpreting another language. I will be incredibly anxious. It’s like studying for an exam, constantly on edge trying to predict what others will say and do. (Female, 49)
I hate it. I go over and over and over what they said and what I said. Did I understand them correctly, did I respond appropriately, did I make a gaffe? Have I offended anyone? (Female, 45)
In contrast, a minority of respondents reported feeling satisfied and relieved after camouflaging, particularly if they felt as though it went well. For these individuals, camouflaging was rewarding because it enabled them to achieve what they wanted with minimal effort, whether that was getting through a necessary social situation, or being able to make a connection with someone. Interestingly, 60% of those who reported feeling positive or relieved after camouflaging were male (n = 9, compared to six females), in contrast to the majority female total sample.
Small sense of achievement and relief that it is over. (Male, 69)
I am glad that the camouflaging enables me to survive within myself and accomplish any necessary tasks. (Male, 62)
“People Have a Stereotyped View”
Many respondents felt that, because their camouflaging changed the way they presented themselves to others, they did not meet the stereotype of ‘an autistic person’ when they camouflaged. In many ways this was construed as positive, since it allowed them to get on in life, succeed in jobs and relationships, and achieve many of the aims they wanted. Some also reported that this enabled them to challenge commonly held views of autism, especially for women. By demonstrating good social skills and educating others about their conditions, respondents hoped to change the public perception of autism and make others more understanding.
People don’t always realise that I have AS, more likely to be socially accepted, more likely to get a job. (Male, 28)
I feel that I’m showing the people I work with that autistic people can have people skills and be good role models (Female, 28)
Some female respondents (n = 7) suggested that others were surprised that they had an ASC, since they differed so much from the public perception of an ASC man with high maths skills, poor eye contact, and uncommon interests.
So many people have a stereotyped view of what ASC looks like. They think people with AS are all geeky, and have little empathy and little insight. They think people with ASC bore on and on about their pet subject and make tactless remarks. They don’t realise that women with ASC tend to internalise things much more and do have empathy and insight, and are very careful not to make hurtful remarks. (Female, 56)
However, there were also negative consequences to not appearing autistic to others. The most striking was that for some respondents their camouflaging, even if it was involuntary, resulted in a delay or questioning of their ASC diagnosis. Respondents reported that parents, teachers, and even clinical professionals refused to believe they could have an ASC, especially if they were female:
The amount of girls that aren’t diagnosed because they are more likely to camouflage than boys is really bad. I went for so long without being diagnosed because they didn’t know that I could pretend to be normal! (Female, 20)
In addition to this, respondents described failing to receive adequate support or allowances for their ASC difficulties, because these difficulties were often hidden behind the mask of camouflaging. Others would therefore give them more responsibilities or expectations than the respondent was comfortable with, because of a perceived level of capability that did not always actually exist.
After beginning graduate school, a lot of issues arose because I was camouflaging to the point that my support needs weren’t being met. So, in that instance, it was detrimental to camouflage. (Female, 24)
I am an SEN teacher and my boss doesn’t know when I am camouflaging. Currently highly stressed because she keeps giving me more work and not realising the stress it is causing. (Female, 44)
For some respondents, this reflected the idea that camouflaging was not a conscious choice; they described wanting to control when and how they camouflage to a greater degree, in order to access support when they needed it:
People need to learn how to drop the camouflage when in situations such as medical assessments or dealing with support professionals otherwise they may be under assessed for support as they appear to be coping. (Female, 28)
For others, however, camouflaging was seen as a deliberate technique to avoid detection. Thus, increasing general awareness of camouflaging strategies by the public, and particularly by employers, was seen as ‘outing’ an ASC individual without their consent. These respondents feared that by giving others the tools to identify their camouflaging, the negative consequences they were trying to avoid would still happen.
If they [employers] can identify camouflaging, then they will “find us out” and reject us. (Female, 68)
“I’m Not My True Self”
The final consequence reported by respondents was that camouflaging affected their perception of themselves, in particular how they represented themselves to the outside world and their sense of authenticity. For many respondents, by camouflaging their ‘true’ or natural behaviours they were lying about who they were. This was often regretted by the respondents, who wanted to be happy as they were, but felt that the pressures of the typical social world meant this was not possible.
I don’t care about being different, I like my differences (apart from things feeling really stressful and no confidence) but I don’t want to deal with peoples’ negative and sometimes evil reactions. I feel like the weight of a black cloud is hanging on me having to be this fake version of me. (Female, 48)
In an extension of this, for some respondents their camouflaging behaviours contradicted the important role they attributed to ASC in shaping their identity. Despite feeling proud of their ASC diagnosis, and the community they were a part of, they still deliberately camouflaged the behaviours associated with this diagnosis. These individuals felt that by hiding their ASC characteristics, they were betraying the ASC community as a whole.
It’s mentally exhausting constantly having to be something else, literally never being able to be myself, and kind of sad too I guess? I even stop myself doing certain tics and things automatically when I’m by myself and that kinda sucks, that I’m not even me on my own. I guess I’m letting down the side a bit by hiding my autism; I am very vocal about stigmas and stereotypes with mental illness, and do talk about my anxiety openly, so I don’t know why autism is different. (Female, 20)
Some respondents felt that the relationships they formed through camouflaging were based on deception, and therefore the relationships themselves were false. This reinforced experiences of loneliness and isolation, as they felt no one truly knew them or understood them. Some also felt bad for deceiving their friends and even loved ones.
I feel sad because I feel like I haven’t really related to the other people. It becomes very isolating because even when I’m with other people I feel like I’ve just been playing a part. (Female, 30)
I was married for 15 years and was camouflaging in high gear during that time… My husband would occasionally say to me that he wondered if I was really who I was. I think he would get glimpses of the real me. I didn’t even know who the real me was… The marriage ended in divorce. (Female, 64)
The situations in which respondents camouflaged were so extensive for some, they felt that they were losing sense of who they truly were. Respondents often felt they were playing so many different roles, it was hard to keep track of their authentic sense of identity. This increased the anxiety and stress associated with camouflaging, as individuals lost a sense of grounding and security in who they were.
Sometimes, when I have had to do a lot of camouflaging in a high stress environment, I feel as though I’ve lost track of who I really am, and that my actual self is floating somewhere above me like a balloon. (Female, 22)