What does masking have to do with self-regulation?


Do you flap? Rock back and forth? Repeat things verbally? Spin? Tantrum? These actions may be deemed unusual for most neurotypical people, but for Autistic people, it’s a way to regulate something on the inside. Self-regulation is the ability to get yourself to calm down from a state of excitement or stress. For neurotypical people, that could look like taking a break, taking deep breaths, talking through a stressful moment, but for Autistics, it could look like a whole bunch of other actions.

When we don’t get to self-regulate, for both autistics and neurotypical people, we bottle up those feelings, and they often come out in other actions, such as extended uncomfortableness, agitation, crying, or an outburst or tantrum. Autistic people often learn to mask and camouflage their emotions and their self-regulatory motions to fit into society’s norms. What it does is bottle up the emotion, which can be exhausting if the mask or camouflage behavior is extended for a full school day or work session. Its not unusual for parents learn that a child with Autism may not display any disruptive behaviors at school but experience daily tantrums or agitation when a child gets home.

For example, when I was a freshman in college, I did sorority rush for one day. That day, I visited three sorority houses, pretending to be perky and upbeat. I would have rather been more authentically me – listening and introspective in social situations. Perky was a tough mask for me to wear. At the end of the three visits, I went back to my dorm room and cried for an hour because of the exhaustion and stress it caused me. It was then I decided that I never wanted to pretend to be a perky and upbeat person again. I chose not to continue with sorority rush but found other groups in music to be involved in where I could be myself. I can empathize the stress that could affect autistic people who have to wear neurotypical masks daily.

So what can be done to help a person self-regulate?

  • Learning the names of the emotions we feel and assessing whether responses can be changed to suit the situation. Are situations a big deal or a little deal?

  • Learning different ways to self-regulate, like through mindfulness and diaphragmatic breathing.

  • Understanding what actions are needed by an Autistic person to self-regulate in stressful situations and communicating that to a school or employer.

  • Providing time and space for a child or an adult to self-regulate during the day, especially after a difficult task was completed. That can look like a short break to the bathroom, sensory room if available, or clinic or other private space where a child or adult can do stemming to self-regulate.

  • Disclosing to other students or co-workers the need to move (flap/verbally stem) in certain situations to increase awareness and understanding. Let’s make stemming in public no big deal.

  • Identifying a safe person for someone to talk through troubling feelings or to help redirect if seeking help to self-regulate.

In 2020, the CDC reported that 1 in every 54 children have Autism. They all will grow up. As autistics reach adulthood, we’ll see more flapping and outbursts in the workplace, at grocery stores, and in public spaces. It’s better to know and accept that that’s a needed coping mechanism than to stare and judge. I’d rather have people feel comfortable in their own skins by not needing to mask and camouflage. Around me, you can stem and be your authentic self, and I hope the world embraces authenticity as we all grow older.


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