Part 70: Under The Hood

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. Thank you for being here. I hope you’re all well, and coping okay with the uncertainty around the omicron variant of covid. These are horrible times. On the upside, like many of you, I am looking forward to the big event in just a few short days. No, not Christmas; I’m talking about the shortest day of the year on 21st December. That day always feels like a psychological barrier to me. Once you know the days are going to be getting longer again, it feels like spring is just around the corner.

This week, I want to revisit a subject I covered in the early days of the blog. After a minor misunderstanding on Twitter, I felt the time was right to have a detailed look at something which is often in the minds of autistic people, and is probably confusing the hell out of neurotypicals. We’re going to talk about masking.

Okay, let’s get the dull stuff out of the way quickly, with a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, I do not claim to speak for every single autistic person on the planet. Masking is an emotive subject, often misunderstood by neurotypicals, and like pretty much everything to do with autism, there will be a humongous amount of misinformation out there that many, many people, of all neurotypes, will subscribe to. I want to offer up my observations on masking, and hopefully give a simple explanation of what it is and how it works. I also want to explain why it matters that we understand masking, and what the implications are for future generations of autistic people.

Second disclaimer coming up. Often, when I discuss anything important, whether on the blog or elsewhere, I come up against the problem of definitions. Sometimes, people will argue over a subject, when it appears they are applying two different definitions to the same word, phrase, or subject. The unwary person will often quote dictionary definitions as their trump card. This is an error, though, and is classed as a logical fallacy. Dictionary definitions are changeable. And when I talk about dictionary definitions, I’m not just talking about tomes like the Oxford English Dictionary, or the Merriam-Webster. My point applies to any supposedly authoritative text that someone claims offers a timeless, unyielding definition or explanation of any term. On the one hand, such texts can be and regularly are updated and changed. On the other hand, such texts are out of date as soon as they are published, simply because of the dynamic nature of language. The meaning of language travels in one direction; from people to texts, not the other way. When people talk about masking, they sometimes mean different things. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of trying to explain what something means while accepting that the very meaning I’m explaining is by its nature uncertain. This is a long, waffly way of saying that this article is a discussion of, and investigation into, masking, and it’s okay to disagree with me. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. With all that out of the way, let’s go…

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Let’s start with some basics. Masking is a way in which someone changes their appearance. We’re talking about autistic masking here, not going to a costume party, so the mask is metaphorical, not an object you’re using to cover up your face. Autistic masking happens when an autistic person wants to, or attempts to, appear differently. Sounds straightforward, but it isn’t. For a start, when I use the word, appear, I’m not really talking about changing physical appearance (although there can be an aspect of this in autistic masking). By appear differently, I mean presenting a different demeanour or personality type, or more accurately persona, to other people. We need to briefly sidetrack to that term, persona. In common parlance and in psychology (Jungian psychology, at least), the persona is the constructed personality that each of us presents to the world. This term actually has its roots in the old Latin word for a theatrical mask, which has us doubling back a bit, I know. The idea behind the persona is that we never reveal our true selves fully to the world. Social, mental or emotional pressures mean we keep a little back, and offer a little something false or constructed, to the people around us. There are parts of our personalities that we rarely or never reveal to others, or perhaps only reveal to a select few. Most people of all neurotypes accept this as a pretty basic part of human existence. Unfortunately, it has unhelpful implications for the public understanding of autism. The concept of persona gives neurotypical people all the excuse they need to say, everyone masks a bit. And of course, they would be correct. And that leads right into the old chestnuts of, We’re all a bit autistic, or We’re all on the spectrum somewhere – both of which are absolutely not correct. So let’s make this point clear: When we talk about autistic people masking, we are talking about autistic masking. It’s not the same as the neurotypical masking, the natural persona effect, of everyone else. The reason it’s not the same is that we autistic people are fundamentally different to neurotypical people. Persona comes naturally to all people, and to varying extents in all people is a lifelong part of their personalities that is more or less effortless, precisely because it is so natural. Autistic masking is very different. Autistic masking is a reaction to the status of being different to almost everyone around you; of having a different sensory / mental / emotional experience of the world than the overwhelmingly neurotypical population. Whereas the natural expression of persona greases the social and cultural wheels for each individual, autistic masking is exhausting and debilitating. And it comes in varied forms. Let’s have a look at those.

