Autistic Mirroring, Masking, & “Unstable Personality”


Yet another ‘ah-ha’ moment for me.

One of my most popular pieces is I Was Masking For So Long, I Lost Myself. That story begins with the following quote:

She doesn’t have her own personality, she just acts like whoever she’s with.”

An observant, but cruel bully said this about me, I think I was about 12 years old at the time.

As mean as this classmate was to me, this statement was spot on. Ironically, it was people like her who contributed to my attempts at blending in which she was now criticizing.

Who wouldn’t want to blend in with the crowd in an attempt to escape relentless bullying and try to fit in for a change?

In my earlier article, I went on to discuss my not-yet-diagnosed ADHD, and how I could tell there was something different about me, I just didn’t know what.

As that unkind classmate noted, I took on the interests — even the personalities — of those around me. If I saw someone was socially successful (i.e. popular), or if I really liked someone, I tried to be as much like them as possible.

I mean, why not? Clearly being myself was a liability at that time.

Little did I know, this is much more commonly a feature of Autistics than those with ADHD — although it’s not exclusive to any particular neurotype, it’s part of a larger picture.


Borderline personality disorder

Unfortunately, that unstable sense of identity was first misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

What I didn’t know at the time — and apparently, what most clinicians didn’t know (and many still don’t) is there is a significant overlap between BPD and Autistic traits.

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These traits are even more present across both groups when the person suffers from anxiety or PTSD, both of which are extremely common in Autistics.

Self-harm, suicide ideation, and suicide attempts are also more common in the Autistic population compared to allistics (non-Autistic people).

An estimated 5% of allistic adults and 13–17% of youth have engaged in self-injurious behaviour, whereas approximately 23–42% of Autistics engage in non-suicidal self-injury.

A 2018 systemic review found the prevalence of suicide attempts in Autistics was estimated to be 47%, and the rate of suicidal ideation was 72%. A small 2020 study also found similar rates, concluding the prevalence of suicidal ideation among Autistics is approximately 67%.

The prevalence rates in the general population are much lower. In Canada the statistics are as follows:

  • 11.8% report thoughts of suicide in their lifetime
  • 2.5% report thoughts of suicide in the past year
  • 4.0% report having made suicide plans in their lifetime
  • 3.1% report having made a suicide attempt in their lifetime

(*It’s important to note that rates of suicide attempts are also much higher in the Indigenous and transgender communities, as well as other marginalized and oppressed groups).

Many of the traits which aren’t listed in the overlap section of the Venn diagram may still be present in both Autistics and people with BPD.

For example, when we’re heavily masked, or trying to camouflage ourselves to fit in, it makes sense that we’d feel insecure and afraid of abandonment should our partners or friends discover our “true” selves.

When you’re trapped under the mask, all love feels conditional.” 

— Dr. Devon Price

Back to mirroring

Mirroring is when a person mimics the body language, verbal habits, or attitudes of someone else, either intentionally or unconsciously.

I have to admit, I did not realize mirroring was a form of fawning, which is one of four trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

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When I first read about fawning, I did not think it applied to me at all. I have c-PTSD, and my go-to trauma response tends to be fight. Recently I was reading Dr. Devon Price’s book, Unmasking Autism, and came across a passage that made me rethink my self-perception.

One common fawning tactic among Autistics is mirroring: lightly mimicking the actions and emotions of another person, trying to meet the energy they are giving off so that they view us as normal and similar to themselves.” 

— Dr. Devon Price

Well, I’ll be damned.

This is an extremely accurate depiction of what I tend to do when I am not sure what reaction, mood, or attitude is expected of me in a given situation. It’s also how I attempt to ingratiate myself to someone, to seem “likeable” and agreeable.


Mirroring and empathy

There are many misguided and outdated theories suggesting Autistics can’t and don’t mirror because we “lack empathy” and are unable to engage in imitation.

Except that Autistics use imitation all the time: in echolalia (repeating, or “echoing” speech we’ve heard), as a stim, or as a form of communication when we’re not sure how to convey what we want to say in our own words.

One needs to be able to accurately identify, relate to, and empathize with someone’s mood or attitude in order to mirror it back to them.

Many Autistics are highly empathic. The difficulty is allistics and autistics have very different ways of conveying our empathy, causing miscommunication or misunderstanding. This phenomenon has been described by Autistic scholars as The Double Empathy Problem.

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If we’re constantly corrected, criticized, even punished just for being ourselves, then who else are we supposed to be?

It makes perfect sense we’d try to find someone who seems to be getting through life much more easily and try to mirror their personality, in the hopes that our lives could be made easier too.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB


Related Stories

I Was Masking For So Long, I Lost Myself

My ADHD and Autism Were Misdiagnosed as Borderline Personality Disorder

3 Key Similarities Between Autism & BPD


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References

Arwert, T.G., Sizoo, B.B. (2020). Self-reported Suicidality in Male and Female Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Rumination and Self-esteem. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 50, 3598–3605. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04372-z

Hedley, D., Uljarević, M. (2018). Systematic Review of Suicide in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Current Trends and Implications. Current Developmental Disorders Reports 5, 65–76. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40474-018-0133-6

Hollocks, M., Lerh, J., Magiati, I., Meiser-Stedman, R., & Brugha, T. (2019). Anxiety and depression in adults with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 49(4), 559–572. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291718002283

Huang, A. X., Hughes, T. L., Sutton, L. R., Lawrence, M., Chen, X., Ji, Z., Zeleke, W. (2017). Understanding the Self in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): A Review of Literature. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.
https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01422

May, T., Pilkington, P. D., Younan, R., & Williams, K. (2021). Overlap of autism spectrum disorder and borderline personality disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Autism Research, 14( 12), 2688– 2710. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2619

Milton, D. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883–887. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008

Price, D. (2022). Unmasking Autism: Discovering the new faces of neurodiversity. Penguin Random House LLC.

Rumball, F., Brook, L., Happé, F., Karl, A. (2021). Heightened risk of posttraumatic stress disorder in adults with autism spectrum disorder: The role of cumulative trauma and memory deficits. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 110, 103848. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2020.103848

Statistics Canada. (2016). Suicide in Canada: Key statistics. [Online]. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/suicide-prevention/suicide-canada.html

Steenfeldt-Kristensen, C., Jones, C.A. & Richards, C. (2020). The Prevalence of Self-injurious Behaviour in Autism: A Meta-analytic Study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 50, 3857–3873. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04443-1

Swannell, S.V., Martin, G.E., Page, A., Hasking, P. and St John, N.J. (2014). Prevalence of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury in Nonclinical Samples: Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression. Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour, 44: 273–303. https://doi.org/10.1111/sltb.12070

Taylor, P. J., Jomar, K., Dhingra, K., Forrester, R., Shahmalak, U., Dickson, J. M. (2018). A meta-analysis of the prevalence of different functions of non-suicidal self-injury. Journal of Affective Disorders, 227, 759–769. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2017.11.073

University of California. (2007, May 4). Why Autistic Children Do Not Imitate Or Empathize: It Could Be A Dysfunctional Mirror-neuron System. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 10, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070504121241.htm

Williams J.H.G. (2021). Echolalia. In: Shackelford T.K., Weekes-Shackelford V.A. (eds). Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-19650-3_3338

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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