I pressed my back into the corner of the cold wall behind me, as hard as I could, hard enough to distract me from the need to twirl or flick my fingers or flap my hands, hard enough to counterbalance the brightness of the light emanating from the interior of the van parked in front of me, next to my stricken car. I’d changed out of my sunglasses into a pair of ordinary specs, because I knew that wearing sunglasses on a December evening would attract questions I didn’t want to have to answer.
My internal dialogue was on a repetitive loop: “Mask like fuck, mask like fuck, normal, normal, normal, mask like fuck, mask like fuck, normal, normal, normal…”
“How long have you lived in your current place then?” said the breakdown man.
I felt my spouse, who was standing beside me, tense. I knew the thought process that would be going through his head: “Why does he want to know? He’s going to come and destroy our lives isn’t he? How does knowing when we last moved house help with mending the car?”
I knew that dealing with this sort of inane chatter was my job in these circumstances. My spouse, who had managed, half an hour earlier, to make the telephone call to the breakdown services while I sat on the floor in the dark rocking back and forth in a total panic, would simply be unable to manage such questions, so it was down to me.
“About 4 years,” I said, using one of the learnt scripts I keep in my head for such occasions. “It’s handy for the shops,” I added, hoping this was good small talk. It seemed to be OK.
Further questions followed. I reminded myself that the man was probably just trying to pass the time, and that he probably didn’t intend this to be some sort of cross-examination under torture. I did the best I could to smile and chat, my brain feeling like it was working so hard it might actually explode, my body tense and stressed from trying to keep still, my back pressed hard against the cold wall for a bit of relief.
The computer sitting on the car engine finished its diagnostic work. The man started to show me graphs, figures, numbers, and to talk about the state of the car battery (totally knackered). I relaxed a little. This was relevant, and seeing graphs was calming and made sense. There was now a purpose to the conversation.
The breakdown man said he had a battery on the van he could fit there and then. Since it was 2 days before Christmas, late in the evening, and we were quite a few miles away from home, this was a good outcome. Battery specifications and prices were discussed, the battery was fitted, and a further few “social” remarks were made. I didn’t challenge his (incorrect) assumption that we’d been Christmas shopping, although I did remember to thank him and to convey appropriate seasonal wishes I think.
By the time I got home my speech had failed and I was utterly exhausted.
Since I discovered and disclosed that I’m autistic I’ve attempted consciously to conceal it, and to mask my autistic traits, on only a handful of occasions, such as the one above. That night I was low on spoons (energy), having already been out in the world for a few hours. We didn’t know what sort of breakdown repair person might show up, or whether they’d know anything about autism. We didn’t know what prejudices they might have (over the years we’ve found motoring to be a problematic area of life at times – my spouse doesn’t drive and the car is mine but because he looks like a man and I look like a woman (we’re both nonbinary) frustrating assumptions have often been made), and we didn’t have energy to educate or to explain – we just wanted to get home with a fixed car.
So the decision was made to mask, to act as “normal” as possible. Changing my glasses, removing the wristband I wear that says “Autistic” on it, remembering to smile and make some sort of attempt at eye contact if necessary, putting my tired brain into overdrive in order to interact and maintain speech, frantically searching through my mental library for scripts, remembering not to tell my entire life story or talk too much, no jumping up and down, no pacing around, no swaying back and forth or pulling at my hair, and definitely no flapping hands.
I managed it. But only just. Since going into burnout a couple of years ago (I’ll discuss burnout elsewhere), my ability to act non-autistically has been pretty poor and I’ve only been able to do so for very short periods of time without getting ill or having some sort of meltdown or shutdown. The whole carefully constructed facade that has characterised most of my life in the outside world for the last 4 decades has simply crumbled and fallen to pieces as I’ve run out of energy to maintain it. Some skills I’d previously learnt have become patchy or disappeared completely, my sensory system has gone berserk, and the amount of care I need has increased significantly.
Of course, everybody, whatever their neurology, masks to some extent. People “put on a brave face” when they have to deal with difficult situations, they dress up in uncomfortable clothes to go to formal occasions and job interviews, they walk into work on a Monday morning having had terrible weekends and sleepless nights and when asked “How are you?” respond with “Very well, thank you.” even if they feel absolutely awful and want to kick the cheery Monday morning questioner in a painful place. People with mental illnesses, chronic pain conditions, and even folk who are simply having a difficult time will experience an even greater need to put on some sort of a “public persona” at times.
So, what is so different about autistic masking? Well, I haven’t yet done enough study or research to give a definitive answer (something I’d ultimately like to do is really investigate such questions – since I discovered, nearly two years ago, that well over 90% of people on the planet experience the world differently from how I do, I’d really like to find out about their experiences, but I haven’t had the energy so far). All I can do at this point is speculate. I think, perhaps, that much of the difference is to do with a matter of extent and from the number of situations in which a person feels they need to mask in order to fit in, not to cause a fuss, or to function in the world.
Back when I was well enough to work, I “acted” at job interviews. I suspect everyone does that. But what I’d one day like to explore is the point at which most people cease to act, start to feel like they’re in some sort of “comfort zone” (a concept I’d also like to explore sometime), and when they are basically able to “let their hair down”, be themselves, and have little or no anxiety (obviously, for those who have an anxiety disorder, this will be different). From what I’ve observed of people’s behaviour (unless the whole world is performing an elaborate act and everything is fake), I suspect that many people feel free to be themselves when out having a few drinks with their friends, playing sport, at a concert, going to pick up a few bits of shopping at the supermarket, watching TV with their families, or at home with a partner. These things might be more or less enjoyable, but most folk seem to be reasonably relaxed when I’ve seen them in these situations. I am not, and, perversely, I’m probably no more likely to be stressed in a job interview than I am having a few drinks down the pub because my stress levels are so high for so much of the time that the differentials between different situations are rather small. If you’ve ever encountered me in any of these situations and I appeared relaxed, it’s because I was masking.
The situations when I can essentially be “me” occur only when there is a locked door between me and the rest of the world (and even then, there is a fear the safety might be breached). The only other person who has ever seen the full real me is my spouse, although my best friend of many decades has been close. At all other times, I am on high alert, I am stressed, I am anxious, I am acting, to a greater or lesser extent. Alcohol helps me with the act, although it’s obviously not an ideal strategy. Some autistic people, especially late diagnosed ones who have been masking to everybody for decades, cannot even be themselves with their spouses.
I find it difficult to explain this matter of extent to people – I often post things on my facebook and am greeted with a chorus of “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s absolutely normal, everybody gets…” which I suspect is meant comfortingly, but just makes me feel very invalidated and disbelieved. Maybe my communication style is misunderstood? Maybe I’m not adequately able to explain that it’s not a question of, for example, liking or disliking supermarkets and shopping, but that the energy required to cope with the noise and the light and the people and so on is such that even a short trip out can sometimes mean I melt down at the checkout to such an extent that I have to bite my own arm and bruise it (see the picture at the top of this post, taken earlier today) in order to cope.
Of course, by the time I’m melting down at the checkout, the mask has broken. In the past I’ve been accused of being drunk, been threatened with arrest, and often simply run away from situations I couldn’t cope with. One of the reasons autistic people DO mask and hide their unconventional ways is precisely to avoid accusations of drunkenness or getting arrested or even worse. Masking can sometimes be useful and even essential. That’s something I hope to discuss in the future.
Nowadays with more knowledge and less masking I can usually manage to buy a small amount of shopping by using strategies such as wearing sunglasses and ear defenders and allowing myself to stim (more on that another time). I’m fortunate in that my circumstances generally allow me to be openly autistic and I have no problem with being so. The result is that I’m starting to learn to conserve energy where I can and to use the limited resources I do have to try to improve my quality of life, which has, over the last few decades, generally been declining rather rapidly.
I have wasted a huge amount of energy over the decades trying to live my life in order to fulfil societal expectations. Sitting still, making eye contact, sitting in a chair with my feet on the floor, wearing various sorts of clothing, speaking when it is making me feel sick, dealing with pain from lights and sounds and textures, consciously trying to work out when to talk and practising what to say, trying to maintain employment in overloading environments, smiling when it is really difficult, trying to pick out one conversation when others are happening, forcing myself to go to social events, and so on. Even the simple experiment I did when I was first investigating the “autism hypothesis” as I called it, gave an indication of just how MUCH energy masking can use.
Masking is exhausting. Utterly utterly draining. I’ve had people say to me many times over the years “But WHY are you so tired? What have you been doing?” and I’ve been unable to work it out. Even in my 20s I used to collapse with exhaustion on a regular basis. The brutal truth is that for an autistic person simply EXISTING in the world is knackering – never mind trying to hold down a job or have any sort of social life. And many of the standard recommendations for “improving mental health” (such as seeing more people in real life, spending less time on the internet, sitting still and being “calm”) simply make matters worse – solitude, rest, and stimming are much more useful tools. We need a LOT of downtime in order to recover from what, for most folk, are the ordinary things of life.
And this is at the core of the problem of masking. The perpetual acting, the perpetual stress levels on a par with what most folk would feel when at a job interview, the huge physical effort of sitting still and coping with sensory overload, and the conscious process of trying to work out how to interact with other human beings eventually takes its toll. In the short term it can lead to a meltdown (as it did with me in the supermarket the other day). In the long term it can destroy mental health and lead to autistic burnout.
Many autistics mask for years, putting in huge amounts of work to try to fit in to the world. Those of us who were diagnosed very late avoided some of the therapies that essentially force autistics to mask by using punishment when they exhibit autistic behaviours, although we were often taught to “behave properly” and the cane in the corner of the headmaster’s study was a constant threat throughout our childhoods. Some autistics become so good at masking that when they present for diagnosis they are turned away or misdiagnosed and when they tell people they are autistic they are met with disbelief and invalidation.
I’m probably one of very few late diagnosed autistics who hasn’t been told “But you don’t look autistic!” or disbelieved (in fact, when I published The Discovery most people simply said “Well, of course you’re autistic – you really didn’t know?”). My mask was evidently somewhat transparent as far as visible traits were concerned and it turned out that even with the huge effort I was making I didn’t actually succeed in fooling many people and those who knew me and knew anything much about autism (which I didn’t) weren’t surprised at all. I’d also long since accepted that I was one of society’s weirdos and grown comfortable with that (in fact, I still feel very strongly that I used to be rather special and interesting but now I’ve actually discovered I’m nothing more than a common or garden autistic)!
I’m also now beginning to realise that a huge part of MY masking was not just trying to “appear normal” but was actually trying to lead a life that was way beyond my capabilities. “Taking off the mask” for me is not just about openly stimming, wearing dark glasses and ear defenders, and allowing myself to look noticeably different from other people (I’ve actually found that bit pretty easy). It’s much more significantly for me about learning to rest, learning to pace myself, working out new ambitions, new goals, ones that might, once I’ve recovered from this burnout as far as I’m ever going to, actually be possible and within my capabilities. In short, working out how to spend my remaining time on the planet living a life that isn’t going to damage my mental health still further or cause any more huge burnouts.
That’s still very much a work in progress!