What do people mean by autistic masking?
I had never heard of this phenomenon until last year. I was having a discussion with a professional who works on the local NHS Autism team, and she asked if I wanted to have a look at a questionnaire about camouflaging and masking. I thought why not, and promptly set about answering the 25 questions. I emailed my response back and was delighted to hear I had scored really highly on all areas! “Well, I’m clearly not as autistic as I thought I was, I knew I’d get a high score because this is all obvious stuff that everyone does all the time. See I’m as normal as the next person”. I thought to myself.
My high score wasn’t because I’m not that autistic, in fact it indicated that I mask almost all of the time and this is a very common experience in autism. I was beginning to feel uneasy. I had realised I was autistic by then but wrongly assumed the ‘autism spectrum’ people talk about was a linear thing with mild autism at one end and severe autism at the other. I would probably be a little bit autistic – because I work, I have a family, I function well enough to convince most people I’m normal. And I’ll forget about all that other stuff; the never fitting in, the always knowing I was different, the misdiagnoses and failure to reach my potential – that’s probably all because I’m just such a crap person! Of course, it is not like this at all – you can no more be mildly autistic that you can be a bit gay, or slightly pregnant. The spectrum is a collection of different elements, aspects and strengths and every one of us who is autistic, has their own unique combination of these. And everyone that isn’t autistic is not on the autism spectrum.
The questionnaire was scored in the areas of compensation, masking, and pretend social ease. Until this point, I had assumed everybody pretended to be normal all the time. I realised that some people were more ‘normal’ than others, but I had no idea that there was even such a thing as masking. I still cannot comprehend how neurotypical people operate in terms of social interactions, so watch out those of you who know me, I plan to find out and will probably question the hell out of you!
Types of masking.
There are lots of different ways autistic people cover up their autism and its worth having a read of other people’s experiences . I’ll touch on three elements of camouflaging and my choice of terminology has no great thought behind it and is not a definitive explanation – to be honest, much of the language used in research and accounts of masking feels a little judgmental to me – it suggests ‘normality’ and deficits :
Compensation – this includes all the tricks and tips I’ve taught myself (and others) over the years. The techniques for making realistic eye contact by looking at the person’s mouth instead of their eyes. I had the added bonus of having regular investigations and treatment for hearing problems as a child, so my lip reading was positively encouraged. A few years ago, I considered writing a book for autistic people about how to get by in life. I had worked as a manager of a residential service, with a woman who had been in the care system since childhood and had a whole host of psychiatric and behavioural diagnoses. I supported her through assessment for Asperger’s (as it was known back then) and when it came to my work appraisal she wrote some feedback that said “Emma is really good at teaching me the tricks of the trade”. I was delighted at this – not least for the compliment, but for her accurate use of complex language. In fact, I was the one who said to my line manager “What do you think she means by that Karen?”
Masking – this includes hiding my distress, confusion, and difficulties whilst pretending all is well. I have spent my life feeling as if I have been winging it, and I am often only moments away from making myself look totally stupid by asking a question that everyone else intuitively knows the answer to. The further in my career I have gone, the more I have had to mask. Every time I hear a new piece of business jargon I have to look it up so that I can keep up with the conversation. I have to suppress my need for clarity and my desire to blurt out “Why are you talking such utter nonsense?!” But pretending I know what is going on isn’t always helpful. I’ll give you one of my embarrassing moments:
I was sat in the board room in a very serious meeting and the person talking used the phrase “the elephant in the room”. Now, I absolutely knew this was not to be taken literally. An alarm went off in my brain that said “idiom/metaphor/figure of speech alert”. So I used my quick thinking brain to whiz through everything I knew about elephants to try and work out the meaning. Elephants are big – are they talking about something that is big? Elephants have big ears and a trunk – no it can’t be to do with that and stop it Emma, do not go off on a mental tangent about the different types of elephant and their respective physiology. Elephants never forget – aha, maybe it’s to do with memory or remembering something. What else do I know about elephants?….And then the question came: “Do you have any thoughts on that Emma?” And I realised that I hadn’t got a clue what was going on, or what the question was, and I couldn’t even grasp at an answer out of thin air. The conversation had moved on and I was lost in the world of Proboscidea. I was probably the only person in the room with the taxonomic knowledge to name the order that elephants, mammoths and mastodons sit in – and I was probably the only person in the room feeling stupid, anxious and lost! And all because I didn’t want to make myself look stupid for not understanding something. I challenge you to spend a day in your workplace or school considering how complex language is if your default setting is to take things literally.
