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.
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.
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.