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.
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.
Autistic masking is an ongoing internal process that entails:
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 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!