What Is ADHD Masking, And How To Spot It
Nov 22, 2023, 11 min read
People with ADHD find many different ways to manage their symptoms, and one of those strategies is known as ADHD masking. If you have heard of this concept, you may be wondering if you yourself engage in ADHD masking behaviours, and why this can be damaging. At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about ADHD masking, we can help.
Here, we are taking a closer look at what ADHD masking actually is, the research behind it, examples of it in everyday life, what it might look like for different ages and genders, how it impacts individuals and the ADHD community, and how to cope if you find yourself doing it.
What is ADHD and what are the symptoms?
ADHD is also known as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and it is a type of neurodivergence that leads to a difference in how the brain is hard-wired in those with ADHD when compared to neurotypical individuals.
ADHD can cause a number of symptoms. The main symptoms in adults include things like trouble focusing for a long time, impulsivity and inattentiveness, which could interfere with learning, studying, working, organising things, remembering things, following through on instructions, managing time, and other everyday tasks.
In children with ADHD, symptoms might look like hyperactivity, struggling to play quietly, or having difficulty taking simple instructions without getting distracted. Keep in mind that ADHD can present differently in girls than in boys, with girls often being less hyperactive and more inattentive.
What is ADHD masking?
ADHD masking is sometimes known as ‘impression management’ or ‘camouflaging’, which is a coping mechanism that some people with ADHD adopt in order to manage how others view them. It often leads to them presenting in a manner that appears as if they do not have ADHD by copying behaviours of neurotypical people, and covering up their own symptoms.
In the moment, these behaviours can help an individual to feel like they are navigating daily life, functioning in structured environments, and fitting into societal or work expectations, although most often the practice is unconscious and not intentional. By engaging in ADHD masking for a long time, a person with the condition may start to feel exhausted and stressed from trying to keep up appearances, as well as feeling like they cannot fully express themselves to those around them.
In the worst of cases, ADHD masking can contribute to a delayed diagnosis of ADHD by concealing symptoms that would be used to reach a diagnosis, get support, and start treatment.
A history of ADHD masking
The concept and existence of ADHD masking has been acknowledged more in recent years, and it is believed to have been first mentioned in 2015 by psychologist Russell Barkley in his book Taking Charge of Adult ADHD. Barkley believes that ADHD masking occurs in around one third of all people with the condition, and suggests that some people with ADHD will attempt to convince others they have their condition ‘under control’, or don’t have ADHD at all, by concealing or controlling symptoms.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide as much detailed, science-backed information on mental health conditions as possible, but unfortunately in the case of ADHD masking, there is a lack of research on the concept. This does not mean that it is untrue, only that it requires further study to fully understand its existence, prevalence and how to manage it.
In the past, ADHD was thought of as a condition affecting mainly children, and many medical professionals believed children with ADHD would simply ‘grow out of it’. This has led to stigma and shame around living with the condition into adulthood. As a result, many individuals with ADHD symptoms may have learned to cope by adapting to their external environment and camouflaging their symptoms.
The lack of research into ADHD masking could be due to a number of reasons, for example, those who do not live with ADHD may find the idea of covering up symptoms difficult to grasp, and those with ADHD may feel shame around pretending they don’t have it.
While the existence of ADHD masking is a relatively new concept that lacks research, it is worth being aware of the behaviours involved so those who live with the condition can recognise potential symptoms in themselves and take steps to seek the help they need.
What are some examples of ADHD masking in action?
