How We Teach Our Autistic Children To Mask Their Autism (and their needs).

Sometimes it’s truly inadvertent and in these cases – a “once off, never repeated” scenario, but one that lingers with the child. Often it’s borne from the parents own challenges in regulating and managing their emotions. Other times, tragically, its a conscious and deliberate parenting choice that influences the parents every action and response towards their child. But, whatever the reason, the message to the child is the same – they don’t matter, they are not accepted by you, they are unworthy because they are not a ‘typical’ child. We, the most powerful person in our child’s world, teach them they are not deserving of respect, not deserving of acceptance of who they are, and not deserving of having their needs met – that they must mask who they are. The truth is, as a parent of an Autistic child, I’ve been guilty of it myself.

Sometimes, these lessons to our child are explicit and loud, through the words we say to them. Other times we teach them more passively and pervasively – through our responses, through what we don’t do and by rejection of our child’s needs.

Some examples of common phrases that teach our children their neurology is not acceptable and that their needs don’t matter (received by the child as “I don’t matter”): 

  • ”Don’t be so sensitive” 
  • “Your over-reacting” 
  • “Stop being so emotional” 
  • “Stop carrying on”
  • “Stop fidgeting” / “Sit still” / “Stop flapping” 
  • “Look at me when I’m talking to you” 
  • “Your embarrassing me” / Your embarrassing yourself
  • “Act normal”
  • “Don’t just sit there, give me an answer” 
  • “Its about time you spoke for yourself” / “It not like I asked you a hard question” 
  • “your just being lazy” / “stop being lazy” 
  • “I’ve already told you that a hundred times” / “Stop making me repeat myself” 
  • “Stop being stupid” / “Your being stupid” 
  • “Use your words” 
  • “Your only a little bit Autistic” / “I don’t think your Autistic” / “I don’t believe you have Autism” 
  • “Stop acting Autistic” / “Stop using Autism as an excuse” / “Your not like X (who the parents sees as “more Autistic’) 
  • “Your x years old now, act it!” / “You don’t need help” / “X can do it, why can’t you”? 
  • “Don’t be stupid” / “Act your age” / “Grow up” / “Stop embarrassing me”
  • and / or commenting negatively to your child about other Autistic people, or other children who are not ‘typical’.       

Examples of common behaviours that teach children their Autistic neurology is shameful and that their needs don’t matter: 

  • Ignoring, openly refusing or choosing not to actively support or help the Autistic child in the way they need when they are distressed, overwhelmed or panicked
  • Denying the child open access to comfort and self-soothing items / sending and isolating the child to their room for being distressed 
  • Not providing open access to a range of sensory items that meet the child’s individual sensory needs and / or not allowing the child to openly engage in sensory seeking activities. 
  • Removing sensory items as a form of punishment 
  • Choosing not to actively minimise or limit tiggers (or activities) that the parent is aware distress in the child 
  • Parental expectations that do not take into account the child’s Autistic sensory, processing, communication and emotional needs. 
  • Not actively seeking the child’s input into sensory preferences and / or actively disempowering the child in meeting their own sensory and body needs (eg insisting / forcing a child to eat when they feel they are full / forcing a child to engage in a sensory activity that causes sensory distress)
  • Taking a punitive approach and / or implementing punishment in response to the child’s sensory, processing, communication, executive function or emotional differences.
  • Blaming the child with executive function differences when they get distracted or fail to complete tasks
  • Expecting the child with social, communication and introception differences to be able to articulate, in words, their internal physical or emotional state. 
  • Not actively advocating for their child’s needs to be met and responded to appropriately outside of the home 
  • Denying, or down playing their child’s Autism to others.
  • Punishing their child’s masking behaviours and / or denying both the protective motivation behind masking behaviours and that where the masking behaviours result from unmet needs, it was the parent who taught the child to mask.

Tragically, parental lessons in teaching children their Autistic neurology is shameful and their needs unacceptable is always, always successful –  and the first solution the child learns is that of a damaging existence of pretence, of being forced to mask, to hide to varying degrees their neurological differences, their feelings and their needs.

It is well documented that Autistic masking often leads to negative, life-long mental health outcomes and is very strongly linked to Autistic people dying an average 20 – 30 years earlier than non Autistic people (with suicide – which occurs at a rate 16 times higher in Autistic people, than in the non-Autistic population – being one of the leading causes of early death in Autistic people).  

There are very few parents who could genuinely claim they have not, on at least one occasion, spoken poorly or behaved poorly towards their child. For many parents when this occurs, the parent acknowledges their behaviour, apologise to the child for their behaviour, and moving forward the parent rarely behaves similarly again. 

Other parents, for many different reasons (often linked to their own negative childhood or life experiences) may need psychological assistance to support them in better understanding and better regulating their own emotional responses, education to better understand child development, education on neurodiversity and Autism, or specific guidance in better understanding their child’s individual Autism profile. There is nothing shameful in identifying, acknowledging and seeking support to do better for your child, and yourself – quite the opposite, it’s evidences the love you have for your child, that you want the best outcomes for your child.

Other parents, particularly parents stuck in intensely damaging belief systems that Autistic neurology is “less than”, or who wrongly believe that it is in their child’s best interests if they could be made to think / behave / and be like a non-Autistic child, will generally have a much longer journey towards ceasing to harm their child. The later generally causing the most significant and pervasive harm to their child. 

Parenting is very much a personal journey of self discovery, learning new skills, shifting our thinking, being open to acknowledging our own limitations and vulnerabilities, being willing to step outside ourselves and outside of our own comfort zones,  and where we have transgressed addressing our transgressions and forgiving ourselves.  We do better when we know better.