Why the ASD child masks in school

When the child with ASD represses their emotions and adapts their behaviour to meet the expectations of others, they are said to be masking. Most young people with ASD mask at school to hide their high levels of anxiety from adults and peers. Masking for any length of time is exhausting, and can lead to angry outbursts or silent withdrawal when the young person gets home and relaxes.

What triggers anxiety in school?

  • Sensory challenges. 

The majority of children with ASD have sensory processing issues and schools can easily tip a pupil into sensory overload, with smells from the dining room, scratchy uniforms, bright strip lighting, noise and the constant contact with others all making a contribution. 

Most of the children know when they are beginning to experience sensory overload, and may try to remove themselves from the situation in order to self-regulate. This opportunity to self-calm may be refused by inexperienced teaching staff.

  • Communication problems, for example, when working in groups.

Children with ASD have communication and interaction challenges. They are unsure of when it is acceptable to enter a conversation, to make a joke or when a discussion has moved on. Working in groups simply offers yet another opportunity to inadvertently offend your peers. Teachers will need to structure groups carefully and flexibly, and define each pupil’s specific role within the group. 

  • The school environment. 

The school environment can be an ASD child’s nightmare: narrow, bustling corridors full of noisy pupils, crowded exits and entrances, busy, chaotic playgrounds and open plan teaching areas with very few quiet areas for the child to self-calm. Pupils with ASD will appreciate the provision of peaceful and safe spaces. 

  • Unpredictable situations.

Children with ASD like predictability. They do not like surprises. Any changes of room, class, teaching staff or timetable will unsettle the child and may leave them agitated for the rest of the day. They will need advanced warning of any change to routine.

  • The co-morbidity of Specific Learning Difficulties and a spiky profile.

Many children with ASD also experience dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia or dyscalculia. 

Neurodivergent individuals will have extreme strengths and extreme weaknesses. The stereotypical ‘little professor’ being the perfect example of a child who is adult in their speech and language, but incapable of kicking a ball. Every child needs to be treated as an individual.

  • Social problems with peers. 

Many ASD young people can seem rude or anti-social. They tend to not enjoy chatting or making small talk. They want to be friendly, but simply don’t know how.

  • A lack of appreciation of the role of ‘special interests’.

Most autistic children have special interests that are extremely important to them. Engaging in their interests helps them to self-regulate, handle stress and anxiety, and can be helpful socially if they connect with peers who enjoy the same hobbies. They may even forge a successful and satisfying career using their specialist knowledge. It will help if schools can recognise and work with the child’s interests.

  • A misunderstanding of the purpose of stimming.

Stimming involves the repetitive movement or action that help the ASD child to self-regulate. While many neurotypical people will tap their foot or click a pen whilst thinking, stimming is more than this for the child with ASD. They need to stim to comfort and regulate themselves. Common stimming habits include humming or repeating certain words or phrases.

Support for ASD children in school must be based around understanding, flexibility and personal choice. They are not the only pupils who appreciate: quiet time, individual rather than team sports, to be alone rather than forced to socialise, a comfortable uniform, smaller dining areas, staggered breaks, natural light and fresh air flow in classrooms. 

A little compassion and empathy will go a long way towards reducing the child’s need to mask.

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