At its roots, autism is a social communication disorder, which often makes it difficult for people with ASD to communicate with others and function appropriately in social situations. To combat these challenges, adolescents and adults with autism often learn how to blend in socially so as not to stick out as awkward or anti-social. This process of blending in socially is referred to as “camouflaging.”
A new study by researchers at the Thompson Center shows that girls and women with autism increase the use of camouflaging as they age, while males with autism actually reduce the practice as they mature. The study also showed that girls have higher levels of camouflaging than boys regardless of age. Understanding how and why people with autism practice camouflaging is important for determining how to best help them integrate successfully and meaningfully into society.
“Previous studies have shown that camouflaging can result in increased levels of depression and stress, so it’s important to understand in what situations people with ASD use camouflaging so we can help provide them with healthy alternatives,” said lead author Courtney Jorgenson, a doctoral student in the University of Missouri Department of Psychological Sciences.
For the study, Jorgenson surveyed adolescents with and without autism between the ages of 13-18 in order to determine when and how they used camouflaging in order to “fit in.” Behaviors she measured included, but where not limited to: consciously monitoring their body language and eye contact; learning appropriate behaviors by watching and imitating peers; thinking about the social impression they are making on others; and thinking about how much they are performing and not being themselves.
Jorgenson found that girls with autism used camouflaging more than boys regardless of age. She also found that while girls increased their use of camouflaging as they aged, boys tended to decrease the use of camouflaging as they matured. Jorgenson says these results are important because they show the need for increased vigilance when looking for which individuals on the spectrum need support.
“Because they increase camouflaging as they age, girls with autism tend to look more like their neurotypical peers,” Jorgenson said. “They grow better at hiding their autism, which makes them harder to identify as needing support. When you feel like you are constantly putting on an act and not being yourself, your levels of stress and depression can understandably increase, so it is important to identify those who are camouflaging and make sure they are receive the support they may need.”
This pilot study used data from 140 participants. Future research will use the newly created SPARK research match program to recruit additional participants. The study is currently under review for publication.