You might have heard that Autistic people have the ability to mask. They can adapt to the situation they are in by pretending to be ‘normal’ and hiding their differences. They hide their stims, try not to talk about their interests, try to make eye contact, pretend to care about small talk topics, copy body language of others, use whatever slang everyone else is using even if it makes no sense, etc. Masking is exhausting and some Autistics require copious amounts of time afterwards to recover from hiding who they are and pretending to be someone they aren’t. Even when Autistics mask they don’t always pass fully as a NT person. I’ve heard that many Autistics deliberately mask, they realise at some point that being themselves gets them unwanted attention or they get ignored, that being themselves makes them stand out in a negative way or they get treated negatively by others. They realise that they are liked more if they pretend to be NT, that they get hassled less or ignored less by pretending to be someone else. I’ve heard that some mask so well that they get refused an Autism diagnosis because they no longer appear Autistic, they get told even if they do have a diagnosis that they don’t ‘look’ Autistic or that their diagnosis is wrong. They get told they are ‘high functioning’ and so don’t need any supports/accommodations or that they are ‘fine’, all because they can pretend to be someone else despite the adverse effect masking has on them. They get told when they stop masking that they are ‘faking it’ or they are ‘ill and need help’, they get told they are ‘behaving badly’ and they ‘usually know better’. While masking can be helpful in some ways, it can be very unhelpful in others.
Not everyone deliberately masks. Not everyone can control their masking or even realise they mask at all. This is what my masking is like.
For years I thought everyone just became different upon leaving their house, like it’s some strange magical door that makes me act like a different person as soon as I step over that threshold. I could be literally having a meltdown but the second I pass that line, I become someone else and the meltdown gets pushed inside me while outside a mask of happiness and calmness gets adopted. Once I realised this wasn’t normal for most people and that this thing is me masking, I realised I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember, and I have no control over it.
There wasn’t a point where I realised life was better if I pretended to be someone else, I’ve never had that ability of self awareness, my deliberate acting skills are no where good enough for me to be able to purposefully pretend to be someone else. My masking is unconscious, an instinctive reaction to what my brain perceives as a danger, it’s a coping strategy and one I cannot control. Trust me, I’ve tried. It’s very difficult not to mask, to stop it from working. It takes more energy for me to stop myself masking than it does to mask in the first place. I’m so used to adopting a mask when in the company of others that it’s a difficult process to change.
I know now that I masked my whole life. As a child my home life wasn’t any better than school life. I masked in both settings. There were rarely times when I was just me. After leaving home I began to unmask when by myself, this led me to become more aware of when I do mask, because I was able to notice the changes.
I know I’m not alone in this unintentional masking. I know others who have said they masked from a young age and that they have little to no control over it. Some parents have said they felt their child masked even from being a baby. It’s so important that people recognise that masking is possible, that is causes just as many problems as it solves. It might make it easier to fit in but it hides our difficulties so we don’t get the help we need. Schools in particular need to be aware of masking and make accommodations to ensure life is easier for the individual and so they aren’t so exhausted when they finally unmask. Professionals need to be aware when diagnosing that some may mask and they need to have the skills to see past the mask to the very real issues underneath, rather than relying on what they can see outside and presume they are ‘fine’. Society needs to accept and accommodate Autistics so they don’t need to mask as much, so they feel safe enough to choose not to mask or their brains don’t see the world as a danger they need to hide from. Only then will we be able to be the people we actually are, instead of hiding behind someone we aren’t.