I used to think I knew myself well – but now I’m not so sure. That’s because, since my Autism diagnosis, I don’t always know where ‘Autistic Glenn’ and ‘masking Glenn’ begin and end. Reality itself is something I’m constantly questioning. And the more I understand about Autistic people like me, and the non-Autistic world, the more I realise how destructive masking is.
Masking starts from day one
Autistic masking, or ‘camouflaging’, is the practice we Autistic people use to blend in in a world where difference is reviled, not embraced. At its essence, it’s a survival instinct, which is most likely why, as research suggests, women tend to mask more often than men. [Non-binary people were also studied but the results were inconclusive.]
The motivation for masking begins when we Autistic people, or other types of neurodivergent people (ADHD, OCD, dyslexic), recognise that something important hinges on us being perceived as non-Autistic. For example, a job opportunity arises or you have the desire (or need) to foster a friendship.
We can carry out masking consciously (as I lately recall doing as a terrified child learning to navigate the school yard), or subconsciously (a debilitating practice I didn’t even realise until recently I was undertaking daily as an adult).
As I’ve already alluded to, so much of my life only now makes sense to me. That’s partly because I’ve been someone who tries to not look back, preferring instead to live life with my eyes on the horizon so that I can get to where it is I want to be.
But learning that I am in fact Autistic has uncorked floods of memories I can no longer ignore, and many of them relate to my own experiences of masking.
I used to believe it was the writer in me – studying the speech patterns and gestures of others to use in my later work – that made me the observant person that I am. Turns out, since my earliest memories, I was using mimicry to behave like a non-Autistic person to try and belong.
Does everybody mask?
To a certain extent, yes, everyone masks. We all adopt the social skills required to improve our interactions with others, and we adjust our behaviour – from informal to formal in certain work contexts, for example – as the situation demands.
The difference between Autistic masking and the non-Autistic variety, however, is that the need to camouflage goes a lot deeper. While most people might change the clothes that they wear or the things that they say to fit in to a specific social group, Autistic people have to suppress behaviour that most might consider ‘strange’, so that they can hide their Autism.
For example, barely talking or not talking at all, not making eye contact, or smiling every time – I mean every time – you pass someone at work. (I still recall when I was at film school one of my fellow students stopping me and asking me why I smiled all the time, to which I answered, “Because I’m happy.” I wasn’t happy. My time at the Australian Film Television and Radio School was akin to a lab creature being poked with a stick. And I knew I needed to once again rethink my strategy when repeatedly passing someone I knew throughout the day (Don’t smile! I would have to remind myself if I saw someone again and again and again). Something I still haven’t mastered.)
Unfortunately for many Autistic people, our response to social interactions with people we don’t know, or an environment that provides a high level of sensory stimulation, isn’t happiness, excitement, and joy. It’s fear and anxiety, something not readily understood by those who don’t understand Autism i.e. most.
Consequently, masking in these situations is utterly exhausting and incredibly difficult. Try having a relaxed conversation with someone at a party or a work function when the voice in your head is critiquing everything you’re saying, as you’re saying it. Then throw into the mix the terror that you’ll be exposed as an imposter, an interloper in the ‘normal’ world, to be excised and ridiculed and bullied forever more.
What does Autistic masking actually look like?
Forcing eye contact during conversations, hiding my own interests and taking part in activities others wanted me to do that later left me mentally and emotionally exhausted, sometimes to the point of shutdown, scripting complex conversations in my head, talking more brightly and loudly and frequently than I am necessarily comfortable doing, pushing through intense sensory distress, disguising (often not all that well) stimming behaviours like jiggling my legs or pulling at my waistband or belt, are just some of the masking behaviours I have, and continue to, engage in.
Nail biting, another form of stimming carried out by Autistic and non-Autistics alike, was one of my biggest ‘go tos’ as a kid (in truth, I’m still not completely over it). My mum did everything she could to try and stop me – offering incentives and rewards, painting them with this foul-tasting brown stuff, threats of loss of simple pleasures – because she worried my biting my nails was making me sick (I was sick a lot when I was very young), and because, objectively, it’s a pretty disgusting habit, especially when you’re flicking your chewed up, spat out fingernails all over the house. They’re sharp, too!
Nail biting relaxed me like almost nothing else. Probably that, watching cricket, and eating potato chips. Even to do this day, I find tearing the end off a fingernail pulls at a literal lever in my brain that soothes me. It reduces the stress and anxiety of the day’s events the way I imagine many people feel when they drink that glass of beer or wine at the end of a long day.
When I was younger, someone would occasionally point out to me that I was trying too hard at something, at anything, it didn’t happen to be one activity over another.
One of the first times I ever picked up a cigarette (I was never a smoker, but I did on occasion partake when travelling, as I discovered that if offered one it was a great way of meeting people – yes, more masking!) the person looked at me and said something like I was going to “suck it right into me if I didn’t relax.”
I know I still do this – still often live with an intensity as a way of compensating for what I believe I inherently lack. But things are gradually changing, they have to – no one can live their entire life behind a mask and sustain. At some point the inevitable fall will come.
