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Newsletter Number 24, March 2024
Masking: Does it even exist ...? Part 2
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Neurodivergent young people and parents who have lived experience of using masking to hide their anxiety share their views here.


From a young person's perspective: "I felt like a pain and a burden, so I started masking, bringing out those traits of mine that I thought were the most likeable … while trying to hide the anxiety or squash all the reactions that would be considered over the top. This did not always work so well for me, and the mask would be dropped when things got too much."


From a parent’s perspective: "Listen to the parents and be 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. To ensure that all needs are identified it’s our job to listen to every person involved in the child’s life."

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A young person can go from seemingly happy and coping with the expectations of their work to very distressed in almost the blink of an eye. Even young children can soon display this.

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Recently I worked with a 7 year old boy in his school at the end of the afternoon. We had a 45-minute one-to-one session where we focused on how he perceived his needs. He'd done very well and concentrated hard for most of the session, though I could see signs of tiredness as we packed away our work in time for him to be dismissed to go home.

I had a 10-minute conversation with his class teacher and then met the boy and his mum at their home a short walk from the school. In the 20 minutes since saying: "See you later" the boy had become very aggressive and defiant. When his mum asked him to carry out very simple instructions he refused, shouted at her and threw objects around the room. He seemed oblivious to my presence and I observed as he became increasingly demanding of the actions he wanted to take - playing computer games.

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His mum explained that he played for at least six hours a day, including an hour before leaving for school. She has found that playing his computer games keeps him calmer for longer, but it has now developed into a battle she no longer attempts to fight. Excessive gaming for young people is known to physically rewire the brain. Researchers have found that gamers had less grey matter (the thinking part of the brain) compared to a control group. Whilst while gaming can have positive effects on the brain, excessive gaming can lead to negative impacts, such as addiction and decreased social interaction.

Therefore, it’s crucial to maintain a balance and ensure that gaming doesn’t interfere with other important aspects of a young person’s life, such as school, physical activity and social opportunities. The recovery time for the brain after excessive gaming can vary depending on the individual and the extent of their gaming habits. However, research suggests that it can take up to 90 days for our brain chemistry to rewire back to normal dopamine sensitivity levels. During this period, individuals may experience compulsions, cravings or urges to game, as well as withdrawal, mood swings, irritability, feelings of apathy, anxiety and depression. In order to fully return brain function to its usual state, a process known as “dopamine detoxification” must take place.

A reliance on playing computer games is by no means an issue for all young people who mask their behaviour at school, but it is more common amongst the young people I'm supporting than I'd anticipated. If a young person is really struggling with excessive gaming, there might be a need to explore professional help to gradually reduce their exposure over a period of time.​​​​

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Recommendations to help neurodivergent children prevent masking, including:

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