Masking is a survival strategy for many autistic people. Let’s talk about it.
Whenever the topic of masking comes up, there is usually the reply, “But doesn’t everyone mask to some degree?”. And yes, most people do put on a mask at work or when conforming in different situations. However, for autistic people, masking is a lot more than this.
Autistic masking is, in essence, pretending to be neurotypical in order to fit in. It is suppressing our natural autistic behaviours and responses, and doing our best to appear ‘normal’.
This can include things like:
Forcing eye contact even when it’s painful or uncomfortable
Suppressing stims which make it harder to self-regulate
Practicing facial expressions in-front of a mirror
Learning conversation scripts
Withstanding painful sensory experiences.
Not all autistic people mask. But many do. Many of us learn that it’s not safe to be ourselves from a young age. Often this comes from bullying at school, or even adults telling us off for behaving differently. So we begin to mask, so we are safer and don’t stick out.
This isn’t necessarily a conscious thing. I’ve masked for as long as I can remember. Even as young as five or six, I remember copying other children in my class and also characters on TV so that I acted the right way in certain situations and knew what was expected of me. This didn’t always work out very well. Sometimes I would copy what a child had done that was funny, because I wanted people to like me, and I would get told off because I’d applied it to the wrong situation. Or, when I thought Tracy Beaker was a great character to copy…
I remember learning that other children didn’t want to talk about the books I loved and wanted to talk about constantly, and didn’t want to sit and read like I did. I remember learning that I had to stop talking about these things so I wasn’t laughed at. I remember practicing my facial expressions in-front of the mirror and always being aware of the expression on my face. I remember constantly pushing away my distress and my emotions because other kids seemed to cope in the environments I found stressful. Even little things, like pretending to understand a joke, or sarcasm, because you don’t want people to think you’re ‘stupid’ (because my, didn’t many kids call me this for not understanding jokes at school…), is masking.
I’ve masked for most of my life and masking doesn’t just stop when one finds out they are autistic. If I didn’t mask, I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things I do or work in a healthcare environment. I simply have to mask, in order to do things I love.
This doesn’t come without a cost. Masking is physically and emotionally draining. At the end of the day, I come in and collapse on my bed and sometimes I physically cannot move. My brain continues to race but I can’t articulate myself properly or do the tasks I have to do. To put it simply, I can spend a whole day masking and acting like a ‘normal’ person, but when I get home, I am so drained I can’t even brush my teeth or hold a conversation.
Imagine it like this. Throughout the day, every second I’ve suppressed a stim, every second I’ve withstood a horrible noise, every second I’ve felt overloaded with demands, and sat there, and dealt with it, adds up. Until when I get home, it explodes.
This is why so many autistic people go missed. This is why so many teachers say to parents “We don’t see the autism at school”. Because autistic children, especially autistic girls, mask and when they get home at 4pm, cue the meltdowns.
Masking often isn’t a choice. It’s something we have to do in order to survive. It’s not something I can switch on and off. There are certain people I unmask completely freely around, but I don’t decide this. My brain just recognises I am safe, and allows me to be me.
Masking leads to autistic burnout, to meltdowns, to shutdowns, to mental health problems, to trauma, and to suicide.
Our world needs to be a safer place for autistic people to be authentically themselves.