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Time to Take the Mask Off – #TakeTheMaskOff

Autistic people with well-developed masks may do better in certain situations compared to autistics without masking skills. Still, masking may come with a heavy cost, leading to physical exhaustion, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and burnout. The mask can breed self-loathing, leading the wearer to believe the unmasked person is somehow damaged, flawed, or broken.

I’ve been a combination of at least two or more people for almost as long as I can remember. There was never a decision to craft a mask. It all started when I was very young. In school, and at other people’s houses, I was one person. Upon returning to the safety our home the mask would fall off and I would become someone else – my most natural and unmasked self.

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Most people mask to fit in better or in order to conform to social norms, but autistic masking is different. It often requires great focus and concentration as the autistic person works in overdrive, working to compensate in areas that are much less problematic for non-autistic individuals.

Masking can be a tool, used to get an autistic person through difficult situations. Nearly everyone masks to some degree. I tend to compartmentalize things. Growing up I had the “school me” (nick-named Kat) and the “home me”. As an adult, I have the “professional me” and the “home me”.

Some ways I mask as an autistic person:

  • Preparing myself to be “on” – almost as if on stage, often my mask is engaging and overly friendly.
  • Hiding confusion – I’ll figure it out later or let it go. Maybe I misunderstood or misheard. A nod and a smile does wonders to keep a conversation moving.
  • Correcting my posture – I tend to hunch forward and curl my arms in close to my body near my chest (a bit like a t-rex), especially if I’m cold. It’s not the way I stand if I need to “look competent” but it is comfortable.
  • Calculated fake eye-contact – People expect you to look at them when you talk to them and when they talk to you.  Normally I look at the mouth but my mother used to tell me to look at her nose.
  • Being still & quiet – I tend to narrate my life and tend to talk myself though things (out loud) if I’m relaxed. I also have a body that needs to be in motion. I can be still and quiet for a little while, but eventually the energy builds and needs a release.
  • Pretending everything is alright – even if I’m feeling physically ill or uncomfortable. “I’m fine.” “I’m okay.” “Everything is good.” + smile & nod once again

 

 

Masking during conversations is even more work:

  • Monitoring my tone and facial expression – Things I learned in the wonderful world of customer services. “How am I expected to react in this situation?” “Remember to keep smiling.” “Look happy – not TOO happy.”
  • Trying not to talk too much, or too little – sometimes I don’t know when to stop. “Should I say something?” “Is it worth it?” When I get worried I’m talking to much I may shut down and try to fade into the background.
  • Focusing on timing in conversations – I tend to get quiet when I’m masking because I become overly worried about interrupting people and talking out of turn. My mind is often missing the conversation in front of me while I worry over when/if I should chime in. “Is that person finished talking?” “Is it my turn?” “Should I say something?” “Should I wait?” “What if I wait too long and the conversation changes directions?”
  • Focusing on not repeating myself – Sometimes I get stuck in little speech loops and repeat myself without even realizing it. If I’m mindful and take my time, I can avoid this (most of the time).
  • Acting engaged when I’ve spaced out – Sometimes my very visual and racing brain may have wandered someplace else, especially if the topic of conversation is uninteresting. When I catch myself I may snap back to reality and quickly force myself back into the present conversation hoping nobody witnessed my mind floating away.

 

Many late diagnosed autistics are expert maskers. We mask so much it can become automatic. Little by little, we learn to stop doing things that adults and others around us find strange or socially unacceptable. Masking is not intended to be deceptive and often develops naturally as a survival strategy. Camouflaging (sometimes called passing) is exhausting. It calls for constant effort and concentration.

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Autistic people with well-developed masks may do better in certain situations compared to autistics without masking skills. Still, masking may come with a heavy cost, leading to physical exhaustion, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and burnout. The mask can breed self-loathing, leading the wearer to believe the unmasked person is somehow damaged, flawed, or broken.

Over the next few weeks all over the internet autistic people will be sharing their experiences with masking using the tag #TakeTheMaskOff, with hopes of spreading awareness and information about this important and under-discussed topic. I hope you will join us. It’s time to #TakeTheMaskOff.

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24 comments

  1. This post is fantastic. I masked for so long that I don’t have a sense of who I truly am underneath. Masking has been so draining and I’ve played so many characters over the years that I worry if people who know me get genuinely fed up. I loved reading your post as it made me feel validated and like I fit some sort of ‘normality,’ even if it’s only one experienced by a small percentage of our population. 🙂 x

    Every post of yours I read is phenomenal. I’ll definitely be posting my own #TakeTheMaskOff post soon. xx

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Reblogged this on Fantasy Books 411 and commented:

    This is an incredibly accurate blog post about Autistic Masking, something which I had experienced my entire life.

    Please, give this a read as it really does help fellow Autistic individuals as well as myself, by making the general public aware of our actual feelings and experiences without bias. xx

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi. I love the images you have used here. Your thoughts made me think of my smiling depression…this has been my mask. The pretending that I’m fine piece…it’s so exhausting. I always thought I was coping, but I can see now that this behavior closer resembles masking. I also do a mirroring of other people’s way of speaking, including full on accents. It’s very hard to stick to my authentic self as I soak up just about everyone’s personal affects. Anyways, thank you for being yourself here. -Alyssa

    https://permanentmarkers.me

    Liked by 4 people

  4. And people wonder why I don’t like parties or crowds! I always wondered why it took so much out of me, emotionally and physically, to be the way I thought I should be among all those people.
    On getting quiet all of a sudden when I think I’ve said too much or kept messing up my timing and getting interrupted: you can’t win. People think you’re suddenly mad and moody at THEM when it’s really myself I need the time to deal with.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. So very true! Since I have a daughter and husband who is not autistic, I must say also agree with the point that everyone masks to some degree. But my daughter was able to naturally learn how to mask to be acceptable by the time she was 18 months or so. Because she learned it so young, it is easier for her to put the mask on and off. Though, she still needs time to unwind after a day at school. But overall, she and my husband are more able to be their true selves, where my son (who also has autism) and I must constantly do as you have described.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. While I am not autistic, I do live with mental illness. I often have to “wear a mask” especially when I’m depressed…which is like everyday. And I like you have to “mentally” prepare myself with my engagement into the world…what to do, what to say, what to expect…how act…all that too increases my anxiety. Yeah, but it’s no fun. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for the thought and effort you put into this post. I thought I was one of those ” late diagnosed autistic are expert maskers”. Most people find me likeable and trustworthy. However, after reading this post, I believe that I don’t mask nearly as well as I thought I did.;( But this is so great!! Now I can work on things that I was not aware of or don’t do so well.
    I HATE to write this, masking is self-protection. It is basic AS person survival. I am one of the lucky AS people that have employment. I am a 10+ year nurse in a trauma ER. The things I have heard by many many nurses, ER managers, numerous physicians and even Psychiatrists (not knowing about me) about AS people-is very very saddening. My career would never be the same if they knew. Sad but a truth that many of us have to live by.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Tony Attwood said this. I’m not sure if you know of him , but he has great influence in Australia and Britain where he is considered one of the foremost experts (for an NT!) on us.

    Dear Peter

    I am unfortunately about two weeks behind in replying to emails and would like to thank you for the link that you provided on Time to Take the Mask Off. I felt the content was excellent and the descriptions so clear and accurate. Thanks so much for sending me the link.

    Best Wishes

    Tony

    Professor Tony Attwood
    I, also think it was fantastic!

    Liked by 1 person

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