Last updated on February 21, 2021
“You don’t look autistic, you’re just trying to be trendy.”
“I’ve never seen you have a problem with social interaction, obviously it’s not that bad.”
“But you have lots of friends! You couldn’t possibly be autistic!”
There are others, but it makes my blood boil to think about, so I’m just going to skip past them. The point is, a lot of NTs don’t “see” autism because we’ve had to close the gap to make them see us as “one of them,” and some of us have done it so well that they don’t even realize it’s been done.
This is called Autistic Masking, and it’s not always created equal.
To Mask or Not to Mask
I have strong opinions about masking, most of them come with a lot of cuss words. I know some auties who pride themselves on their capacity to emulate the NTs around them, like it’s a game of cloak-and-dagger to see how long they can go before the NTs figure out that “something’s not quite right.”
See, Person Q, they’ve made masking into a sport. Their actual goal is to be dishonest, to revel in that experience of “HA! Gotcha!” They could go months or years before revealing to their friends that, HA HA!, they were autistic all along and have no idea what the hell anyone feels, and they don’t care to!
Um? No one was really fooled, man. They knew you were playing along, and they probably didn’t invest a lot of energy or depth into your relationship because you were just too… weird. Or lacking empathy. If someone relies on you for real empathy in a private space, and there’s nothing to ape to produce that empathetic response, you’ll always fail. Person Q doesn’t even realize they’re reading from the wrong script most of the time.
Then, there are auties who go out of their way to avoid masking at all costs, letting their proverbial Freak Flag Fly. Person R is basically walking around with their dick hanging out of their pants, demanding that other people respect their right to waggle said dick around. They might be the “no filter” types that just blurt out everything that pops into their heads. Maybe they’re the “clam it up” type who refuses to speak until they feel damn good and ready. They use their “refusal to mask” as an excuse to just be selfish and self-centered, regardless of how it makes other people around them feel.
In a sense, Person R is also treating masking as a sport, except the game is “52-Card Pickup” instead of “Cloak-and-Dagger.”
Then there are those who use the very act or fact of masking as a kind of excuse to do or not do whatever it is that they might have to around NTs. Person S is playing the Victim. They will go to an afternoon luncheon with some friends and then spend three weeks in a blanket burrito in “self-care” because it was Just So Much. They’ll turn down engagements and events because they just know it’s going to too much, and then they lament about how their autism keeps them from doing all the things, or how people never invite them anywhere because of their autism. They try to go out and do things, but they get so anxious because they just don’t understand and no one understands them.
To them, autism is a disease, and masking takes effort, and that makes it hard. And because they’re autistic, they have an excuse for things to not work out, for them to Fail. Their game would probably be “The Floor Is Lava.”
Dude, What Even. Masks are so passe.
I see a big problem with all of these positions, for a variety of reasons, obviously. (Imagine a lot more cuss words, it’ll be faster.)
Okay, but… let’s get something out of the way. Masking is when we (autistic people) emulate or mimic a behavior that we see as an attempt to appear more like other people in a peer group. And sometimes, we do it really well. The thing is, masking is like getting the right answer but not knowing how or why you got the right answer. We know how to smile at babies because that’s what people expect us to do, and to say how lovely they are and how much they look like our parents, even though inside we’re still actively thinking, “Dear gods, when does this burbling pile of flesh start looking human?”
It feels dishonest to mask. It feels exhausting. When anyone is faced with something uncomfortable like this, there’s an impulse to Fight, Flight, or … Hide. Or rationalize. That’s what those Q, R, and S were doing.
At one of my sons’ recent school assessments (they’re all teenagers now), the diagnostician remarked that it had taken a while for him to get identified as autistic because he scored so high on Communication and Interaction. I interjected right there and said, “Oh, no, honey, he doesn’t do any of those things well. That’s all masking, beginning to end.”
And he, sitting right next to me, said, “Straight up. I don’t know how to do any of that stuff, it’s just what everyone else does.”
That got a few chuckles but also a few light bulbs of realization that maybe they couldn’t spot an autistic kid as well as they thought they could. We’re so good at emulating things that sometimes we go years without being “found out.”
Anthony Hopkins? AUTIE, and also one of the best actors you’ve ever seen. That little thing he does rubbing his hands together? That’s his stim.
Our favorite and first mermaid crush Darryl Hannah? TOTALLY autie.
The best buster of ghosts, Dan Aykroyd? (Sorry, Bill Murray, you’re still our favorite time-loop and best zombie-death-in-a-movie guy.)
There are a lot of auties that have been identified posthumously like Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates… okay, Gates isn’t dead yet, but it’s inevitable.
I can’t think of a single field that doesn’t have at least one team of autistic brains at the lead, forging new ground. I mean, it’s right there in the titles: Neuro-typical means they go with what they know, with what they’re taught. Neuro-divergent means to look beyond the norm, to blaze new ground. That doesn’t mean that NTs don’t forge new ground or create innovations ever, but there does seem to be a disproportionate number of NDs up there.
A lot of the Old World auties didn’t mask at all – they were considered “merely eccentric,” and their strangeness was even a huge advantage to their crafts. Our society is shaped in a way that hasn’t really allowed that too much, and this is how we’ve found ourselves in this pickle.
We Are Supermanz.
I get what R is trying to say – that to hide or diminish our autism diminishes our presence and value in society. We don’t get our place in society by forcing people into places of discomfort, though, or even offense. And getting to be good at emulation like Q is a nice thing, too. And respecting our own boundaries like S is also really important.
Where all three approaches kind of go off the rails is in realizing that we have the capacity to expand that emotional expression, that we can learn empathy and compassion and what to say or not – but for the right reasons.
I have this crazy idea! What if – bear with me for a moment – what if we can learn how to do that stuff, in our own context?
But, we can’t learn it the way that Neurotypicals do. We have to learn it the Autie Way.
NTs get all of these habits and traits and responses intuitively. They just know things because they absorb more context from their surroundings passively. My theory is that auties are so comfortable in their own world, in their own inner context, that we miss a lot of the inference and subtlety that NTs get naturally.
That actually puts as at a complete advantage when it comes to learning all that shit because we’re not “born” knowing how the world works. We have to study it. We have to understand it. And when we learn something, we learn that shit damn good.
For instance, one of the cornerstones of grasping cognitive empathy is knowing the difference between objectification and individuation. What does self-actualization really look like? How does one think about how we think? Because we are “behind the curve,” so to speak, we get to look at these questions with far more conscious deliberation, and then… we discover things about the human condition that neurotypicals never even imagined.
There’s more to it, of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. As I mentioned to another son’s teacher, part of the push that makes us mask is when NTs insist that we “make friends” and “be social” on their time scale. Auties don’t need friends the way NTs do because we kinda can’t really do shallow relationships – but we can fake it really well if we need to, but then the people we’re “friends” with feel shorted or betrayed when we’re not the friends that they thought we were.
We don’t mean any harm by it. We just… don’t know how to do it their way. We don’t know what they’re really asking of us.
When we’re ready, we can learn all that stuff – and I mean really learn it. And when that happens – when an autie claims you as a friend and puts you in that place – you better be prepared to have the best damned friend ever, the best damned partner ever, the best damned person ever, because we’re going to rock that “being a human with empathy shit.” Just watch.