Social Camouflaging in Autism Risks Mental Illness

Rachel Worsley  |  16/01/2022

Social camouflaging behaviour is a risk factor for mental illness in autistic adults, according to UK researchers.  

Over 300 people formally diagnosed with autism took the Camouflaging of Autistic Traits Questionnaire (CAT-Q), which covers the three elements of camouflaging or masking behaviour: 

  1. Masking behaviours: “I monitor my body language or facial expressions so that I appear interested by the person I am interacting with”;
  2. Compensation: “I have spent time learning social skills from television shows and films, and try to use these in my interactions”
  3. Assimilation: “I have to force myself to interact with people when I am in social situations”. 

The study found that camouflaging behaviours significantly and positively predicted scores on self report questionnaires spanning generalised anxiety (GAD), depression and social anxiety. 

The researchers said that camouflaging is ”exhausting” and can cause workplace burnout.    

“The mental and physical efforts needed to camouflage may reduce individuals’ capacity to deal with negative emotions and exacerbate existing mental health problems,” they wrote in the Molecular Autism journal.  

The study found the impact of camouflaging had a bigger effect on the development of GAD and social anxiety compared with depression. 

“In other words, the more an autistic individual camouflages, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of generalised anxiety, depression, and social anxiety, and this relationship exists across the full spectrum of camouflaging level,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers said that autistic adults who camouflage should carefully monitor their mental health over time, to ensure that their camouflaging does not lead to distress. 

“Our results do suggest that autistic adults experiencing mental health difficulties should be encouraged to reflect on and discuss their use of camouflaging, which may play an important role in the development or persistence of their mental health problems.”  

Read the full study here