Exploring autistic adults’ psychosocial experiences affecting beginnings, continuity and change in camouflaging over time: A qualitative study in Singapore

Beatrice Rui Yi Loo*, Truman Jing Yang Teo, Melanie Liang, Dawn-Joy Leong, Diana Tan, Sici Zhuang, Laura Hull, Lucy Livingston, Will Mandy, Francesca Happe, Iliana Magiati

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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Abstract

Camouflaging (or otherwise referred to as masking or passing) involves hiding one’s autistic-related characteristics and differences to get by in social situations in predominantly non-autistic societies. Very little is known to date about the course of camouflaging motivations and strategies over time or the psychosocial factors that may influence autistic people’s camouflaging choices and trajectories. In an exploratory qualitative study within an Asian sociocultural context, we interviewed 11 Singaporean autistic adults (9 males, 2 females, aged 22–45 years) about their camouflaging experiences to better understand (1) their camouflaging motivations and strategies over time, and (2) related psychosocial influences. Organised across four phases (pre-camouflaging, beginnings, continuity and change over time), 17 themes relating to camouflaging motivations and 8 themes relating to strategies were identified. The earliest camouflaging motivations were predominantly relational, linked to a negative self-identity that had been shaped by adverse social experiences. Camouflaging strategies became increasingly complex and integrated into one’s sense of self over time. Our findings highlight the role of psychosocial pressures precipitating camouflaging and emphasise the need for individual and societal changes, including moving towards enhanced acceptance and inclusion to reduce psychosocial pressures on autistic people to camouflage. Lay Abstract: Over their lifetimes, many autistic people learn to camouflage (hide or mask) their autism-related differences to forge relationships, find work and live independently in largely non-autistic societies. Autistic adults have described camouflaging as a ‘lifetime of conditioning.. to act normal’ involving ‘years of effort’, suggesting that camouflaging develops over an autistic person’s lifetime and may start early on, in childhood or adolescence. Yet, we know very little about why and how autistic people start to camouflage, or why and how their camouflaging behaviours continue or change over time. We interviewed 11 Singaporean autistic adults (9 male, 2 female, 22–45 years old) who shared their camouflaging experiences. We found that autistic adults’ earliest motivations to camouflage were largely related to the desire to fit in and connect with others. They also camouflaged to avoid difficult social experiences (such as being teased or bullied). Autistic adults shared that their camouflaging behaviours became more complex and that, for some, camouflaging became a part of their self-identity over time. Our findings suggest that society should not pathologise autistic differences, but instead accept and include autistic people, to reduce the pressure on autistic people to hide who they truly are.

Original languageEnglish
JournalAutism
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Jun 2023

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