It’s not that bad; you’re overreacting. Stop being so dramatic.
How do you never get tired of that?
Can we just have quiet- doesn’t your throat hurt?
Quit doing that- people are starting to stare!
Make sure to not ever make that face again. It isn’t attractive!
Look at me when I talk to you! Are you even paying attention?
Don’t say that- you can’t tell people that.
You don’t ask people that type of question!
Why do you tell everybody that? No one wants to hear about that!
Brandi? Brandi? Brandi? BRANDI? Are you listening to me?
While in the moment I may not have heard my mother saying my name, I heard everything my family members and my few friends have said to me. I’ve heard it all. I took it all in. I learned from each experience. What I learned is how to blend in, fly under the radar. Appear more normal.
Things are not always what they seem. I do not enjoy being told I am being socially unacceptable. I also do not enjoy people staring. I hate the feeling that who I am with is embarrassed by me being who I naturally am. This is the reality of being autistic in a neurotypical society. So we learn to be less, well, us. It’s a term referred to as masking.
Autistic masking is a phenomena that begins very young in an autistic person’s life, with studies suggesting that it may begin in infancy. They begin to imitate and memorize the behaviors of others in speech and mannerisms, attempting to be more “normal.” Most of masking behaviors are unconscious, that is the person is not aware they are masking until they learn they are autistic and what it means to mask. It is a survival mechanism, and an awareness that being different is a threat to ones’ safety, autonomy, and right to be heard.
The mask-erade is how I’ve decided to term my life from early childhood until just recently, in my mid thirties. Once and for all, I am unmasking. The me that no one wanted the world to see will no longer be suppressed. Because that is me! I’ve learned there is nothing to be ashamed of and I’ve never been happier. Old habits die hard. I’m still working at getting that girl back that has been hidden behind a thick mask, but she’s getting there.
Masked, I’d stopped telling people about my twin that didn’t develop all the way, because apparently that is not polite or relevant conversation. Unmasked, when I feel the desire to bring it up, I bring it up. I feel that is a big part of me and don’t understand why I should refrain from sharing when I so desire.
Masked, if I’m spoken to and do not understand, I will smile back, or laugh– basically match whatever reaction the speaker has, and add in a head nod or mutter, “Really?” in an attempt to hide that I did not understand what was said. Unmasked, I admit that I don’t understand. Now that I ask for clarity and truly do come to an understanding, I’ve become very surprised to learn how off my interpretations often were. Communicating takes a little longer this way, but now there is a true back-and-forth exchange that is worth the extra time and effort.
Masked, I will fidget until I feel the stares, only look up and see that people are, in fact, staring. I quickly look away from the stares and immediately stop tapping my fingers or feet, or swaying, or fidgeting with my hair or item in my hand, etc. Unmasked, I realize this is stimming, and that it is not only normal for those of us on the spectrum, but even healthy for us to continue in order to stay neurologically regulated. It is unhealthy to suppress stims, so the unmasked me stims whenever, wherever, and however the situation requires. My body knows how to regulate itself, and there is nothing more calming than the right stim.
Masked, when others tell me I have gone on too long about a subject, I get embarrassed and stop talking. I can’t shut my brain off of the subject, but I will stop talking. Masked, I am ashamed of the obsessive nature of my hobbies or special interests. Unmasked, I realize that this passion for certain subjects and special interests is just an Aspie trait I’ve learned to embrace. If no one wants to talk about something with me because I’ve talked too long, I will still be considerate. However, I write about whatever that subject is, read about it, watch videos about it– basically I don’t require myself to stop communicating about or learning about whatever it is that everyone else has had enough of. I still have an outlet for my intense interest, without the hassle of frustrated loved ones.
Masked, I accept social invitations and show up despite the awkwardness, anxiety, and complete inability to not cling to a certain one or two people also in attendance. If I’m too exhausted to face it, my reason will be that I’m tired. I can’t explain how or why I’m tired. People will tell me about how busy their day/week has been and how they plan to rest after the event. I feel inadequate, less than, and a sorry excuse for a friend because I can’t make it when they can. Unmasked, I will admit exactly the brand of tired I am. I am socially tired. Sometimes, I just need to be alone; and, well, that’s just okay. No matter how much or little else I had to do that day/week, social exchanges at work can be enough to drain me. I allow myself an out when I desperately need one.
Masked, I pretend that noises do not bother me. In crowded places with many conversations going on and a myriad of background noises, it is nearly impossible for me to focus on one face and conversation. If any of those noises are high pitched I can literally feel– I mean physically feel stress enter into my body that only increases until the noise stops. The people around me do not realize these noises are affecting me in any such way. All they know is that I am not being attentive. I hope I don’t come off as rude, but I’m afraid I do. Unmasked, I wear ear plugs. I get looks, and I get asked questions. That’s okay. I would be curious, too. However, those looks and questions are not going to hinder me from wearing them. They have been too much of a game-changer for me, especially at work. I still hear everything, but at a much more pleasant decibel that doesn’t affect my capacity to think quite so dramatically.
Masked, I try to force myself to make eye contact during a conversation; but my brain freezes up, and I can’t think about what I’m going to say next or even what my point is. I’m also rehearsing mentally not to stim. Unmasked, I look to the side of the person and tap or rub my fingers together and unashamedly make my hard-thinking face and continue like this until my thoughts are clear. I still look the person in the face while they are speaking, just not the entire time I’m speaking. My gaze lies mostly at the other person’s hands or lips as they move. If there is any distraction, my gaze will automatically focus on the distraction. Unmasked, I am a much more effective communicator. I’m not sure what others think of how I look unmasking in this way, but it’s not my responsibility to worry about what they think about it. If I’m not comfortable enough to keep my thoughts collected, it is all just a big waste of time, anyway.
This is just the beginning of my unmasking journey. It has been so freeing and I encourage every Aspie to join me in the unmasking. Will people stare? Maybe so, but at least what they will be staring at is me and you and not a mask.