Social Compensation and the Costs of Masking and Passing

On social compensation and the costs of masking and passing:

Even for people with a diagnosis, a neurotypical appearance due to compensation might result in support needs being underestimated in educational and workplace settings. Additionally, compensation is thought to contribute to poor mental health in autism. Compensatory attempts are taxing, need to be sustained over time, and are often unsuccessful, resulting in a cost to wellbeing.

Despite potential negative consequences, compensation was still considered to be important for increasing life opportunities, and thereby having a role in society (subtheme). Compensation enabled individuals to perform daily tasks that involved communicating with others (eg, accessing services) and to seek employment. Some participants, however, stressed that although compensatory strategies facilitated gaining employment (eg, in interviews), they were not always sufficient to maintain employment and switching jobs was often necessary. Additionally, cognitive demands of using compensatory strategies throughout the working day were reported to affect participants’ ability to perform daily living tasks, so they incurred personal costs while pursuing a role in society.

Source: Compensatory strategies below the behavioral surface in autism: a qualitative study – The Lancet Psychiatry

The paper identifies 8 themes and 18 subthemes for why we engage in social compensation. I particularly relate to the “Costs vs benefits”, “Deep compensation”, “Cognitive tasking”, “Environmental demands”, “Behavioural masking”, “Interaction is two-way”, “Late diagnosis”, and “On ongoing challenge” subthemes. I’m curious if the folks in the “Things are better now” subtheme remain there later in life or if they finally experience burnout.

The paper uses the term “social compensation” instead of the autistic community colloquial term “masking”. It identifies “behavioral masking” as a theme of “social compensation”. Here’s the distinction:

Compensation was distinguishable from behavioural masking (theme). Whereas compensation generated new social behaviours, masking regulated existing behaviours, such as decreasing social behaviours thought by society to be undesirable (eg, talking too much) and increasing behaviours thought to be desirable (eg, smiling). Masking strategies were simple and often automatic, and allowed blending into the background, but were less effective in supporting social interaction. Masking was considered less autism-specific than compensation, given that neurotypical people show masking when required (eg, hiding controversial opinions).

To modulate compensatory efforts, many participants described compensating after logically assessing the costs versus benefits (subtheme). For example, compensation was considered worthwhile to make a positive impression towards a friendship, but not for interactions with inconsequential strangers. In superficial interactions, masking was preferred over compensatory strategies to conserve resources.

Thanks @HappeLab and team for doing this needed work.


See also: Autistic Burnout: The Cost of Masking and Passing

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