Autistic individuals often experience difficulties in social settings. Although autistic individuals may not intuitively know the "typical" way to behave in social settings, many autistic individuals have a desire to fit in so they develop techniques to "camouflage" their autistic traits. Although camouflaging may help individuals to navigate social environments, camouflaging has also been shown to produce negative psychological outcomes. This study aims to explore whether this "camouflaging" strategy is associated with poor social competence, an aspect of the autism diagnosis.
In this study, 247 nonautistic adults completed the Multidimensional Social Competence Scale (MSCS) to assess their social competence, and the Camouflaging Autistic Traits Questionnaire (CAT-Q) to assess the extent to which they used strategies to compensate or mask behaviors characteristic of autism in social settings.
We found that over and above IQ, gender, and executive functioning scores, social competence (MSCS) scores reliably predicted the extent to which nonautistic individuals camouflaged, accounting for 25% of the variance in CAT-Q scores. Importantly, even when autistic traits were controlled for, social competence was still able to account for additional variance in CAT-Q scores.
These results suggest that low social competency in nonautistic adults predicts camouflaging as a strategy in social situations. Given these camouflaging behaviors are being performed in an attempt to comply with an environmental demand to behave in a particular manner, these results also highlight the importance of conceptualizing the social challenges that autistic and nonautistic individuals face in a bidirectional manner, where the onus is not solely on the individual to comply with social conventions but also on society to accommodate diverse behavioral traits.
Why was this study done?: Some autistic individuals try to hide their autistic traits to "fit in" with others, referred to as "camouflaging." Nonautistic adults also report camouflaging, but it is unclear whether this camouflaging is related to social difficulties that are not specific to autism. No research has been conducted to examine the relationship between social competence and camouflaging in nonautistic adults.What was the purpose of this study?: To further understand the factors that are related to camouflaging behaviors. More specifically, whether social abilities, and/or autism characteristics, are related to whether nonautistic adults camouflage.What did the researchers do?: We had 257 nonautistic adults complete various questionnaires, including ones that asked them about their camouflaging behaviors and social abilities. We examined the relationships between the scores from these questionnaires and the influence of other factors such as gender, intelligence, and executive functioning.What were the results of the study?: We found that both social abilities and autistic traits were related to camouflaging behaviors. Indeed, nonautistic adults who had poor social skills, and more autistic traits, engaged in more camouflaging. Social skills were associated with camouflaging even after we considered factors such as gender, intelligence, and executive functioning.What do these findings add to what was already known?: These findings help us understand camouflaging by demonstrating that it may be a common response to social difficulties in nonautistic, as well as autistic, adults. These results also indicate that camouflaging is related to low social competency, not just autism characteristics.What are the potential weaknesses in the study?: The participants in our study completed questionnaires through which they were required to pick from set answers, rather than describe their experiences. We may be missing important qualitative differences in the way nonautistic adults camouflage compared with autistic adults.How will these findings help autistic adults now or in the future?: By comparing what is shared and what is unique with nonautistic people who share traits with autistic people, a more precise definition and study of camouflaging behavior are possible. Rather than see camouflaging as a phenomenon that occurs exclusively in autistic people because of their disability, it may be that both autistic and nonautistic people use camouflaging when they perceive themselves to lack the necessary social competencies that are expected within their social contexts. Because both autistic traits and social competency are related to camouflaging behavior, we can begin to think about how to tease apart which characteristics are more likely to evoke camouflaging in autistic individuals and how this may be similar or different in nonautistic individuals. This knowledge will ultimately contribute to the development of more tailored approaches to prevent and/or reduce the negative impact of camouflaging behaviors for autistic adults.