Today, rather late, I found out about the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign designed to promote autism acceptance and awareness of the effects of masking. I really want to participate, so even though it’s incredibly hot here, I’m writing a post.
The campaign consists of six consecutive weekly themes about which participants blog, vlog or post on other social media. The first weekly theme is “What is masking?”
Masking, put simply, is pretending to be something you’re not. This can be done either consciously or uncnsciously. Many autistic adults have learned to mask so well it’s almost second nature. We’re also encouraged to mask on a daily basis when people judge us about being autistic. Then when we mask successfully, we’re told we don’t look autistic.
For example, I’m often told that I don’t appear autistic. After all, when I hold a conversation, I appear pretty “normal”. I am told I can hold down a reciprocal conversation that doesn’t sound stereotyped or like I’m scripting. I ask people about their interests, for example. Now that it’s been extremely hot here for a few weeks already, I have even mastered some smalltalk about the weather.
This obviously (to me) does not mean I’m not autistic. Autism, despite what many people think, is not about social niceties. Autism is not the same as a lack of interest in others. Besides, I have 32 years of experience being told how selfish I am for not appearing to show an interest in others. So instead of showing a genuine interest in the people and topics I’m genuinely interested in, I learned to appear to be interested in whatever and whoever I am supposed to be interested in. In other words, I learned to mask my autistic curiosity.
For example, I was eleven when my mother told me I might be institutionalized if I didn’t become more age-appropriate. My having too many toys and dolls, according to her, contributed to my challenging behavior and I was to get rid of them. Instead, I was supposed to develop an interest in music. I wasn’t all that sophisticated at the time, so rather then developing a genuine-appearing interest in music, I hung Backstreet Boys posters on my wall.
Similarly, I was encouraged to wear jeans rather than sweatpants even though jeans were a sensory nightmare to me. It was assumed that I wore sweatpants because I didn’t care about my appearance – which is partlty true – or because I, being blind, didn’t know that my peers were wearing jeans.
Masking can become so internalized, apparently natural, that you no longer notice you’re doing it. For instance, I wear jeans without a problem now.
It is easy to assume that, because the autistic person no longer notices that they’re masking, it must not be affecting them. This often leads to the assumption that, if someone doesn’t appear autistic and isn’t acting out, they must not be autistic after all. Then people go on to assume that, if said neurotypical-appearing person does act out, it must be “manipulativeness”.
I am, however, definitely masking when I wear jeans, or listen to my husband’s favorite radio station in the car, or engage in smalltalk about the weather or someone’s upcoming vacation. It isn’t always a negative thing, but it is still masking.