Understanding the many differences in how ADHD masking can manifest is important, as it helps provide an accurate diagnosis and can help when deciding which treatment options could help. Some examples of ADHD masking in everyday life include behaviours like:
- Avoidance when discussing intense emotions like overwhelm, which allows them to build over time
- Taking on more responsibility that you can handle and working to the point of exhaustion just to seem like you have everything together
- Copying others in social situations in an attempt to be accepted by your peers
- Intentionally hiding hyperactivity by pretending to be calm and sitting quietly without squirming or engaging in stimming behaviours
- Intentionally responding as you may be expected to in certain situations (like when called upon in a classroom) despite feeling anxious or distracted
- Focusing intensely on a task, person or another focal point in order to avoid distractions that would otherwise draw your attention, and impulsive behaviours that would come naturally to you (over time this can cause feelings of irritation)
- Obsessively checking your belongings to ensure you don't lose important items
- Excessively cleaning and tidying your home to present an organised appearance, or organising paperwork and creating systems, when in reality you are struggling to keep up with organisation
- Remaining quiet and being overly cautious with your words to avoid excessive talking or interrupting
- Arriving to appointments very early to avoid lateness, and being unable to relax beforehand
- Ignoring signs of issues within your relationships in order to present the illusion that everything is fine
- Writing everything down so you don't forget it due to ADHD-related memory issues
To someone who does not suffer from ADHD, an obvious thought regarding these behaviours might be ‘If someone finds it possible to appear organised, prompt, calm and considered in their actions, does this not mean they can easily manage daily life?’ The answer to this is no, because these behaviours may not come naturally to someone with ADHD. Over time their mask of organisation and calmness will begin to slip, leading to feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, depression and more.
What does ADHD masking look like for different groups?
ADHD masking can manifest in different ways, depending on things like the age of the person, their gender, and the ADHD subtype they may have.
Children: ADHD masking in children may look like camouflaging hyperactive behaviours like fidgeting or impulsive outbursts by taking part in activities that naturally involve those behaviours. For example, playing games that require a lot of movement.
Adolescents: Young people with ADHD may start to become more aware of how their symptoms come across to their peer groups, and social masking may become important to them. To keep their social challenges hidden, they might hide behind humour, or talk excessively. Studies have confirmed the negative impact of ADHD on the quality of life of adolescents, with their emotional, social and school functioning all strongly impaired.
Women: Women and girls tend to experience different ADHD symptoms to men and boys, and may present with less hyperactive features and more inattentive features. As a result, women with ADHD may engage in masking behaviours such as hiding their emotions, keeping struggles to themselves, and daydreaming a lot. They may also engage in excessive planning and organising in order to seem like they have everything together. A 2023 study looking at masking in adults found that these behaviours were more common in women, however more research is needed to understand why this is the case.
Men: As men and boys tend to present with hyperactive features of ADHD more often, they may attempt to hide their hyperactivity by engaging in risk-taking behaviours. Additionally, the ADHD symptom of hyperfocus may be used to direct intense concentration towards a specific task in order to seem focused.
Why do people try to mask their ADHD?
At its core, ADHD masking is a coping strategy that many people with ADHD may not even realise they are using. Some of the reasons people are thought to engage in ADHD masking behaviours include:
- To rise to societal expectations
- To conceal symptoms of ADHD out of shame
- To fit in with peer groups and avoid judgement (research shows that young adults with ADHD struggle with interpersonal relationships and stigma)
- To offer a feeling of being in control
- To avoid scrutiny or rejection from others
In a 2023 qualitative research study, some of the participants with ADHD mentioned feeling pressure to hide their ADHD during many of their social interactions, and one said they hid their symptoms around everyone except their closest circle. 89% of adults with ADHD report anticipating discrimination in daily life, which could lead people to mask natural behaviours in order to feel accepted.
One study provided a helpful analogy that could further explain the reasons people engage in masking behaviours. In the example, the mind is represented by a glass and the ability to adapt in social situations is represented by the level of water in the glass. In neurotypical people the volume of water is large, whereas for those with an ADHD brain, the volume of water is low:
“... imagine that environmental factors can influence water levels. In individuals with typical development, even if the water level declines during periods of high demand of social interaction with peers or severe stress, their vulnerabilities may not be as exposed as those of individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders.
In contrast, in individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders, when this water level drops, their vulnerabilities are easily exposed. During these times, they have difficulty adapting in their areas of weakness, and the symptoms of their neurodevelopmental disorder become apparent.”
