What makes people adapt faster?

Masking: People on the autism spectrum talk about the stress of having to adapt to everyday life

Before Kristina Meyer-Estorf goes on a professional appointment, she is under a lot of tension. She thinks carefully about what to expect and goes through the impending situation step by step in her head. “I ask myself: What can I expect,” she says, “and how should I behave?” What other people may take for granted, to behave intuitively appropriately in a social situation, is always a challenge for Meyer-Estorf . She is diagnosed with autism and says: “How do you behave in social situations? This question constantly accompanies an autistic person. "

The 43-year-old from Hamburg has found a way to deal with this pressure: for ten years now, the trained special education teacher has been working as a coach and peer advisor for other people in the autism spectrum and supports her clients in communicating with their employers, among other things * inside or when dealing with authorities. How does Meyer-Estorf manage to find appropriate behavior every time for the many meetings that this job entails?

“At work, I put on coats, so to speak, different ones depending on the situation,” she says: “There is, for example, the official coat - I'm very factual and rational.” Before a meeting, she thinks about which coat meets the requirements of the one in front of her Situation could correspond. "I ask myself: which coat can I slip into now," she describes. The right coat gives her a kind of timetable on how to behave.

Adaptation to the neurotypical norm

When Meyer-Estorf puts on her imagined coats, she tries to adapt to the impending situation as best as possible. This adaptation that autistic people have to make in order to be able to participate in social life is known as masking.

"When masking, I try to adapt to the neurotypical norm so that my autistic abnormalities are less important and I can participate in social life," describes the activist Nicole Baselt from the YouTube channel pink spectrum, on which she explains about her autism. Behaviors and perceptions beyond the autism spectrum are described as neurotypical, explains the 32-year-old from Bern.

When you mask, you pretend you are neurotypical, says Julia, whose real name is different and who has been diagnosed with autism. “As an autistic person, masking means pretending to be neurotypical,” explains the 23-year-old. Apparently neurotypical social signals are being sent out. In contrast to neurotypical people, however, these are not sent to her intuitively, but are rehearsed.

Neurotypical people would, for example, make brief eye contact at the beginning of a contact or conversation, smile slightly and raise their eyebrows briefly. “This is a welcome signal, a contact-building signal from neurotypical people,” says the student. She recently read that in a specialist book and is now training. “I've never done that before. It would never have occurred to me in my life that I should do that, ”she says.

Fear of exclusion: masking as self-protection

Why do people on the autism spectrum feel compelled to adapt to the neurotypical norm through masking? First of all, there is economic pressure, says activist Nicole. “I want to be able to do my job. I would like to be able to and be allowed to live independently. I want to have money in my account so that I can pay my rent, ”says the software tester.

Expert Meyer-Estorf believes that the workplace in particular is a place where deviations in social behavior are only reluctantly seen. "If an autistic person wants to feel himself, for example, then he * she cannot sit in front of his * her computer and rock back and forth all the time," says Meyer-Estorf. The work is a context in which people in the autism spectrum mask a lot in order not to attract negative attention.

I mask when I'm afraid of arriving wrong or coming off wrong.

Lisa, YouTuber

Economic pressure is not the only reason why autistic people mask, says the coach. The causes would go much further. Autistic people have to experience again and again - not only at work - that they would be excluded without social masks, the expert believes. "If the autistic person gets out of the masking and shows their abnormalities, then marginalization quickly occurs," she says. Masking is self-protection for autistic people, says Meyer-Estorf.

"I mask when I'm afraid of arriving the wrong way or coming across as wrong," says Lisa from the YouTube channel Girl from Planet Aspie, on which she talks about her "normally crazy world". The 28-year-old student is also diagnosed with Asperger's autism and has had the experience of being stigmatized without masking: “If you meet a stranger and you are not a perfectionist in masking, then you are stupidly looked at and it is suspected : What kind of weird owl is that. "Lisa thinks:" Autistic people use masks to please the other person and to be well received by them. "

“Behind the masking lies the desire to belong,” says coach Meyer-Estorf. This desire is often associated with early bullying experiences, she explains. In fact, Julia reports: “My school days were not without problems. The moment you are different and you don't fit in, it becomes difficult. "

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These experiences lead people on the autism spectrum early on to adapt their behavior as closely as possible to the behavior of the other children. "When I was at school I already trained to behave like neurotypical children," says Nicole. “When I was in bed in the evening, I would review my entire day and go through all the conversations to see: What did you say? How did you react there? How could you have reacted better? ”She says.

Lisa from the YouTube channel Girl from Planet Aspie reports that masking started when she was at kindergarten. She had to actively acquire social customs that the other children had learned intuitively. “I sat in a corner somewhere and watched what the other kids were doing and then tried to actively copy it,” she recalls.

Nicole describes masking as observed and adopted behaviors of neurotypical people. "It's a compilation of other people's behaviors that I've observed and that I found kind of good," she says.

Masking is like a kind of sport. Like some kind of mental sport.

Lisa, YouTuber

Masking enables autistic people to participate in society. It gives them an orientation in social interactions. Yet masking comes with a price. "Masking is a double-edged sword," says YouTuber Lisa. Constantly having to adapt is very exhausting. “Masking is like a kind of sport. Like some kind of intellectual sport, ”she says.

Julia also says that masking takes a lot of energy. “I just have to be aware of things that other people can do subconsciously,” she says: “That of course costs energy.” Intensive masking can lead to her being burned out and having to take a break, says Lisa. "After days when I've tried too hard to adapt, I'm at home on the couch for two or three days because I have to charge my battery," says the YouTuber.

