The pressure to hide certain things about ourselves, or present ourselves in a certain way to better fit in is widely felt, it’s something we will often do unconsciously as a strategy to connect with those around us. There are many different reasons we might feel this necessary and it’s undoubtedly an uncomfortable situation to find yourself in. For those of us on the spectrum, however, this strategy can be a lot more involved in our day-to-day lives and can have a greater bearing on our overall mental health and wellbeing. 

Social interaction poses a variety of unknowns, and while it can lead to amazing encounters and is an essential part of life, at the worst of times it can feel like sitting an exam for a subject you’ve never studied. For myself, I feel that a lot of my natural responses and behaviours in conversation have been suppressed due to years of “masking.” 

What is masking? 

When I talk about masking, I am referring to the behaviour used by people on the autistic spectrum to hide their natural neurodiverse characteristics. It means supressing certain things about ourselves, such as our intense interests and stimming (more on that later). Masking can look different for each person, but might include mimicking neurotypical behaviours (by analysing and copying facial expressions and actions), or rehearsing conversations and making the effort to be extra accommodating to others.  

This particular aspect of being autistic can be tricky as it often works too well in hiding the individual’s neurodivergence, meaning diagnosis can come years later than you might expect. In my own experience, the notion of me being neurodiverse didn’t occur to anyone – most of all myself – until the age of 14 when a psychologist suggested I get assessed (being referred for depression and leaving with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder had certainly not been on my bingo card that year). At the time I thought this information was useless, completely irrelevant to improving my mental health or life in general. Especially since those in charge of my support – a notoriously abysmal UK children’s mental health service (where my fellow depressed UK students at?) – followed up my diagnosis with a year long waiting list for some cognitive behavioural therapy which I can only describe as lacking. 5 years later I’m only now beginning to understand that the diagnosis is a way to navigate my unique experiences and cope with factors beyond my control.  

Why we mask 

Being social can be difficult for many reasons. Personally, I often struggle to tell if my difficulties at any one time are occurring because of my autism or social anxiety (and I’m sure they collaborate frequently just to spice things up a bit). It can be very tiring attempting to dissect whether you are participating correctly in a conversation or doing the right thing in a new place: questioning whether I’m being too formal, or too informal, should I talk now, am I interrupting, should I stop talking, have I said the wrong thing, have I been impolite, or am I being too polite, should I make eye contact, how long have I been maintaining eye contact, should I tell them I’m autistic?  

Each person’s experience is their own and being autistic is by no means a social death-sentence, it’s just key to note that social impairment is a massive challenge for those on the spectrum. The immense amount of pressure which comes with social spaces can make it difficult for autistic people to feel at ease in public and masking helps us to navigate the neurotypical public domain.  

Through mimicking and rehearsing we can ensure smooth social interactions and avoid drawing unwanted attention to things such as stimming. Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, is a form of self-soothing through repetitive movements or sounds. Take, for example: hand flapping, repeating words or phrases, and excessive nail biting. These are each sensory stims which can help act as an anchor for autistic individuals. It’s worth noting that stimming can look very different depending on the person, and can be considered inappropriate or odd by public standards, leading to funny looks and harmful comments.  

Anyone can stim – it’s a natural behaviour – but once again it is something commonly done by autistic people to regulate their emotions or reduce anxiety. See the issue here? People on the spectrum stim to reduce anxiety in social interactions, but stimming is masked to avoid judgement in public, it’s a bit of a vicious cycle.  

The toll of masking 

Nighttime used to be my time of intense microdissection, obsessively combing through hours of social interactions, analysing my every response and action – cursing myself for every mistake and missed social cue. Autistic individuals are prone to overthinking because it feels safer inside our own heads, a space only we inhabit and can feel some control over. This inevitably leads to overthinking, an unfortunate coping mechanism which tends to do more harm than good. It is only time and a ridiculous amount of self-reflection which has allowed me to reduce the obsessiveness with which my mind goes over a day’s interactions.  

We can be left with social fatigue or even full-blown burnout. The extra work to interact with society, the sensory input of noisy public spaces, and the high emotional sensitivity of autistic individuals can mean complete withdrawal as a way to recover.  

I often joke that the cure for autism is alcohol. The anxiety which comes with social interactions and being in public disappears after a few drinks and the exhaustion of constantly regulating my behaviour is gone for a moment (I’m fun at parties, I swear). However, it’s important to be mindful that the easiest, most immediate coping mechanisms are often the most harmful in the long run. 

Additional to the physical and mental exhaustion, masking can cause confusion and distress regarding identity. Autistic people are often unaware that they have been masking as it becomes so ingrained into our public behaviour from a young age. This means that it becomes interwoven with our identity and can make it difficult to understand who we really are around other people. 

It’s hard to know who you are when you’re desperately trying to be like everyone else (think of a ditto having an identity crisis). As miserable as that sounds I’m sure this is something many other autistic individuals have experienced, especially when children can be so cruel to what they have been taught to perceive as different. The aim to be accepted and how we tweak ourselves to achieve that has, for me at least, meant that I can often become insecure about what my personality really is. 

Since the beginning of high school, I can remember struggling with the thought that I am a boring person, in fact I recall asking a rather dismissive teacher what I should do about this at the time as it was bothering me so much. Truthfully, I still worry about this. However, I know that this is another unfortunate effect of the continuous management of my own behaviour around other people to not draw too much attention, or come across as odd. I find it difficult to let myself become excited or react instinctively due to the thick barrier I have constructed over years of masking my personality and reactions to suit others. 

To add another layer of confusion, by focusing so hard on the rules of conversation and coming across pleasantly, autistic individuals can lose track of what is actually being said to them. There are so many unspoken rules to conversation which we have to keep up with that the words being spoken can take second priority in order to maintain the appearance of acceptable engagement in the conversation. I often feel like the penguins of Madagascar: Just smile and wave boys. 

On a lighter note 

It is important to note that we are not deceiving or attempting to be untrue to those around us. When we become close to our friends we can “unmask” and feel much more comfortable, but it should be remembered that masking is often unconscious and shouldn’t be taken personally if someone is doing so. Masking is just a way to navigate a social world we are unequipped for. We are passionate and want to connect with those around us as much as the next person, these are just a particular set of difficulties which people on the spectrum experience. 

So yes, dear reader, it may be shocking but your charismatic and devilishly handsome writer does experience social difficulties. However, I would like to see this as something meant to connect people, not pull us apart. These differences and unique struggles allow us to broaden our understanding of one another and make the world a little bit more accessible. 

Forfatter

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