I consider myself a person of integrity, someone who always tries to do the right thing, sometimes taking agonising and soul-searching mental paths just to make a simple decision.
So with the amount of effort that I put into being a Good Person, why have I– throughout my life– frequently been accused of being two-faced, intentionally deceptive, or even manipulative?
Some autistic people mask– a lot. And some, like me, are very good at it.
Masking is when the person involved mimics, performs, or otherwise “pretends” social behaviour that comes naturally to non-autistic people. It is a combination of performing those expected social interactions while camouflaging or minimising certain autistic behaviours (like stimming) which would draw attention to oneself.
Masking is the reason that many autistic women do not get diagnosed until later in life, and that their struggles might be minimised.
It helps us look “normal” from the outside.
The trouble is, masking is labour-intensive and energy-draining. It comes at a cost.
Although some might think being able to act “not autistic” is the goal for autistic people to more widely integrate into society; however, the truth is that masking is damaging and detrimental to our mental health.
And the problem is, the mask is not secured tightly and stably. It is loose and wobbly, and the more stress you pile on, the more likely it is to slip.
The safe people
There are a handful– never more than a handful– of people around whom I feel safe to be my true self, and these people get to see the me behind the mask. Being around my husband makes me feel safe, and part of the reason I knew we were a good fit for each other was that I never masked around him, even when we first met and I didn’t know him that well.
Since these people are often few and far between, I treasure them dearly, and come to rely on them to vent or offload onto.
Presenting ourselves with a mask or a front to the majority of the world and having our own private self that only a few people see can seem very much like a Jekyll and Hyde situation. From the outside, it can seem very much like we are a two-faced person, saying one thing in public, but another in private.
But this is not the case at all.
Masking is not about being two-faced or insincere, which is the neurotypical interpretation of the behaviour. What you need to understand about masking is that it’s a social survival strategy that many of us developed as children or teenagers, in order to be accepted in the world.
Like Jekyll and Hyde, each side is a part of us, only the masked side is a result of being forced into a society that values certain traits and ostracises otherness.
Masking is not the autistic person’s fault, nor is it a behaviour to be extinguished.
Rather, it should be considered an indicator to others that the situation they’re in doesn’t make them feel safe.
Let’s repeat that for those at the back:
Masking is an indicator that we don’t feel safe
If my own experience is any measure, masking is not something that can be consciously stopped, simply because I decide that I want to live my authentic life and be the true autistic unicorn that I am underneath. Because the FEAR still remains.
FEAR of being ostracised…
FEAR of being humiliated…
FEAR of being ghosted by people you considered close friends…
Ways to encourage us to drop the mask
Autistic people are used to changing to fit in. It’s time that people realised that hostile social environments will only make us cling more tightly to the comfort of camouflage.
However, there are a number of things that other people can do to to make me feel socially safe and reduce the chance of me masking.
This is relevant in a variety of different settings, from work to clubs to friendship groups. In my experience, masking happens the most when there is a conflict of some sort.
- Avoid raising things in group chats or in a way that seems “public” somehow.
- If you want our honest opinion, be sure you are prepared to handle it, non-sugarcoated, and don’t then berate us because it’s unpalatable to you.
- Don’t put us in a situation where we need to give an immediate answer because we often need more time to process things.
- Be more aware of having made snap judgements about people based on people based on wishy-washy metrics like something being “off” about them.
Remember: we are not two-faced– you have made it impossible for us to be ourselves.
You are the ones who have to give us room to take off the mask and not be horrified at what lies beneath.