Intense masking means a lot of stress

The efforts of masking could even lead to an autistic burnout, activist and YouTuber Nicole has had to experience. "After such a day full of adjustments, it can happen that I end up in a shutdown: that I implode, withdraw internally, communicate with no one anymore and nothing works at first," she says.

YouTuber Lisa now avoids situations and places where she has to adapt too intensively over a long period of time, she reports. Excessively long and intensive masking is toxic: "The more and the longer you mask, the more likely it becomes that it can have further, longer-term psychological consequences for you," she says.

In fact, Nicole reports: "In my youth, the whole thing got out of control and compulsive washing." YouTuber Lisa finds: "Such psychological problems arise because autistic people are under the stress of complying with society all the time." You have to between Differentiate between psychological comorbidities and autism itself, says Meyer-Estorf. Autism itself is a developmental disorder - not a mental illness, emphasizes the expert: The psychological comorbidities arise to a large extent from the pressure to adapt that weighs on autistic people.

Masking prevents diagnoses of autism

Meyer Estorf believes that masking is very convenient for the neurotypical majority society, which is reluctant to be confronted with deviations in social behavior. “Masking is very helpful for society because it doesn't have to deal with the otherness that autistic people bring with them,” she says.

But what is convenient for the neurotypical majority society, on the other hand, can be very dangerous for autistic people. It is true that her ability to mask well and successfully enabled her to work as a freelancer and that masking gives her support in many professional situations, as she says. In this respect, it was a tool for them, a door opener. But one should not forget the dangers of such an adaptation: a perfected masking often leads - especially with autistic girls and women - to the fact that the autism is diagnosed late - too late.

This is also how activist and YouTuber Nicole sees it: "Most autistic girls or women are not even diagnosed because they mask to perfection and do not attract attention." She was also only diagnosed at the age of 30. “Because I just adapted so well,” she explains.

Such late diagnoses are dangerous because sometimes years and decades pass before the right help is given, emphasizes coach Meyer-Estorf: "Autistic people are recognized too late, their needs are seen too late and have to endure a lot." YouTuber Lisa is also convinced: "It is best if the diagnosis comes as early as possible in order to be able to offer the person or the child appropriate support."

How can the environment help so that autistic people have to do less masking?

Masking, done too long and intensely, costs people in the autism spectrum a lot of energy. It can be psychologically dangerous for them and lead to burn-outs and essential help not being available or arriving too late. Meyer-Estorf believes that the autistic person's environment is partly responsible.

"If there is a barrier-free environment, the autistic person doesn't need any masking at all," says the expert. So what is a barrier-free environment for people with autism? And how can the private and professional environment help so that autistic people have to do less masking?

"I feel much more comfortable in an environment that is darker, that is quieter, that includes fewer people, more myself and not under so much pressure to have to mask," says YouTuber Lisa. It makes sense if the circle of friends of an autistic person makes sure that they choose places with little irritation for meetings, she explains. In principle, private spaces are more suitable than public places.

“I tend to meet up with my friends at home to cook together than in a restaurant,” says Nicole. In the restaurant, she was exposed to overstimulation. "There are so many attractions in a restaurant and it can quickly become overwhelming," she says. "Autism is also a weakness of the stimulus filter," emphasizes Meyer-Estorf: "Autistic people perceive all the stimuli around them much more intensely than neurotypical people."

The term or diagnosis of autism doesn't even have to be in the room for the person to be taken for who he * she is.

Kristina Meyer-Estorf, coach and peer advisor

It is important not only in the private but also in the professional environment to reduce the stimuli to which autistic people are exposed, says the coach. Then they are less tense and have to go into masking less. One way of reducing acoustic stimuli in the workplace, for example, is using headphones. "The psychological stress in the workplace can be reduced by giving all employees the opportunity to wear headphones in the office," says the expert.

"Autistic people benefit most from such a regulation," says Meyer-Estorf. And yet she finds it important to offer such regulations for all employees and not specifically for the person on the autism spectrum.

"A good environment is an environment in which you don't have to explain yourself to be different"

In the ideal case, the autistic person does not have to come out as autistic in order to receive appropriate help, believes the expert. “It doesn't even have to be the term or diagnosis of autism in order for the person to be taken for who he * she is,” she says. “In a barrier-free environment, the autistic person does not have to explain himself, but can simply describe: This is how I am. And that's what I need. ”Regardless of whether these are headphones or two days of home office per week.

“A good environment is an environment in which you do not have to explain yourself to be different,” says Meyer-Estorf: “In an environment in which an autistic person does not have to explain himself, he * she can, for example, a little with his own * rock your upper body to feel yourself and to calm down. “It is important that the environment is value-free and that people are treated as they are, says the expert.

I can also use autism as a little superpower to do things differently from the rest of society.

Lisa, YouTuber

YouTuber Lisa also thinks it should be possible to get help without necessarily having to come out. “You don't have to shake hands with everyone with the diagnosis,” she says: “It should be possible to simply state your needs. For example, that one reacts very sensitively to noises. Or smells or other stimuli. ”The more the social environment responds to such individual needs, the less autistic people have to put on social masks that do not suit them and drive them into psychological crises, says the YouTuber.

Lately she has managed to mask less and less, says Lisa. Her YouTube channel helped a lot. “I'm trying to show who I really am, without masks. I don't always succeed. I also mask in the videos. But it's falling off more and more, ”she says. So she was able to discover for herself: "I can also use autism as a little superpower to approach things differently than the rest of society." If you mask all the time, as an autistic person you cannot discover your abilities at all you. She would like to have the same experience for other people on the autism spectrum.

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