Masking is a term used to describe the technique used by those of us on the autistic spectrum who are able to pass for neurotypical. I’m an autistic woman but I think it’s extremely unlikely that you would notice that I’m autistic if you met me. I have become skilled at masking, this has been a lifelong work.
As a child and teen I was less adept at masking. I was an unusual child, often called precocious, unpredictable, and considered difficult. I embarrassed my friends and family by dancing in inappropriate situations, I have clear memories of dancing in the aisles of the supermarket, not as a toddler but a much older child. I did strange things with my hands and enjoyed doing funny voices on the walk to high school and the few friends I had started hiding when I knocked on their door to walk to school together.
I never mastered crossing my legs whilst sitting in a skirt (not crossing feels much more comfortable) and “cross your legs Ella” was regularly uttered at me by my embarrassed Mum and sister. Embarrassment at doing such things was never something I experienced. I just felt irritated that I couldn’t sit how I wanted.
Social skills took much longer to learn. At university, ostracised and with few friends I shed bitter tears not understanding why I couldn’t get it right. So I studied hard, I watched more popular people. I tried very hard to emulate the people who seemed to be succeeding in the social world. It never came naturally, nor did I ever get it exactly right, but it helped and people felt more comfortable around me.
The last two decades have seen me still learning, trying to understand how I need to behave in order to fit in. People tell me I should be myself, but honestly if I did I am entirely certain that I’d embarrass and isolate not just myself but also my precious children. I can’t do that to them, no matter how empowering letting Ella out in all her beautifully weird colours would feel.
So I mask. I mask hard! I’m still constantly analysing what socially acceptable behaviour looks like. I recently discovered books and websites about social rules and am learning the rules by rote. I avoid stimming in public, and resist the urge to sing and dance as I walk down the street.
All of this comes at a personal cost. It’s exhausting to constantly monitor and change behaviour to suit situation and I feel exhausted and wired at the end of most days. My self confidence has dips depending on how successfully I feel I have masked and whether I have been too ‘strange’. I am easily overstimulated and not being able to make natural choices, and trying to conform increases this sensation.
I’m not sure what the answer to this is. I’d love to feel that I can embrace my autistic self and act in a way that comes more naturally to me. However I’m scared of losing friends and social standing. For now it’s enough to try and stop masking in my own home. Removing the pressure to be ‘chatty’ and allow myself periods of silence and engage in the behaviours that help me to feel calm and happy.
What would it take for autistic behaviour to become acceptable? Hopefully in time with more awareness and tolerance this might become possible.