Why Autistic Women Seem Two-Faced4 min read

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?

Masking

person with body painting

Some autistic people maska 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.

woman about to wear half face mask

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.

Mismatch

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.

person with unicorn head sitting near table

FEAR of being ostracised…

FEAR of being humiliated…

FEAR of being ghosted by people you considered close friends…

man wearing mask sitting near window panel

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.

Yo Samdy Sam

Sam is a Brit living in the Netherlands, who was diagnosed with autism in 2019. She has a YouTube channel ("Yo Samdy Sam") where she posts videos about autism and neurodiversity.

5 Comments

  1. I love this.  Thank you for linking my article on masking.  I agree with you 100%, it’s neurotypical society that (inadvertently?) made us don the mask in the first place.  It is a survival strategy.  I couldn’t have put it better myself!

    1. Author

      Thanks Jaime!  I loved your masking article and related a lot to it.

  2. I’m not certain i’m autistic, immersing myself in the autistic world the last year is one way I’m figuring it out.
    I relate to this quite a bit.  I spent the last year mostly alone except for my partner.  I met a friend I hasn’t seen for a year.  She asked what’s wrong.  Nothing, why I said.  She said I looked sad.  I realized I was just being me, forgot to do the energetic, animated mask.  I wasn’t sad by the way.
    The pointers are helpful, good article.

  3. Honestly, as a guy, this is also suuuper accurate for me.

  4. i’ve hit the point where i basically don’t have the energy to mask any more.  whether i’m autistic is a “no official diagnosis because confounding factors + no real point since no useful local help” situation, but i’m for sure pretty obviously neurodivergent.

    for my wacky situation, that obvious neurodivergency is actually job-useful, mostly because it apparently makes me come across as really easy to talk to about personal stuff and also because having successfully fought for an SSDI check and Medicare means i can honestly tell my clients that while the system doesn’t hate me for the same reasons or with anywhere near the same intensity, it’s not that fond of me either.

    (i’m a seasonal tax preparer.  i have a lot of clients who for one reason or another require some code-switching from “yeah, this is reasonably plausible and consistent by neighborhood standards” to something that an overworked IRS front-liner is going to look at, see “okay maybe a LITTLE weird but all due diligence questions were asked/answered/documented and there’s maybe even additional documented answers, F*CK IT NEXT”.  my clientele are mostly working poor on a good day, a lot of them are latinx, and a fair percentage are single mamas holding it down.  some of the returns i do i end up doing almost as much quasi-therapy as actual tax prep, and yeah, secondhand trauma is one of the things they never tell first-years.  the tax code geekery is easy in comparison for me.)

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