Different autistic people mask in different ways, and for different reasons. Sometimes the masking activities are done consciously, sometimes without realising. Autistic masking can be intentional or unintentional. But the commonality across all types of autistic masking is the aim of altering behaviour in order to fit in more comfortably with neurotypical situations. It can be tricky talking about the aim of a behaviour, if that behaviour is unconscious or unintentional, and so I’m going to start going into the detail of that type of masking first.

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Unconscious masking is what happens when you change your behaviour in a way to make it easier for you to fit in with the people or circumstances around you, but you don’t consciously realise you have made a change. It can happen subtly, in a process akin to osmosis. You haven’t deliberately analysed the behaviour of people around you, and you haven’t made a list of things to do and say that will make you feel like you’re fitting in… but nevertheless, you are behaving in a way that is far from what you might consider the real you. I have some personal experience of this. Regular readers of the blog will be aware I was identified as autistic late in life. I went through most of my life not knowing I was autistic, but definitely knowing at some level (although I was in denial about it) that I was different. I went from being a lonely, introverted, bookish child into being a loud, brash teenager, and then an overconfident young man, on the back of unconscious masking. Somehow, I absorbed certain behaviour patterns from the culture in which I found myself, and regurgitated those behaviours to lubricate social situations. These ways of behaving did not come at all naturally, and so it’s no wonder I struggled badly with depression and anxiety as I was unable to resolve the different aspects of myself into a coherent whole. Many people of different neurotypes feel they have slightly different personas for different situations; you’re one person for your parents, another at work, another for your spouse, and so on. But these are variations on the general persona. For someone like me, absorbing different behaviour types from different areas of my life, the conflicting mask types became baffling for me. I can only guess at what went through the minds of people who saw me in more than one setting. Was I the angry young man who liked the thrill of getting into fights, or the quiet lonely youth who reads huge quantities of books and wrote heartfelt (bad) poetry? Was I the fashion-driven womaniser, or the fresh-faced lad who sought meaning at a holy-roller church? I slipped into these modes, with their necessary masking behaviours, in a way I still can barely understand decades later. In retrospect, I see it was all driven by a desire to fit in, to not feel like an alien. I wasn’t aware I was adopting these different modes. I was just very, very confused. This type of unconscious masking is common in people like myself, who didn’t know they were autistic. By definition, this type of unconscious masking is also unintentional. But there is another type of unintentional masking…

It is possible to be exposed to certain types of behaviour, and feel it necessary to analyse and understand those types of behaviour in order to have a chance of thriving. Common examples of this are in professional and educational settings. If you go to a new school as a kid, you’re entering into a whole new cultural setup. Some people find they slip into the new culture effortlessly. For autistic people, it’s not that simple. For a start, we tend to not like change, so the anxiety levels will be high, anyway. The vague, ever-shifting rules of neurotypical interaction often leave us baffled. In situations like this, autistic kids will often put a lot of effort into trying to work out what they should say, and when, and to who. And of course, there are considerations of what one should wear – this is where masking veers into making actual changes to your physical appearance. As a youngster, I was constantly making fashion statements to fit in – but it was an odd kind of fitting it. My fashion statements tended to be of the rebellious type, usually related to a particular minority, music-oriented brand of youth culture. For example, the Teddy Boy / 1950s-themed rock-n-roll culture, and later, the post-punk synth-rock movement pioneered by the likes of John Foxx, Gary Numan, and others. I used those fashion statements to identify with an alternative culture that I felt I could belong to. Did I know I was masking? Of course not. Did I even know I was desperately trying to fit it with something to get a sense of belonging? No, not that either. I studied the relevant culture, and deliberately adopted it, so the intent was there… but in terms of it being autistic masking, that was completely unconscious – particularly as I didn’t know I was autistic. Obviously, plenty of neurotypical youths of my generation bought into these minority cultures, too. The difference between them and me was rooted in the reasons behind why we did it, and also that, no matter how hard I tried within any group, I still felt like I didn’t belong. It was such hard work to keep up on that cultural treadmill, and every time I did catch up, it was like someone increased the speed control and I slipped behind once more. I changed my appearance, affiliations and interests in a way that was chameleonic, always searching, and never finding. Then, as a young adult with responsibilities like being a parent, and having bills to pay, I found myself encountering a new situation in which I had to fit: the workplace…

