To me, autistic masking was concealing my autistic self to the point where I wasn’t even sure who I was anymore. It was mimicking neurotypical people, to mask the emptiness I felt. In an attempt to feel a sense of belonging.
In a society where being autistic is seen as ‘disordered’, as something to be ashamed of, or hidden, it is no wonder that we lose ourselves. It feels like so often, we lose ourselves in something society tells us to be. I learnt that my autistic traits don’t always get me what I needed or wanted. But I saw neurotypical people succeeding. Subconsciously, I learnt that to get my needs met, I needed to act more like them. But masking never was a choice, it was born out of necessity.
Autistic people may mask to cope in a neurotypical world that is hostile towards behaviour that diverges from neurotypical norms.
So how may an autistic person mask?
1. Changing the way that we communicate.
From a young age, I learnt that the way that I communicate is ‘too much’ and ‘not enough’ all at the same time.
I remember one particular situation in the school playground when I had just finished infodumping about my special interest - only to my dismay, to be met with the blank faces of the other children and the disapproving looks of the lunchtime supervisors, who told me I should ‘try asking the other children about themselves.’
This continued into my teenage years when I was told that my lack of eye contact made me seem suspicious, or the way that I bluntly answered questions made me rude. I gradually masked my autistic traits, meticulously, watching other people and mimicking them.
I would queue instructions to myself in my head. Obsessed with getting it ‘right’. ‘First, smile a little, but not enough to be creepy, and then say ‘hi’ to everyone. Make sure your voice goes up in pitch when you say it. Stand up straight but not too straight - you don’t want to look too formal. Look them in the eyes - for 1 second, 2 seconds, 3 seconds. Look away now, you don’t want to seem like you're staring.’
2. Hiding stims
In my younger years, I used to run around and flap my hands with the intensity that maybe I would take off and fly. It was seen as a little strange but as a child, I think it was overlooked as ‘sweet’ or ‘quirky’.
As I grew older, it was never viewed with the same sweetness or quirkiness as during childhood. I am aware of the stares, the assumptions, and the fear. When I stim in a way that is obvious and intense, people stare confusedly at my hands muttering to themselves, or sometimes, completely avoid me.
I learnt to be subtle in my stims or to suppress them completely. To hold off, to wait, until I was safely alone. When I wasn’t able to stim, it was like I was holding my breath until I could be alone, to breathe again. Stimming is part of regulating and being in tune with my body. It helps me to block out sensory issues and to cope.
3. Not doing things in front of others, in case our autistic traits become obvious.
I don’t hear this type of masking spoken about enough, so here goes.
I masked my autistic self by not carrying out tasks in front of others, in case my autistic traits became visible.
For a while, for example, I wouldn’t eat in front of people in fear of my coordination difficulties becoming visible. In fear of it becoming obvious that I separated the food groups on my plate. In fear of other people noticing the sensory issues, I had with food. In fear of others seeing how I often miss my mouth when I eat. Avoiding being judged by others consumed my life.
Masking wore away at my sense of identity. Being able to interact and express myself was what made me feel alive. But masking took that away.
I don’t think that it ever quite brought me the happiness that I promised myself that it would. On a subconscious level, I thought that seeming ‘normal’ would be the answer to all my struggles in life. But, it used up any spare energy that I had. It placed my self-worth in the hands of others. And, at the end of the day, I still had to come to terms with my autistic traits and how society views those traits. And that is undeniably hard.
But being able to express our authentic selves, isn’t just something that lies in the hands of autistic people, it is everyone's responsibility, to build a world that works for all of us. Ideally, the world would be safe enough, aware enough, empowering enough, and nurturing enough for autistic people not to have to mask. For autistic people to exist as we are.
I also need you to hold onto the fact that when you are your true self, you inspire others to feel comfortable being their true self. When I see other people meeting their own needs, whether that be stimming to regulate their sensory needs or communicating authentically, I feel able to be myself too. Unmasking my autistic traits, when it is safe and comfortable to do so, feels like an act of rebellion and an act of loving myself enough to be myself.