Although it’s only recently I’ve been hearing the term masking — the first time I can remember was in conversation with my very dear friend Patricia — I didn’t need to have it explained.
Putting on the metaphorical mask, adopting that persona, playing that role…
Oh yes, I know what that’s all about. Metaphors might be intangible but they are real. My whole life was an attempt to do what people around me wanted. To be who they wanted and expected me to be. The perfect child, the model student, the star employee, the ideal spouse.
In any human social group there is pressure to fit in, to conform so that you are accepted as one of the group. Most people adapt their behaviour depending on where they are or who they’re with, but these aren’t masks: they’re fine-tuning. It’s like adjusting the volume on the TV but keeping it tuned to the same channel.
Masking isn’t like that. Masking is attempting to put on a whole new persona. It’s method acting where you become the part you’re playing. Your character is authored by the people around you, it’s not your own creation. You’re dancing to somebody else’s tune.
While it can be very convincing — some autistic people are talented professional actors — when you’re filtering every word, every gesture, every reaction through that mask it becomes exhausting. And you don’t get to exit stage left and nip backstage for a breather. You’re in character almost every waking moment.
One danger of adopting a character so completely is that you can lose touch with yourself. You become so accustomed to acting the part that you blur the boundaries between real and pretend as you strive to become the mask. It’s a long road back from that place.
Being something, someone, that you’re not carries a price. It causes mental stress as you work to suppress your instinctive behaviours and reactions in favour of the ones that allow you to fit in. The threats and fear that drive the process — fear of failure, of ridicule or abusive harm — are very real and cause harm in the medium to long term.
This driving force is powerful: it has to be to push us so hard and so far. And the result — fitting in, appearing to be like our peers — might sound like a reasonable goal. It’s the aim of interventions like ABA and other behaviourism-based therapies. But regardless of whether it’s driven by a practitioner or by peer pressure it can cause deep, lasting trauma.
I didn’t only grow up autistic (even if I wasn’t aware of the fact): I also grew up transgender. To me, the parallels with masking as an autistic person are very clear: I, an autistic female, was expected to appear to be a neurotypical male.
I can’t easily separate the two aspects of my being: my gender and my neurotype. The teasing and bullying I went through was because I didn’t act NT enough or male enough to match peer expectations. I tried. I watched people around me, studied them, tried to copy how they acted. Constructed my mask to hide behind.
Being autistic isn’t about the list of symptoms in DSM or ICD – that’s just the medical establishment’s way of drawing neat lines around a bunch of us and sticking a label on the resulting box.
Being autistic is how I experience the world and react to it. That might cause certain observable effects that get written down and turned into a diagnosis, but living it is something that can’t be captured in words because an autistic frame of reference is different from a neurotypical one.
Autistic people can often recognise each other. We pick up on signs and cues that exist below the level of conscious awareness: we feel that pull of recognition when we see ourselves reflected in others. Because we can relate to each other through shared experiences, our similar responses to situations, we often feel more comfortable and at ease in each other’s company.
Recognising my own reflection, seeing myself in others and having them see themselves in me, is very familiar to me from meeting other autistics. But it’s equally applicable to my gender.
For about as long as I can remember it was other girls and women I saw as mirrors of myself. I could never relate strongly to male peers: I was never able to see myself as belonging there.
Just as being autistic isn’t a list of symptoms from the diagnostic manual, so being a woman isn’t a list of attributes either. There are such things as gender roles and traits, but they are a consequence of gender, not its cause or essence.
I’m not autistic because I struggle in social situations or because I was echolalic and frustratingly literal as a child: that is inverting cause and effect. I am autistic whether or not the signs are visible to others. I’m just as autistic when I’m chatting to a colleague at work as when I dance and flap.
Likewise, I’m not a woman because I have breasts and hips, or because I cry over emotional movies, or because I wear dresses sometimes. Those don’t define my gender, they are simply an expression of it. I was just as female before my body started to develop, I’m just as female in jeans and tee-shirt toting a toolbox.
Neither my neurotype nor my gender are things I had any choice about: they’re just the way I am. Trying to force me to be something or someone I’m not — conversion therapy by any other name — doesn’t work and causes me harm. I can act out a role under duress with a certain degree of success, but it takes a toll on me.
Ultimately I had to take off the mask. The strain of performing constantly broke me. Not all the damage it did can ever be healed: there is some baggage I will always carry with me.
But my burden is small compared to what it used to be, my steps are light. And the tune I dance to is my own.