Masking

Masking is exhausting. Utterly utterly draining. I’ve had people say to me many times over the years “But WHY are you so tired? What have you been doing?” and I’ve been unable to work it out. Even in my 20s I used to collapse with exhaustion on a regular basis. The brutal truth is that for an autistic person simply EXISTING in the world is knackering – never mind trying to hold down a job or have any sort of social life. And many of the standard recommendations for “improving mental health” (such as seeing more people in real life, spending less time on the internet, sitting still and being “calm”) simply make matters worse – solitude, rest, and stimming are much more useful tools. We need a LOT of downtime in order to recover from what, for most folk, are the ordinary things of life.

Wasting Energy – Finally Knowing Me: An Autistic Life
Deciphering human madness 
Bombarded with psychology 
Interrogated by droid vermin 
Scrutinised by vacant ghouls 

I'm burnt out from masking 
You're burnt out from masking 
They're burnt out from masking 
We're all burnt out from masking 

Enduring chaos rites by force 
Lost in a maze of shifting size 
Phasing out of time constantly 
I can't speak in this dimension 

Cataclysmic thoughts trapping me 
Crushed under a world of nonsense 
Decimated by intrusion 
Spellbound by the death of a dream

--Burnt Out From Masking by Tommy Concrete

And this is at the core of the problem of masking. The perpetual acting, the perpetual stress levels on a par with what most folk would feel when at a job interview, the huge physical effort of sitting still and coping with sensory overload, and the conscious process of trying to work out how to interact with other human beings eventually takes its toll. In the short term it can lead to a meltdown (as it did with me in the supermarket the other day). In the long term it can destroy mental health and lead to autistic burnout.

Many autistics mask for years, putting in huge amounts of work to try to fit in to the world. Those of us who were diagnosed very late avoided some of the therapies that essentially force autistics to mask by using punishment when they exhibit autistic behaviours, although we were often taught to “behave properly” and the cane in the corner of the headmaster’s study was a constant threat throughout our childhoods. Some autistics become so good at masking that when they present for diagnosis they are turned away or misdiagnosed and when they tell people they are autistic they are met with disbelief and invalidation.

Wasting Energy – Finally Knowing Me: An Autistic Life

Those of us that are perceived as high-functioning are just very good at masking. Masking is a skill we learned in childhood and usually is the result of going through treatments that taught us social skills or parenting, and socialization that taught us any time we did anything that made us happy or comfortable is wrong. We were taught to mask by growing up in a world in general that has sent us the message that all our natural behaviors are aversive.

Why Many People With Autism Dislike Functioning Labels | Psychology Today
I slip through crowds and cities, pass through like vapor
Please don't take notice, meet my gaze, or remark
I'm only trying not to stand out or cross a line
(Once you cross the line, it crosses you out!)

--Then by Sufferer

When autists attempt to blend in it is to avoid suffering the consequences of non-conformance – and not to gain or maintain social status.

Taking ownership of the label – Autistic Collaboration

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my ability to mask and camouflage has really taken a nose-dive in the past years. I used to be better at this — or so I tend to think. Surely, there must be a reason — other than rank ignorance and denial — for why I’ve been under the autistic radar for so long… and why when I was younger and thought about “acting out” to get attention, my efforts were usually immediately curtailed by something inside me that says, “No – wait – don’t do that.”

I’ve had a sort of internal thermostat that’s regulated the “temperature” of my autistic tendencies, which modulated them in public.

But in the past years, I’ve noticed a sharp decline in my ability to mask and camouflage my markedly autistic behavior (in public, not privately).  And I realize I’m acting a helluva lot more autistic now, than I did in my earlier adulthood.

So, we pull inward more and more… and more and more… try to reach out more and more … more and more… and while the rest of the world is overlooking ignoring our pain and stress (because we’re so social), inside, we feel like we’re dying. Suffering, struggling… unable to escape that vicious cycle.

Who has the energy? Of #autism and masking and failing to fit in – Aspie Under Your Radar

I’m really autistic now. But thanks to a lifetime of being told that I must disguise the pain, at all costs, I learned to mask. To put on a false front, be the person that others wanted me to be. Smile when in pain. Be really nice when in pain. Cope when in pain. Not Be Me. Never, ever be me. Never. If I was the real me, I would experience hatred from others, more isolation, more loneliness, more condemnation, more false accusation (because of ignorance of autistic culture and communication).

And, do you know what happened? It broke me.

I look around at my fantastic autistic family, friends, colleagues. The ones who have done the best masking, the best disguising? Broken. Or sitting amongst a trail of debris from broken relationships, broken job situations, broken health. I look at the research showing the suicide rates, the average age of death (54). Not from some genetic malfunction. From relentless pressure, relentless humiliation and pain. Anyone would die early from that. We need less focus on pleasing shareholders with news about ‘genetic cures’, and more listening to autistic people. More realising that actually we don’t need to be in that level of pain.

There is a myth that if we disguise being autistic, it’ll all go away. The future will be lovely. All will be well. A myth that autism was some sort of behavioural choice by us to annoy people around us. Rhubarb, to use an apt word.

It’s a myth. There is no perfect future from having to pretend we’re not ourselves. Only the extra hell of having to mask each day. Having to pretend that we are not autistic, and still endure the ridiculous expectations, sensory hell and social overload that non-autistic people place upon us.

So…

I’m OK being autistic.

Ann’s Autism Blog: What do I mean by “We’re OK being Autistic” ? #TakeTheMaskOff

Now at 32, I have been a variety of people, and I don’t always know who the real me is. My mask has fused itself to me, leaving me inhibited and confused, uncertain of how to break loose, left wondering if being authentic is even possible anymore.

I have no choice but to don the mask. I wear it reflexively every day. Here is what that costs me.

What Hiding My Autism Costs Me – Devon Price – Medium
They tell us from the time we're young
To hide the things that we don't like about ourselves
Inside ourselves
I know I'm not the only one
Who spent so long attempting to be someone else
Well, I'm over it

--Secrets by Mary Lambert

Further reading,

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Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic parent and retired tech worker. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they

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