I also mask my need to move about or do anything that ‘looks’ autistic. I find moving is very regulating, it helps me concentrate, focus and come up with ideas – all the sorts of things employers and teachers encourage. But it would put me in the firing line of ridicule, misunderstanding and people would assume that there was clearly something wrong with this otherwise bright and articulate woman who can’t keep still and behave ‘properly’.
Assimilation – I never felt like one of the girls at school but I knew my life would be easier if I pretended to be like them. I learned about boyfriends by listening to what other girls had to say and joining in the conversations as best I could. I was not attracted to boys at all as a teenager and I wasn’t attracted to girls either. I learned the language of relationships but had no idea of the meaning of some of the terms (‘getting off with’; ‘blow job’ etc). You’ve read how my brain works when I described the elephant in the room – go figure! Many of the girls at school read magazines and studied and giggled at the problem pages and articles on how to know if a boy fancies you and how to flirt and so on, so I joined in and copied. This was useful because it gave me some proper concrete information on how to have relationships with boys and made me appear to have something in common with my peers. I wasn’t interested in having a boyfriend but knew it was a normal part of growing up. I worked on how to flirt and how to tell if a boy was interested in me but unfortunately put so much energy into ‘getting it right’, I never considered consent or whether I wanted to go out with them. I can’t remember having feelings towards other people as a child, sexual or otherwise. I didn’t like or dislike people. I didn’t look at someone and find them attractive. My sister covered her side of our bedroom with posters of pop stars and my friends talked about boys they fancied and got excited when certain actors were in films. None of this did anything for me at all. I bought a small photo in a frame of George Michael in Speedos, because Wham! were very popular back then and I knew it would be easier if I said I liked someone. The photo sat on my bookshelves whilst I lived at home and was my attempt at fitting in and somehow feels a rather ironic choice now – gay and dead! RIP George x.
Don’t we all mask?
I assumed everyone masks. I know for a fact that my old line-manager swears her head off outside of work but was always totally professional within her role as a director. I know that it would be rude and feel hurtful if I replied honestly when someone asked if I thought they looked good in the item of clothing that I thought looked dreadful on them. I know that you cannot go through life being impulsive and doing and saying whatever you want at the expense of others. So isn’t masking something we all do?
I’d argue that it is not. Those things are the normal day to day, not being an asshole type things we do because we are sharing this planet with each other and need to get on. Kindness is essential, even if it is frequently overlooked and undervalued in our society. Kindness comes first for me. If I choose the kind option then it may mean I modify my behaviour or instinctive response. I may need to hold back and rephrase my honest response into something diplomatic and kind – but I can still be true to myself and be honest. Assertiveness is a good way of being true to yourself because you still meet your own needs but also meet other people’s needs too. I will compromise my behaviour but not my values.
So what is different about autistic masking?
Quite simply. The cost.
Masking your autism always comes at a price. And I have paid with my mental wellbeing. The costs are twofold. The direct mental health costs of camouflaging are exhausting. Whilst I’m concentrating on getting my eye contact right, I’m using valuable capacity that could be used for answering the question or thinking. And the continual anxiety of whether I’m getting it right wears me down emotionally and cognitively. The indirect costs are things like low self-esteem from getting into all sorts of scrapes while pretending to be normal, and not feeling sure of who I am and whether I am an ok person or not, as I feel I’m living a lie.
It erodes my identity because I’m not sure which bits of me are truly me. If you ever share doubts about your identity with mental health professionals, it can indicate various psychiatric conditions and personality disorders. Misdiagnosis of autistic people is common and once a label has been given; every trait, behaviour and experience may be interpreted as part of that labelled disorder – this further erodes the sense of identity and creates a sense of being damaged or ill. It also creates a sense that you can somehow get better and recover. Autism is not an illness and recovery is not going to happen. Living a fulfilled and valued life can happen though, but in my opinion is unlikely to whilst you perceive yourself as broken and needing to be fixed.
The knock-on effects of mental health treatment can further affect your wellbeing. Stigma, discrimination, and side effects of medication are just three of the many ways this can happen.
