When people encourage me to be myself, not to socially mask, or as one Autistic said to me after my diagnosis at age 45 “Just don’t mask!” they make it totally about me, and totally my responsibility, but it’s not just about me, and it never was.
I have socially masked for 47 years, and I started masking at the age of 4.
What is social masking?
Social masking is mimicking neurotypical behaviour to fit in, or to hide in plain sight, camouflaging. Some Autistics will become very adept at it, to the extent that it plays its own part in them being missed altogether, or late diagnosed, as in my own case. And, we do not have just one ‘other’ mask, we may well have several. Masking operates at a deep level in my own case. It is so automatic and unconscious that I am known to do it in my dreams. It is now a central feature of the person I am and have become. To some extent, we become the masks we wear, but I also find that our masks are intrinsically linked to our values, so at times, having felt the pressure to wear a mask that does not fit with my values, I will quickly remove myself from the people I am masking so I can remove it.
What do we mimic?
I have been known to mimic anything and everything, someone’s mannerisms, clothing, handwriting, the way they speak (I pick up accents very easily, as do many Autistics), the way someone dances, walks, talks, phrases they use, interests they have, choices (good and bad), anything.
Why do Autistics socially mask?
Social masking is a coping mechanism, a survival strategy. We use it to survive in the community with the rest of the ‘social herd’. It helps us to stay alive. However, social masking comes at its own cost… When we have been overloaded with situations where we need to socially mask we will be totally and utterly exhausted. It is one of the reasons I need a lot of solitude – to decompress from the masking – it takes a great deal of self-control to socially mask, and self-control takes energy, so my tolerance levels for other things can become low e.g. tolerance for noise, impatience, temperature. If I am forced to switch masks quickly, or I am forced to mask in a situation where I wasn’t expecting e.g. I bump into someone in the supermarket, I don’t always have the energy to deliver. Having to don a mask quickly has a whip-lash effect on me. Ultimately, social masking over a long period of time increases the likelihood of mental illness and suicidality in those who use it as a coping mechanism, not unlike other negative coping mechanisms. It is dangerous.
The motivation for me to start socially masking came about because I recognised my own social deficits early on, and because the tribe (society) quickly showed me that it is was not acceptable or safe to be myself, Autistic. It wasn’t safe in 1979 when I was four, and it’s still not safe now. Autistics are often viewed as weird and different (in negative ways), criticised, rejected, and treated negatively in the forms of bullying, control, coercion, discrimination, and other forms of direct and indirect abuse. This can happen even when we do socially mask, let alone when we don’t. So, if I am to remove my masks, and be totally authentic, I need to know it’s safe for me to do so, and as I see it, 43 years on, it is still not safe to do so.
I am likely to be able to down mask when I can believe wholeheartedly that I will be accepted, supported, and not rejected for who I really am, and until that day arrives (or I am able not to care about those things) then I don’t see how I can simply ‘down mask’. Not only do I have to change, but society must change too. If it wants social masking Autistics to down-mask, society needs to make it safe for us to be ourselves. We ask for the same acceptance as other minority groups e.g. LGBTQ and BAME, amongst others (and yes, there is work to be done there too!). Most people are much more themselves when they feel safe to be themselves. I do often wonder if our masking conveniences society so well, that society is not motivated to support our change. Why challenge a status quo that serves the majority – neurotypicals.
If someone is hiding their identity or true self, there is a reason for it, and the reason may not just be them.