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When young people ‘mask’ their difficulties…

The importance of listening closely to parents.

As a current SENCo, it surprises me how often I come across a young person who is ‘masking’ their difficulties at school.

From time to time I receive a phone call from a worried parent about their child's behaviour at home. More often, the behaviour described at home isn't at all what we see in school.

Masking is essentially the act of covering up feelings, emotions and behaviours relating to hidden emotional dysregulation. It is usually a trait associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Autistic Masking, as it is also sometimes known, involves camouflaging, or compensating a conscious or unconscious suppression of natural autistic responses.

Why does masking occur in the first place?

Masking takes place as a response to perceived or real societal demands. Those demands can be parental expectations, school expectations or just social expectations. Either way behaviours that neurotypical people exhibit are simply just that – levels of expectation that society has cumulatively decided and learned that individuals should adhere to. For those on the Autistic Spectrum, those “rules” and expectations can be a minefield.

Girls, in particular, can be very good at masking their worries and anxieties. They will smile, laugh and joke with the other children, appear to be getting on with their schoolwork and have lots of friends. However, the strain of trying to keep this up all day can be huge.

Grown women who are Autistic have explained to me what this feels like: “I walk into the room and feel like people are looking at me”. “I have no idea what to say to people or what they expect from me”. “Everyone else seems to know what to do and I just copy other people and smile when they are smiling so that I probably get it right”.

These are adult women, who have had years to learn how to cope and appear ‘normal’ (whatever normal is)! Imagine how much harder it must be for a young girl of ten or a teenager dealing with the onset of puberty at the same time. Girls’ friendships become much more complex at this age and there are extremely complex group dynamics to navigate.

What is said is not always what is meant, girls talk behind each other’s backs and make nasty and sarcastic remarks – sometimes, purely for the sake of it. For any child on the Autistic Spectrum, this is very difficult to manage.

What does masking look like?

If you are unsure of what masking can look like in reality, sometimes it’s easier (and really beneficial) for professionals to work closely with pupils who already have a diagnosis of autism and really get to know those pupils individually.

As a SENCo, I find it innately satisfying to get to know every individual and what their personal needs are; as after all, we need to support an individual’s needs in a school setting, rather than the stereotypical behaviours of the label they happen to have been given.

If we take the time to develop a working relationship with a pupil with autism and work in “reverse” as such, this can help us as professionals to start to see behaviours that can be so well hidden that they may be ordinarily easy to miss.

If you have a great relationship with a young person who is autistic, there is no harm at all in asking them in which situations they feel they may mask how they really feel. Open conversations build trust, honesty and help us to do as much as we possibly can to support a pupil’s individual needs.

How can parents help us to become better educated as professionals?

Obviously in an ideal world, parents and teachers should work together to support the young person using a triangulated approach. As professionals, we should obviously do all we can to try to promote this relationship. This means that when a parent calls in to show their concern about their child and the “meltdowns” they are experiencing at home, we really need to sit up and pay attention.

The conversation where a parent explains, with exasperation, the way they observe their child “letting off steam” at home can be one that is a real insight into that child’s needs. “Meltdowns” at home usually act as a very big red flag for unmet needs and difficulties at school. More often than not, young people can “hold it together” and mask the difficulties and emotions they experience at school up to a point, and the safe place to unwind and vent pent up behaviours is likely to be in the safe and secure environment at home.

When a parent does call in to ask for help, it’s so important that we as SENCos listen and are open to understanding that children will let it all out in their safe space (home). Children quickly learn to mask behaviour that is seen to be unacceptable at school and internalise the stress and anxiety that masking causes.

To ensure that all of an individual’s needs are identified, it is our job to listen to every person involved in the child’s life. This informs Person Centred Planning and is central to building a support package that will facilitate growth for the child and upskilling of all those involved.

It is always wise to ask parents to openly describe what they are living through with their child. Ask questions such as how their child’s behaviours differ once they are settled into the weekend or school holidays. Ask them if you notice an “uptick” in behaviours when there is some sort of change coming; especially as the child approaches a school holiday or is about to start a new term. Ask if some days are worse than others and analyse if this links to particular activities in school. Don’t make them feel like ‘bad’ parents, respect their views.

Be clear about the purpose of identification to yourself.

How to support a child (and parent) in this situation

Obviously, at some point you are likely to need to have a conversation with the parent about ruling out autism spectrum disorder, but in most cases, it is best to start working with the child to see if you think autism is a possibility.

By getting to know the child and setting up some support strategies as part of a quick “rescue package” you can make a significant difference to the experience that young person has on a day-to-day basis.

A label isn’t an absolute necessity at this stage – the support is. However, from a personal perspective I believe undiagnosed SEN needs are those that seem to always become the most complex difficulties to manage and support in the long run if left ignored.

For detailed and done-for-you support strategies to help pupils and parents trying to navigate autism spectrum disorder, why not join SEN Buddy on a free trial for 14 days?

Visit https://www.senbuddy.co.uk. Trials are available for both individual and school users.


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