Masking at all costs
In a story I wrote for Reframing Autism at the beginning of May, I outline how, for more than two decades, I had been living with a sense of foreboding that culminated in my having a breakdown of sorts and needing to leave my job. I would come to learn that I was (and still am) suffering from Autistic burnout – the result of my years of masking and not understanding who I truly am.
This wasn’t the first time I had experienced burnout – I just didn’t have a name for it in years past, and not a single health professional I had seen prior to the end of 2022 had ever identified me as Autistic.
I’m living proof that, while there might appear to be some short-term benefits to masking, i.e a level of social acceptance, the truth will always out and come back and bite you on the bum – and every other conceivable place, too!
While our understanding of Autism has progressed dramatically in the past 20 years, it is, in almost all ways, still rudimentary when compared to many other conditions.
However thanks to research, in addition to Autistic burnout, we now know that masking can also lead to:
- Emotional dysregulation, including emotional breakdown or meltdown, exhaustion, and fatigue due to the intense focus and thought processes required to mask effectively
- Anxiety, stress, trauma, and depression, while acceptance of Autism from our friends, families, and communities, may contribute to better mental health outcomes
- Loss of identity due to feeling a ‘betrayal of pride’ in the Autistic community and feeling like a ‘fake’
- Severe negative impact to self-esteem and self-worth
- Poor quality relationships (because you are not being your true self, and so you are not necessarily attracting people who are right for you, and you are not right for them)
- A delayed Autism diagnosis because some people (like yours truly) are so successful with masking that their Autism isn’t identified until they’re much older, leading to mental health issues as a result of not receiving the support or understanding they need
- Increased risk of suicidal thoughts
The negative effects of masking are why I believe it is so important that wider society becomes more aware of Autism and other neurodivergencies.
There are so many capable, talented neurodivergent people with so much to offer. Surely it’s time we afforded everyone the same measure of inclusiveness and opportunity, especially in our work places, where there is often only one perceived ‘right’ way to do things.
Why do Autistic people mask if it’s so bad for us?
There is little in life as intoxicating as acceptance. From the first day of school it was clear to me that what was required to make it in the world outside my home was to be, as much as possible, the same as everyone else.
I had already seen what happened to the boy with the “black skin” who was in my grade. There was no hiding for him. But me? I could get my head down, keep my mouth shut, and try and prove that I belonged.
Fact is, there are many reasons people may mask their Autism. When you start out masking, you don’t consider there could ever be any negative consequences to your health.
I’ve already outlined some of these points above in relation to myself, but they’re worth a reminder.
- Avoiding stigma and concerns about personal safety and well-being, including bullying, verbal or emotional attacks, assault, intimidation, or other forms of mistreatment
- Making friends and other social connections, including attracting a romantic partner
- Wanting to blend in or to feel a sense of belonging or community
- Getting a job, promotion, or simply being successful at work
Learning to remove the Autistic mask
Not everyone will want to remove their mask, just as not everyone will want to divulge that they’re Autistic. The choice is a personal one and is often made because someone might not feel safe to disclose or unmask.
Although I lived for almost 52 years (two thirds of what most would call a complete life) not knowing that I’m Autistic, and as such have struggled greatly, I am aware that as a straight white male I was born with a more advantageous starting point to many.
Part of my own recent journey has been starting therapy to help me overcome Autistic burnout – something that I have already outlined was caused in large part by my lifelong masking endeavours.
“How can I stop masking?” was therefore one of the first things I asked my psychologist at our first session.
Her reply was to tell me that to stop masking, “you first have to be able to identify when you’re doing it.” She asked me to try and notice the activities and behaviours that leave me depleted, along with those that rejuvenate me or ‘fill me up’.
While I have made some illuminating breakthroughs, this is an activity that is still ongoing, and one I will definitely write about in an upcoming post.
Part of unmasking though it seems to me is finding a level of acceptance – with oneself, with what is for most Autistic people a world with rules and structures and institutions that don’t often make sense to us.
Why if 20 years ago our society went paperless do I still have to fill in so many forms?
Why, even after COVID, do so many guys not wash their hands after they’ve touched their willy (sorry mum!)?
And why can’t anyone from a company or organisation return a phone call when they say they will?
Just because I’ve spent my entire life masking, doesn’t mean I’m not authentically the person you might have met.
I still do mask most of the time I’m out of the house though. But not always, and not completely. It depends on who I’m with, how much they accept me, and where we are at the time.
But it is the case that many people will only ever see the masked version. That’s because the person making my coffee doesn’t want my life story, or my many opinions, or even my unbridled enthusiasm about whatever topic is filling my head.
They want a simple exchange performed in a simple way. Perhaps with a smile, but a small one. The one I’ve perfected over many years.
If you’re looking for help to remove the mask, I have 25 free unmasking tips available by signing up from any page on my website [The Unmasked Autistic], or direct from this link: https://theunmaskedautistic.com/25-free-unmasking-tips/.
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