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Early on in my work life, I stumbled into retail management with a very large, very high profile company; one of the biggest names on the UK high street. For someone from my background, this job was seen as quite prestigious. I soon found myself out of my depth in all the necessary pro-social interactions, and the first six months in that job were a nightmare in which I struggled to achieve anything, and was probably holding onto the job by my fingernails. The problem was that I’d dropped into a situation in which the people that were supposed to be working for me had actually wanted someone else to get the job. There was some political stuff going on, and I hadn’t got the first clue how to turn that around. Fortunately for me, a helpful HR manager gave me a tip on how to break the ice with one of the ringleaders. It worked. Once that thaw began, and the team began to accept how hard-working and well-organised I was, my department went from strength to strength. This was a learning point for me: I solved the work problem not through doing “work things”, but through making a personal connection with one individual. This seemed like some kind of bizarre sorcery. It was a workplace; it should be all about the work, right? Who cares who gets on with who, or who socialises together; it’s about getting the job done to a high standard so that you are in safe employment with no fear of the sack. Right? Well, yes, if you’re autistic. But I didn’t know I was autistic, and I just saw it wasn’t that straightforward for everyone else at my workplace. There were cliques and alliances and backstabbings and affairs and some incredibly devoted friendships. I had no clue how to navigate that stuff, but I knew I was out of step with it all. I needed to keep my job, so I watched and learned. Football culture was big in the workplace. I had loved football as a child, but had fallen out with it after being overlooked for a school football team in favour of players who weren’t as good as me. (I wonder why?) But I realised getting back into football would give me an in-route with the people at work. (Ironically, this genuinely reignited my love of football, and I became a regular at Sheffield Wednesday Football Club’s Hillsborough stadium.) I paid close attention to some of the more popular young managers; the ones who were clearly going for fast-track career progression. I couldn’t match that progression, but I certainly adopted some of their laddish, macho behaviours as a way of hiding my inability to understand what was going on politically in the weird tangle of professional relationships. I also carefully watched the more senior managers, and listened to how they spoke about the business. I adopted those same turns of phrase, and ridiculous management-speakisms. This helped me stay in the job, without any shadow of a doubt, and was great cover for the constant anxiety and confusion I felt every day in the workplace. This was conscious, intentional masking. It resulted in something very strange. While I was constantly off balance in terms of understanding and navigating the workplace politics and relationships, I nevertheless got to a stage of being very good at the job. I got results. This meant I would veer wildly from gross overconfidence to crippling anxiety. I was good at my job, yes, but never quite knew when I was going to fuck up a workplace relationship, and piss someone off. The work environment was complex, but it was complexity without logical form, based entirely on the things it should not have been based on; interpersonal relationships, rather than ability. My masking could only take me so far, and no further. I’m not the first autistic person to experience the invisible barrier to career progression, and I won’t be the last. Recently, I spoke to an employment coach who specialises in supporting autistic people in workplaces, who made a very clear observation: autistic employees regularly experience the situation of people with lesser ability coming into the job and leapfrogging them for progression. It’s a thing. It happens. The effort we have to put into masking, just to be able to function in a workplace setting, is thoroughly exhausting. To then find that no matter how hard we work, or how much ability we have, we will hit that invisible wall and get no further feels like a punch in the face.

