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Masking & Social Communication Skills in Autistic Children and Young People

A social skill is any competence facilitating interaction and communication with others where social rules and relations are created, communicated, and changed in verbal and nonverbal ways. Social skills are interactive. You cannot be social on your own but yet we look at Autistic social skills in isolation without assessing how others respond to them.

Most traditional therapy approaches for Neurodivergent (non autistic) children's social abilities are very much based on the idea that they ‘problems’ that need to be ‘fixed’. In these social skills programs, neurodivergent children are lacking these skills and neurotypical children are the “experts”. The programs involve the use of peer/adult modelling of neurotypical social skills. Praise is used as a reinforcer when neurodivergent people successfully mask their autistic characteristics. Successful outcomes are based on parent, teacher, and provider satisfaction. Not based on neurodivergent people’s satisfaction.

Wait… what is masking?

It can be difficult to diagnose autism when a child appears sociable but if you know them well enough you can see how much energy they are putting into performing to appear “normal”. This is called “Masking”. Some autistic people can socialize incredibly well but this can be exhausting as it is often learnt behavior rather than intuitive. Pretending to be someone else/something you are not can take up a lot of emotional and physical energy.

Some autistic children learn to mask without even realising! They are noticed for autistic behaviours such as stimming, talking about special interests, not making eye contact etc. So then they naturally try to suppress them to stop the criticism/comments. Some autistic children/teenagers worry about being ostracized by their peers so the learn to mimic the behavior of others.

The problem is that the longer the child masks their natural autistic self, the more stressful it becomes. It is one of the reasons why teachers may not notice any problems in school but when the child comes home it is too much on them and they end up mentally exhausted and overwhelmed, perhaps exploding with rage/tears or withdrawing. It is more likely to occur if they do not have a diagnosis, if they do not understand autism or if they are not aware of their diagnosis as they do not understand why they may behave in a certain way or why they have needs different to their peers.

What can we do instead to help?

· Empowerment – cultivating a positive Neurodivergent identity

· Self-advocacy

· Learning about our communication styles and how we all communicate differently!

· Teaching boundaries

· Perspective Taking

· Problem Solving


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