(Kosaka, H., Fujioka, T. & Jung, M. Symptoms in individuals with adult-onset ADHD are masked during childhood. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 269, 753–755 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-018-0893-3)
How can ADHD masking be damaging?
ADHD masking can be damaging for both the individual with ADHD, and for the larger ADHD community:
For the individual with ADHD
Someone with ADHD may put a lot of their energy into masking symptoms, which has a number of negative impacts due to the constant hiding of behaviours that come naturally to a person with ADHD. On an individual level, ADHD masking can cause:
- Internal stress, exhaustion and mental fatigue
- Identity issues, an inability to truly express oneself, and negative impacts on one’s self-esteem
- A delay in gaining an accurate diagnosis and access to appropriate support and treatment, due to the individual being unaware of their own ADHD
- A delay in gaining an accurate diagnosis and access to appropriate support and treatment, due to the individual hiding it so well that others do not realise their condition exists, or eventually, do not believe they have it due to their prowess in hiding symptoms
- Increased anxiety and depression. Some research into other types of masking (such as autism masking) has found that it can cause damaging results such as increased levels of social anxiety, generalised anxiety and depression
- Increased risk of developing substance abuse problems as a coping mechanism for their intense emotions
For the ADHD community
As well as having a negative impact on the individual with ADHD, the broader ADHD community may also feel the impact of this. ADHD masking can reinforce stereotypes and misconceptions about ADHD by affecting how the general public perceive the condition. By hiding symptoms, this suggests there is something to be ashamed of, which is not the case.
In addition, ADHD masking could impact the perception of the prevalence of the condition, making it more difficult for medical professionals to make an accurate diagnosis, and impeding access to the support and treatments needed.
By addressing the potentially damaging effects of ADHD masking and encouraging societal empathy for the struggles faced, those with ADHD can feel empowered to recognise their own condition, live in an authentic way, and seek support for their challenges. Not only will creating a supportive environment reduce stress on individuals with ADHD, it will also create a more inclusive environment where others with ADHD can feel safe to be themselves.
How to address ADHD masking if this sounds like you
At Augmentive, we believe advice and support for those with ADHD should always be bespoke and tailored to the individual to help with their specific symptoms, so if you are engaging in ADHD masking behaviours, we recommend speaking to a professional who can listen to your symptoms and create the best possible treatment plan for you.
For some, untangling and addressing years of ADHD masking can seem like an impossible task, as you may have spent most of your life ‘hiding’ your challenges. The first step is often fostering a sense of self-awareness, acknowledging that you may benefit from addressing ADHD masking behaviours, and identifying what these might be.
It is important to remember that being yourself – no matter what ADHD symptoms this might involve – can be empowering and seem in society as a sign of strength rather than weakness, as you may have perceived it in the past.
Try to open up to people closest to you about the masking behaviours you believe you have been employing, and discuss the things you struggle with most. By doing this, you can start to develop coping strategies that can help in everyday life, and also involve others in this so they can support you where possible. These coping strategies might include things like:
- Identifying which ADHD masking behaviours are causing you the most stress, and releasing the expectations you have. For example, if you are struggling to manage keeping a pristine home, perhaps acknowledge that a reasonably tidy home is perfectly acceptable, and can relieve some of the pressure you put on yourself.
- Connect with other people with ADHD who you can be open with about your struggles, and discuss coping strategies together that could help.
- Speak to a therapist who can help you manage intense emotions and encourage honesty about how you are feeling. At Augmentive, our free 15 minute consultation can help connect you with an ADHD specialist who can discuss your ADHD symptoms, coping strategies, and provide personalised support that addresses masking behaviours.
By embracing your symptoms more openly, and as a result, embracing your authentic self, you can start to develop a healthier mindset when it comes to coping with ADHD and realise that you do not need to present the image of perfection to the world around you.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private ADHD assessment or review, to broader private mental health care.
If you have a question about mental health, like what ADHD burnout is, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.