Autistic masking and why it’s A Bad Thing
Autistic masking is where we mimic neurotypical behaviour to fit in and be accepted. But it's exhausting, fruitless, and ultimately harmful to us because it changes, improves, or ameliorates our autism not one jot.
Worst of all?
It's usually imperfect and fools no one for long (and can ultimately make life even harder for us because by appearing more "normal" we can find it harder then to get our autism recognised for what it is).
Why do we do it?
As I said: to fit in, to become accepted by modifying our behaviour to appear neurotypical so we don't draw unwanted and unwelcome attention to our naturally odd and eccentric ways, or just so we can at least have some semblance of a normal social experience.
The fact is, autistics are frequently the target of bullying, and ostracism, often being singled-out and picked-on for no other reason than they are different. Whether our behaviour affects others or not seems not to be the point. The point is we're weird and that alone is enough to make us a target.
Like it or not, autistics often struggle to secure and maintain gainful employment, attract romantic partners, and make friends. Masking is one way we can make those things easier, at least superficially (I'll come back to this in a moment).
It can be as simple as desire to feel like we belong.
Examples of autistic masking
Masking can take many forms, such as:
- Scripting and rehearsing conversations and behaviours ahead of time.
- Forcing ourselves to make eye contact during conversation and other social interaction.
- Forcing and mimicking neurotypical behaviour to display accepted and expected norms.
- Forcing and mimicking smiling and other expected facial expressions.
- Hiding of disguising our stimming, the self-regulatory. repetitive behaviours we often exhibit in high-stress or high-stimulation environments.
- Forcing ourselves to endure intensely uncomfortable and even overwhelming sensory stimulation, such as noise, bright lights, and busy places.
- Feigning "appropriate" emotions and emotional responses to different situations.
You get the picture, I'm sure.
And it sounds exhausting, doesn't it?
It is exhausting, and over a long period of time it can be harmful and detrimental to our mental and physical health.
The hidden dangers of masking
You'd have to be pretty dense not to see how masking over a long period of time — pretending, and acting a part, in effect — is damaging to an individual.
It's exhausting, and over a long period it can lead to burnout ("middle-age autistic burnout" is A Thing, and I've had it. It has its roots firmly in autistic masking).
A study here identifies a three-stage model of motivation, masking, and consequences, and while we can argue the toss about motivation and what does and does not constitute autistic masking, the consequences for many of us are undeniable: delayed diagnosis, depression, stress, burnout, anxiety, and even suicide have all been linked directly to the pressure masking places upon us.
The tragedy of it all?
Ultimately, it doesn't work, because no matter how good we are at masking we cannot hide our true natures completely or forever. Something always slips through, and despite our best efforts not be seen as "weird" we inevitably end up being labelled as...
... yup, you guessed it...
But, unless we're diagnosed and open about it, we're not weird because we're "autistic".
We're weird just because we're weird, which is even worse to the point of unforgivable to neurotypical eyes.
For my own part, after burnout I pretty much stopped masking altogether. It's too damned tiring.
I haven't stopped entirely because while I keep it to a minimum, I still have to engage in some social contact, but I do only the bare minimum to avoid unnecessary confrontation and hassle.
Next question: why is autistic masking perpetuated in society now we're so aware of it and the damage it can do?
And I'll answer it tomorrow in my next post.
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate