what about masking? What is it?
Is masking good? Is it bad? How do we discover who we are underneath, when we have been taught all our lives to hide behind masking behavior.
Masking is a hot topic on autism discussion forms these days. From early age we are trained that certain behaviors are acceptable, and certain behaviors are not. From early on we learn to be polite, say please and thank you, learn to bathe, to clean our homes and do laundry, become toilet trained, to behave as society expects us to in order to fit in and allow ourselves to progress in society. This is true for all of us, autistic or not.
For those of us with autism, we might also be forced to hide our physical stims, force ourselves to make eye contact, have social interactions, do many things that are exceptionally difficult for us in order to hide our autism and make is “seem like” everybody else. But it doesn’t work!
Recent studies have shown that no matter how much training we have had, our autistic characteristics are discerned on an instinctual level by neurotypical individuals.
Our body motion, gait, facial expressions, voice quality, use of vocabulary, and other things natural to autism are picked up by non autistic individuals within moments. There is no point to “faking it” we give ourselves away as ‘different’ every time no matter how hard we try to hide it.
Learning social structure/ rules for polite public behavior/ simple manners and basic hygiene are parts of growing up and all children are expected to know these things. Many children may understand these rules without being taught, except for a few reminders when they get carried away with youthful enthusiasm or have limited coping skills. Autistic individuals may need to have detailed explanations of these things and may need help understanding how to perform as expected. This is not masking! This is learning how to get along in society using cultural rules of those around us.
Masking is when we force ourselves to role play things that are not natural to us. To force ourselves to be social when we would rather be home watching tv, to force ourselves to wear makeup and clothing, wear certain styles of hair or participate in things we hate because we don’t want to be thought of as “different” “odd” “quirky” “creepy”. We mask when we hide our interests, when we try to please others using behavior that is false to us or not of our nature because it is expected of us. Masking is giving up a beloved hobby or activity because others feel uncomfortable or think our interest is childish or inappropriate. Masking is pretending to enjoy opera when you would rather read a book or go to the library. If we are doing things solely to “fit in” or gain approval, and if we are doing it to the point that we feel sick with anxiety or distress, are having health issues, breakdowns, meltdowns, or panic attacks, we are masking.
How do we drop the mask and become true to our real, inner selves?
Think of the things you hate doing the most. Think of the things that are distressing, stressful, anxiety inducing, or actually painful which you do for the approval of others.
If we select the worst struggles we have in our lives and figure out a different way to do those things or find things to do instead, we are dropping our masks and becoming true to our inner selves.
I was not true to myself for the first 30 years of my life and I ended up with a suicide attempt. Therapy after that helped me find my real self.
I learned that I did not have to please others if it meant pain or emotional distress, putting myself in danger or participating in self harming behavior simply because I was trying to please others.
I began to dress simply instead of spending hours doing makeup, hair, preparing wardrobe, using hours of exercise and diet each day to maintain the standard my then husband expected of me.
I began to avoid the weekly dinners out at a new restaurant every time and instead had cookouts at home or simple picnics in natural settings.
I began to opt out of going to every football, baseball, basketball and hockey game and doing ‘sports’ every day of the week.
I began to listen to music I liked even though my partner did not.
I chose to do things on my own, much to the anger of my then husband.
Eventually I chose to avoid the company of many others determined to keep my behavior and interests within boundaries that they chose for me.
I found others of similar interests, beliefs, and behaviors instead. This happened over a lifetime of making choices over individual struggles regarding activities that caused emotional or physical pain.
My life evolved over time, each time I discovered something that was very very hard for me or something that actually hurt or caused me to feel sick, I figured out ways to exchange that behavior for something I actually liked instead of forcing myself to a mold of other’s expectations. I could be myself! I could do things my way! What a freeing concept!
Little by little the true person inside began to show herself.
Those who knew me in my 20’s at the time of my first marriage, my first jobs, my first few attempts at being social, participating in group activities, sports, and shopping activities, etc, would not recognize me today.
Some of the changes may be part of natural evolution of ageing, but a lot of the changes in my life were a deliberate effort to let go of others’ expectations that I must live a certain way, look a certain way, have certain interests, certain political beliefs, certain social circles.
Take the time to think about all the things you might do in a day which cause discomfort, distress, dismay, or actual physical or emotional pain.
Do you absolutely have to “do life” that way, or can you make changes in individual struggles over time to give yourself relief and to find peace?