The workplace masking I have described experiencing was of course conscious and deliberate, but I must reiterate, I didn’t know I was autistic. The masking situation is very different, but just as traumatic, for those of us who do know we are autistic…

Masking means not being yourself. You might adopt certain behaviours that don’t come naturally, but you might also suppress certain behaviours that do come naturally. Some autistic people feel the need to suppress stims that feel natural and comfortable, because they might attract unwanted attention, for example. There is a particular stim I find very comforting in stressful moments, but I can’t do it at work. Even before I knew what a stim was, I couldn’t have done it at work, because I know what reaction I’d get from people. If you’re having one of those days when you feel like the world is being particularly and aggressively neurotypical, not being able to exercise a stim just adds to the pressure you’re feeling. The self-control needed to mask consistently for long periods of time is damned hard work. To actively deny who you are by adopting an alien set of behaviours just so other people don’t realise how badly you feel you don’t fit in is horribly debilitating. And let me make this clear; no amount of masking will make autistic people feel like they fit in. That’s not the purpose. You’ll always know you don’t fit; that you’re different. The purpose of masking is not to fool yourself, but to fool the neurotypicals you’re having to contend with. Sure, it works a little bit differently if you don’t know you’re autistic than if you do, but the net effect is the same: You’re an outsider, you know you’re an outsider, and you’re just trying to fool the in-group, so they don’t know you’re an outsider. The difference I experience in masking since finding out I’m autistic is stark. Now, I know exactly what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. Sometimes, it leads to pleasant interactions. But it’s still hard work. I’m going to keep saying it; it’s hard work. Autistic people are having to work hard just to exist and interact in a world and culture that, largely, comes naturally to the neurotypicals we are surrounded by.

So, we can draw some general observations about autistic masking. It is prompted by the disconnect and alienation experienced by autistic people, whether they know they are autistic or not. As autistic people, we know we are different to others. We are regularly and often isolated, bullied and marginalised as a result of our differences, because that’s what the neurotypical world is like. This is why we protect ourselves by changing our behaviours, even when we don’t necessarily understand exactly what it is we’re doing. Sometimes we adopt behaviours to mask; sometimes we suppress behaviours. Sometimes it is conscious and deliberate; sometimes it is unconscious, a pattern of behaviour we drift into. But even when we do understand our marginalised place in the world, and adopt masking strategies consciously and deliberately, it’s no easier. Masking is always hard, always debilitating.

I’m going to take it as obviously self-evident that pretending to be something you are not for extended periods of time, having to work so hard at it, exhausting yourself with it, just in order to keep your metaphorical head above the social water and not drown in neurotypical pressure, is not healthy. I don’t feel I should have to explain that; it’s clear. But the implications of the unhealthy effects go beyond the exhaustion felt by autistic people who mask in this way. Masking, sooner or later, leads to autistic burnout. Now, I could do a whole new blog post on burnout – like masking, I’ve written about it before, and I may do so again. For now, let’s just accept that burnout is bad, especially when you consider that suicide is the second-biggest killer of autistic people. Autistic burnout is also, I would say, an inevitable outcome of long-term autistic masking. For this reason, it is imperative that we protect autistic children from the worst effects of autistic masking and burnout. Unfortunately, this is being made difficult by a selection of neurotypicals who claim to be helping autistic children…

The people I am referring to are so-called therapists specialising in Applied behavioural Analysis (ABA). Again, like burnout, ABA is a big subject, deserving of its own full-length discussion. Suffice it to say here that ABA is based on making autistic children behave like neurotypical children. It is, quite simply, coached and enforced masking. When these “therapists” – and unwary parents of autistic children – see the masking behaviours successfully and consistently deployed by the autistic children, they claim the “therapy” has worked. But I would remind you; masking will never make the autistic person feel like they have fitted in; it just fools the neurotypicals. This harmful masking therapy is being inflicted on autistic children right now. And this is why we, the autistic adults, must strive for greater understanding and acceptance of autism, so that future generations of autistic people don’t have this same struggle my generation has lived through.

It’s early days for autism, we sometimes forget that. My mother was in her twenties when the likes of Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner were starting the first research into autism. While there have always been autistic people, the public awareness of autism as a thing only began in the previous generation. My generation of autistic people, therefore, are at the front line of a fight for our survival. Autistic people, on average, die far younger than neurotypicals, with suicide a leading cause of death. We are far more likely to suffer depression and anxiety than the neurotypical population. Is there any wonder, when we feel forced by neurotypical society to hide our true nature with masking?

That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.


Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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