People with ADHD may sometimes mask their symptoms to hide that they are having difficulties in a situation or fitting in socially. A person may do this consciously or without realizing it.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that can cause someone to show behaviors and have thought patterns generally different from those of a neurotypical person. It can cause a range of symptoms, including difficulty paying attention, fidgeting, impulsivity, and a sensitivity to rejection.

Most previous research about masking has focused on how autistic people may mask their symptoms to “fit in.” However, recent research finds that people with ADHD may also mask for similar reasons. This can be very tiring and may also have a negative effect on their well-being.

Read on to learn more about what masking is, including examples, risks, and coping strategies.

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Masking, also known as camouflaging or impression management, refers to when someone makes changes to the way they behave to cover up or compensate for their symptoms.

A person may do this consciously, or it may become an automatic habit. They may not fully realize the lengths they are going to when they mask.

What many people consider to be common social norms are according to the behaviors of neurotypical individuals. These often exclude behaviors that feel comfortable and natural for people who are neurodivergent, such as those with ADHD.

For example, a person with ADHD may find that they have difficulty paying attention or staying engaged in conversations. As a result, they may move around a lot or act more impulsively than those around them.

This may make them feel like they do not fit in and may garner unwanted attention. Therefore, they may try to hide their natural behaviors.

Some examples of a person masking their symptoms include the following:

  • A person focuses on fidgeting or moving around less than they would like to. In some cases, this fidgeting may involve stimming, which involves someone carrying out repetitive actions to soothe themselves.
  • Someone stops themselves from interrupting others during conversations.
  • A person focuses incredibly hard during conversations to not lose focus.
  • They are silent or very quiet in social settings.
  • Someone suppresses their energy level to appear calmer.
  • A person hides strong emotions or reactions.
  • A person arrives very early to appointments to avoid being late.
  • They make up reasons as to why they are late or have difficulties with a task.
  • A person writes everything down to avoid forgetting things.
  • Individuals create strict routines and systems, such as multiple alarms and checking work several times, to compensate for any mistakes.

It is difficult to estimate how common masking with ADHD is, especially since some people may not even be aware that they are doing it. Research into this area is still very new.

A 2023 qualitative research study found that several participants with ADHD felt pressure to mask throughout many of their social interactions. One person stated that they masked around everyone outside of those very close to them.

Some research suggests that masking behaviors may be more common in females. According to a 2020 paper, girls may employ more compensatory behaviors, such as masking, than boys. The authors also noted that ADHD in women may present in a more internalized way.

Additionally, a 2023 study that focused on masking in adults found that masking behaviors were also more common in women. Further research is necessary to understand all the factors that contribute to this.

Learn more about ADHD in girls and women.

A person with ADHD may feel pressure to put a large amount of focus and energy into masking their symptoms, which can lead to negative consequences. For example, masking can be tiring and stressful.

Some possible negative consequences of masking the following:

  • A person can overcompensate for symptoms that can cause difficulties in the opposite direction. For example, they can overthink decisions too much to compensate for being impulsive.
  • Someone can stop others from knowing the true extent of their symptoms and how much they get into difficulties may delay a diagnosis.
  • A person can have difficulties regulating emotions.
  • Someone can experience a loss of sense of identity as they feel they have to mask or perform in social situations.
  • A person can feel fatigued due to masking taking so much energy and focus.

Research into masking with other conditions finds similar results that it can be damaging. Some research on autistic people found that masking had links to increased levels of social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and depression.

A person may find the process of acknowledging their masking strategies to be confusing and overwhelming. With the support of family, friends, and mental health professionals, a person can reflect on how and why they mask. They could also find the best way to manage their symptoms in a healthy way that does not cause them stress.

A person may find the following steps helpful when trying to unmask:

  • becoming aware of when they are masking
  • acknowledging masking behaviors that may be harming them
  • sharing with others when they are having difficulties with their ADHD symptoms
  • speaking with a mental health professional to support them through this process

If a person is having difficulties managing their ADHD symptoms, they can speak with a doctor about what treatment and support options are available to them.

While ADHD can affect many aspects of someone’s life, options, such as education, therapy, and medication, can help them manage their symptoms in a healthy way.

A person with ADHD may feel the need to mask their symptoms around others to feel safe and fit in.

Someone who continuously masks and excessively worries about their behaviors can become exhausting and have a negative effect on them. An individual with ADHD should not feel the need to hide parts of themselves.

With the support of mental health professionals and loved ones, they can find ways to manage their symptoms that feel right for them.