Another effect of masking is that you don’t regulate your emotions or senses when you need to. All those times I stop myself from moving about to regulate myself, I stay dysregulated. All that energy that goes into keeping still or not reacting to whatever it is that is causing me to become overwhelmed further increases my distress. And no one knows. That is a serious issue because if no one knows how distressed I am until I absolutely have to show it by either falling apart or completely switching off (some people would describe how they experience meltdowns or shutdowns) then I will look like I overreact. I struggle to identify and verbalise what I am feeling anyway and if I am hiding what my body is telling me I need to do to feel better, no one can ever help me. Also, the idea that so-called ‘high functioning’ autistic people don’t do all those autistic things is reinforced – which is unhelpful and inaccurate. The same is true of not asking for clarification, or time to process information – my needs go unnoticed and therefore unmet.
Regular masking means you may never learn decent coping strategies because no one knows you are not ok. Then when something happens in life that is difficult, traumatic, or distressing, you have no idea how to cope.
Should I take off my mask?
Or even could I? Or do I want to? Yes, I would like to be more “me”, but that doesn’t mean going about my day impulsively and insensitively doing what I please or saying whatever comes into my head. I have a choice in much of what I do. I do not have a choice in how my senses work or how my brain processes information. I will react strongly to a loud noise because my body and brain think I am in danger and no amount of me telling myself otherwise will change that. I will take things literally, or not be able to read between the lines sometimes. I do have a tendency to be honest and upfront, and my brain will opt for the honest answer every time, regardless. I cannot choose how I react to all of these things and sometimes other people need to be more understanding and patient. Where I can choose how to react, then I do my best. Or if I’m having a bad day, I’m a pain in the backside – just like everyone else can be!
I have been very fortunate in having a career where I have had some excellent mentors, role models and line-managers. I trained to become a registered manager by taking part in a scheme where I had placements in a range of different care services under a number of different managers. I used my excellent skills at masking to observe, analyse, copy, and practice the management styles in each placement and gradually hone them into my own style that worked for me. This is where my ability to mask has been a huge benefit. I wasn’t doing it to disguise something, but rather to try out what worked for me so that I could become a good leader myself.
So I don’t necessarily need to stop masking. On occasion it can benefit my mental wellbeing because it enables me to learn skills that are good for my personal development. It enables me to ‘test out’ how to behave in certain scenarios. It helps me learn rules for behaving in particular situations.
However, it is essential that I have balance, and any period of masking needs to be balanced with times of not masking. For me, camouflaging for lots of the time is not sustainable. I am blessed with having people and places that require the minimal amount of covering up.
What am I masking?
I am similar to many autistic people because I compartmentalise things. The world is so chaotic and unfiltered, the only way I can cope is to divide it all up into bits that have their own rules and explanations. That way I can function day to day because I have less to work out. If I am at work, I know how to behave in an appropriate way. If I am in the village shop, there’s another set of rules to follow as far as conversations, behaviour and social interactions are concerned. I can even cope with people being in a number of a categories – living in a rural village, it is quite normal to see people in a number of their roles – my conversation at the GP surgery is very different to my behaviour when I see my GP at a concert we are both playing in. This works well for me until people pop up in the wrong places or the rules change! It enables me to mask better too. I can have a mental phrase book of small talk for the shop, small talk for work, chats while dog walking and so on. I am more comfortable with defined roles and tend to have more meaningful relationships within boundaries. I know how to pretend to be whatever the particular type of ‘normal’ is in any situation. It helps me predict and I feel more confident.
The trouble is, this reinforces that very disjointed sense of who I am. It adds to the questions I have about my identity and what is authentically me. I have needed to join up my compartments a bit more so that I feel more whole. I am not just autistic Emma or wife Emma or mum. This also makes me question again – what is it I’m masking? Where is the autistic bit? Of course, there is no autistic bit in the same way as there is no female bit of me or British bit. These parts of my identity run through every part of my being.
How do I take off my mask?
When I was first diagnosed with autism I went through a process of revisiting every experience in my life and viewing it through the lens of my autism. I looked for anything that was out of place (how very autistic of me!) and I could not find one single example that would show I was not autistic. Things that had puzzled and frustrated me about myself for years became crystal clear. I felt liberated. I felt that I wanted to be proudly autistic and why should I hide? I felt like I wasn’t autistic enough because I was so good at hiding it, and maybe I should try and act a bit more autistic? But I didn’t really want to. I wondered if I was properly autistic because I don’t do lots of stereotypical autistic things. Was that because I was ashamed? How the hell do I be this authentically autistic version of me?
