Book review: Taking off the Mask by Dr Hannah Louise Belcher

Taking off the Mask: Practical Exercises to Help Understand and Minimise the Effects of Autistic Camouflaging by Dr Hannah Louise Belcher. Reviewed by Holly Sutherland, PhD student

Date published: September 2022

Paperback price: £14.99

Link to book on Amazon

Reviewer: Holly Sutherland

Reviewer expertise: Autistic PhD researcher


What is the book about and who is the book aimed at?

Building on Belcher’s own lived experience as an autistic person and also her PhD research, Taking Off the Mask provides a concise overview of what autistic masking is, how it can hurt autistic people, and some strategies for autistic people wanting to ease themselves into masking less. Aimed mostly at autistic adults, this book is nonetheless a valuable resource for anyone (parents, teachers, and therapeutic professionals, to name a few) who regularly interact with autistic teens and adults.

A brief description of the content of the book

Covering a mixture of layperson-friendly research summaries and cognitive behavioural therapy-derived techniques, Belcher packs a remarkable amount into a fairly slim book. She takes the reader first through the research surrounding autistic masking from a number of angles, and then leads into techniques and worksheets for reducing masking and managing the anxiety and stress that can surround that.

Is the content in line with best practice/research evidence?

Given Belcher is a leading thinker and researcher on the topic of autistic masking, it is no surprise that this book is extraordinarily well-researched, clearly written, and thoroughly cited. Where other sources can exaggerate the strength or breadth of the evidence around masking – a comparatively newly-identified phenomenon – Taking Off the Mask does a good job of being honest about not just what is known, but what is unknown.

Would the book be helpful to its target reader? If so, how? Would it be helpful to anyone else?

For people who like clear, concrete step-by-step guides through problems to solutions (i.e. quite a lot of autistic people), this book has you covered. It runs through various different ways that masking can affect your behaviour, your thought patterns, and your mental health, and with each one presents ways in which you can consider challenging the mask. Some of this is general advice and encouragement towards introspection, but lot of it involves CBT-style worksheets, with clear worked examples, that you can use if you find that style of approach useful.

For non-autistic people – say, parents with an autistic teen they are trying to support – these would be equally useful. You might consider working through them with your autistic teen, and seeing where they might want some support with unmasking. Or you might want to just use it for yourself, to make sure you aren’t unintentionally encouraging masking, and that you’re encouraging your teen to be themselves when you see them putting on the mask.

What is your final, overall opinion of the book?

Though as an academic I think this book is a really good resource generally, I didn’t necessarily love it on a personal level as an autistic person. Part of that is because, as an autism researcher, I already know a fair bit about masking; part of it is that I tend to dislike being told how to solve my own problems (much to the exasperation of many people who’ve tried to help me problem-solve); and part of it is that some chunks of the book just didn’t feel relevant to me. For example, I’ve never had much of a problem stimming with my hands in public. Being told about how other people did made me feel more self-conscious than anything.

That’s okay, though. Belcher acknowledges at the beginning of the book that not every aspect of it will be useful for everyone – and that there may be some autistic people for whom it isn’t useful at all. And, if nothing else, the book encouraged me to look critically at the way I modify my behaviour when other people are watching. If readers get nothing else out of the book (and I suspect most will get substantially more than that), then reading Taking Off the Mask is still definitely worth it.