Autistic masking

it (probably) isn’t what you think it is

By Camilla Asra Engelby

Graphic Designer & Content Creator Camilla Asra Engelby

We can all make a faux pas, or do something really awkward leaving us feeling embarrassed

A classic example of such a mortifying moment is when Jennifer Grey as Baby in Dirty Dancing said the iconic line “I carried a watermelon”. But as mortifying that may have felt for Baby in that moment – trying (and failing) to seem cool in front of her crush in the form of Patrick Swayze’s character Johnny – it is not an example of autistic masking gone wrong.

Gif of the character Baby from Dirty Dancing making a faux pas in front of her crush as an example of what autistic masking isn't.

I’ve tried many times over to explain to neurotypicals what masking entails. But I often feel that they don’t quite get it. Quite often they end up saying things like: “Oh we’re all a little nervous when meeting new people” or “Most people get tired after social gatherings”. So this is me giving it another shot. Because autistic masking is so much more than a matter of choosing the right behaviour, words, tone, body language, clothing etc.

Here’s what autistic masking really is

Autistic masking is an ongoing internal process that entails:

  1. rapidly processing huge amounts of complex data to deduce what choices to make in a given setting.
  2. All the while simultaneously monitoring how the data change.
  3. And then – based on that ever changing data input – repeatedly and seamlessly adapting to the situation as it unfolds.
Animation of the words: Process. Mask. Repeat. symbolising the endless cycle of autistic masking

It’s all about survival, but autistic masking is hella draining

As survival strategies goes masking is an extremely draining method that many autistics utilise out of a necessity to fit into a world that does not see the beauty in diversity.

Autistic masking is a learned ability. Not that anyone ever sat me down and instructed me how to do it though. It’s a survival strategy we autistics teach ourselves to avoid being bullied and ostracised for not fitting in. And it’s built on countless painful experiences of getting it wrong. It’s a method built on trial and error. And as such it’s not foolproof. But not only that, it also comes at much too a high a cost for our quality of life and mental health.

Autistic masking may get us through life, but in survival mode. And surviving does not necessarily equate with living. For most of my adult life I mostly only survived. But everything hurt.

I’m so done with autistic masking … or I will be

I’m relieved my child was diagnosed early. There are still battles every day, but at least he knows he’s not weird or strange and he’s able to access accommodation (such as extended time for his exams). His early diagnosis and going through adolescence knowing he isn’t weird or strange – just born with a brain that’s wired differently – hopefully also means he won’t be burdened with autistic masking the way those of us who are part of the lost autistic generation are. I can’t control how inclusive the world around him is, but I can do my utmost to speak up about what autism is (and isn’t) and hopefully kick some stigma and prejudice to the curb along the way.

As for me. Well now that I know better, I’m working on unlearning the masking. I’m done feeling shame for be being different and for not fitting in. I’m done exhausting myself trying to keep up with neurotypicals. But decades of autistic masking on autopilot is not so easily dismantled, it’s a work in progress. But the work has definitely begun!

Golden venetian mask on a white background with blue flames symbolising removal of autistic masking

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