I thought all around this subject and could not get my head around it at first. But like so much of my processing, it took time and involved taking the long way round and detouring off all over the place. I concluded that my need for compartmentalising everything was holding me back. The autistic bit of me is all of me. When I masking, I’m still being me. When I am being a pedantic, annoying know-it-all that won’t stop telling you what it is I need to you to absolutely know, right this minute, that’s me too! The totally scatty, unable to organise her own lunch woman – that’s me. The hyper-focused, innovative thinker that solves problems others can see no way round – that’s also me. The cowering from the sudden noise Emma is the same Emma that stands up confidently in front of people and shares her knowledge. The woman pretending she’s ok because she doesn’t want to let on she hasn’t got a clue, that’s Emma. And so is the woman who stands up for others and tells the truth regardless of the effect, because it is the right thing to do – it’s all me.
When should I take off my mask?
I am not letting myself down or failing to be authentic by masking. How dare others judge me for coping the best I can. Particularly when the risks of not masking are so dire – ridicule, discrimination and misunderstanding. And how dare I force myself to act in a way that doesn’t sit right either – be that through masking or not masking.
My wellbeing is important. If my masking affects my mental health in a negative way then it is clearly destructive and I need to reduce it. But that’s not just down to me. I may decide “Fuck it, I’m going to flap my arms about next time I need to in a meeting as I’ll feel much more able to concentrate”. That will not go down well – regardless of the rights and wrongs of it.
Do I have the right to? Absolutely. If I had a different disability then it would be accommodated. No one says deaf people can’t move their arms to communicate through signing, because it looks funny and might upset the other people in the room. Do I need to be the warrior out there being authentically autistic so that stigma is challenged? That’s up to me, but no, I don’t have to be.
What would help though is better understanding. Being sensitive to the needs of autistic people and creating more accommodating environments that don’t create sensory overload. Using language that is clear and not open to interpretation. Giving people time to process questions instead of asking again in a different way and thus doubling the amount of processing. If autistic people were properly, compassionately and genuinely listened to, all this would be clear – I am not saying anything out of the ordinary. If people acted in this way then I wouldn’t need to ask so many questions or regulate myself as much. If people got to know me and understood my values and recognised that although I may seem serious, I have a good sense of humour and although I may seem unemotional, I am passionate about many things. Then, when I do say the wrong thing or act in the wrong way, they’ll know it’s just Emma being Emma and she doesn’t mean anything harmful by it.
How will this look?
Living authentically, is about living. It’s the journey not the destination. The world is not ideal so it is likely I will always have occasions where camouflaging my needs is preferable to meeting my needs publicly. If I choose to mask, that’s fine and totally authentic. If I can’t help myself from masking or don’t even know that I’m doing it because I’m so used to it, then that is clearly authentic too. Masking is never a sign of failure. Aspiring to not mask is not essential – the world gives autistic people a hard enough time without us giving ourselves one too. I have more acceptance of myself because I have more understanding – and that means I feel more in control and more able to choose how I live. Will I apologise for needing to meet my own needs and regulate myself? No. Will I ask more questions when I need to? Almost definitely. Will I do things that make me feel self-conscious? Probably not. Will I compromise my values or lie? Never.
But how will this work for everyone else – if I have considered my part then what about you? If you are someone who has good social skills and understanding then do you really have to insist that someone who is uncomfortable with eye contact looks at you? If you are good at all that stuff then why is it not you that is changing your behaviour? If you understand something and someone asks a ‘stupid question’ then why not be patient and explain rather than show your frustration. If you are puzzled by another person’s sensory experiences then why not enquire in a gentle way so that you can adapt and adjust so that they feel as comfortable as you do?
I don’t purposely do things to make other people feel uncomfortable, but I can’t tolerate bullshit either. The world feels very different at the moment and I’m pleased to see people acting in a less bullshitty way. It is good to see that we all wear casual clothes at home when we are on our work conference calls. It is good to see that many of us have pets and children that are important to us and what we really like is having a walk or sitting in the garden. When the ability to shop, spend and consume indiscriminately disappeared, many people re-evaluated what was important to them. Why not make understanding and accepting each other more, part of that?