Tales From The Spectrum: Autistic Masking

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.

Dawn Written by:

6 Comments

  1. DD
    February 5, 2021
    Reply

    “We are Supermans”… *proceeds with the autistic celebrity namedropping* Lol, why do many auties (I like the sound of this nickname, much more than “aspie”) are so fond of self-aggrandizement? Just kidding!
    I’m still not sure if empathy is actually something you can learn entirely. You can rationalize it, explain it, get better at it as (and if) you mature and try to listen to other people, but at the end of the day it seems to me that you’ve got to have some sort of natural disposition to begin with. It’s a bit like language in this respect: you’re not born speaking, but your mind must have the ability to learn it.
    To me, empathy isn’t necessarily all about feelings, not as much as it is about imagination. Being empathetic means asking yourself: “What would I do if I were this other person? How would I feel about this situation if I had been through their life, if I had their background, their mentality, their point of view?” And then, if you’re empathetic, you just get it, at least to some extent. It’s sympathy filtered through rationality. Don’t get me wrong, NTs don’t have a monopoly on empathy: as a matter of fact, most people have little or no empathy at all, let’ be frank about it. They know what they’re supposed to say or do in order to get along with others, to get by smoothly. They can do empathy 101, but that’s not really empathy, that’s adapting, and that’s why it can be so easy to imitate. Avoiding to be unnecessarily rude is ok, as it is wanting to not hurt people, but take it to the extreme and it just becomes hypocrisy. That’s why, if there’s an autistic trait I like, it’s straightforwardness. Sometimes listening to someone calling things by their proper name and cut the bullshit can be such a breath of fresh air!
    As for masking, I think it works well as a survival strategy to be used for casual social interaction and shallow relationships, but it fails big time when it comes to deeper, committed relationships. If you show yourself to a friend or a partner as someone you’re not in order for them to like you, it’s no wonder if they feel deceived when the mask finally drops, and it always drops eventually. For NTs, the way you act is directly connected to who you are, and who you are determines if you can be trusted. If there’s a big discrepancy between your behavior and your identity, trust goes out of the window. Maybe, if people started to be less judgmental and more accepting, auties wouldn’t feel so pressed to conform and wouldn’t mask so much, I don’t know. Be that as it may, it looks like a long way to go.
    My doubts about the Autie Way to empathy notwithstanding, I really appreciate the proactive attitude of your post. Even if we tread different roads, hopefully we’ll meet at some point along the way.

    • February 10, 2021
      Reply

      You seem to be saying that “learning things” can only happen in the NT way, and that “empathy” is only an NT trait, but then you say that NTs can be non-empathetic… so I’m not entirely sure what your line of distinction is there.

      And as far as “We Are Supermanz” is concerned, it’s the name of a bizarre little song I found ages ago. And reclaiming our lives from the literal trash bin of being branded as “Permanently Disabled” and “Unable to Work” and “Euthanized for the Good of the Master Race” is not really “aggrandizement.” I get that a lot of NTs seem to view autism these days as mere inconveniences, but it wasn’t so long ago that we were permanently institutionalized for being outside of the norm – particularly if we were unfortunate enough to be born female. At least three of my sons would have been thrown in a hospital or “orphanage” and left to die – which would have happened pretty quickly, in all likelihood. Just sixty years ago, I would have been medicated within an inch of my life for “speaking out” and “having hysteria” – just like my great-grandmother was. She died at the age of 42, burned to death in her own bed, because she was drugged up so far for “her nerves” that she didn’t realize what was happening until it was far too late. She was posthumously identified as autistic, and at the time labeled “hysterical,” of course, with “severe anxiety.”

      No, we’re usually not about egos and tooting our own horns, but we are allowing ourselves to not see ourselves as “broken,” allowing ourselves to see our quirks, our weird observations, and our capacities as “super-powers.” I think we’re all pretty tired of how the value of our capacities are constantly diminished, as though the inability to do one thing (like watch an entire movie in one sitting or follow a conversation in a loud restaurant) negates any of the other wonderful things that we can do. Unless we can do something like draw an entire city in pen from memory or do complex calculations in our heads faster than a machine. Frankly, not all of us can do Stupid People Tricks, but that doesn’t mean that what we can do doesn’t deserve recognition.

      Have you ever watched two-year-olds in a preschool? There are some who are naturally giving, and there are some that are off by themselves, and there are still others who are right proper little bastards, taking things from other kids and pushing them into sandboxes. Guess which ones aren’t auties? The other two types of kids have equal likelihood to be on the spectrum, as we manifest as endlessly giving (until we’re corrected for “over sharing” or “overstepping boundaries”) or in our own world (observing everything through our own understanding until we’re ready to talk to people). Making a broad assumption about our capacity to empathize might be asking the wrong question.

      Maybe the better question for you to ponder is: is it possible that there is more than one way to truly feel empathy for someone else? Is it possible that your expectation of “what empathy is” is perhaps limited from your perspective, and maybe you’re not quite connecting with the idea that there are other ways? Might it be that your disappointment in having a relationship with an autie stems more from your expectations than from who they were? If an autie masked with you for so long that you ultimately felt betrayed by their revelation that they were “faking it,” (and I’ve heard that complaint before) consider that they might never have felt safe enough with you to let that mask down, that they felt that if you saw the “real them,” you’d reject them – and they loved you so much that they didn’t want to lose you.

      You can love someone with all your heart and still now know how to love them. And, no, I’m not talking about the autie.

      And one more thought before I head off to bed, I want to make one thing really, really clear: Auties generally do not have problems with relationships. We have problems with relationships with people who don’t let us be ourselves, or who insist that we act a certain way, but that should be true for anyone. Auties do best in relationships with other auties, as I’ve observed, because even if we don’t have the same “laundry list” of manifestations, we at least have sympathy and empathy for each other. None of us ever doubts that.

      • DD
        February 11, 2021
        Reply

        I gave my definition of empathy, clearly stating that it was my point of view (“To me, empathy, blah blah”), and I didn’t assume my point of view to be absolute, even though I think it’s quite on point as a definition. If there are other ways to experience and learn empathy, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear about, but my doubts persisted because your post is very vague about what these ways may be. Self-aggrandizement, or self-valorization if you prefer, is fine for one’s self-esteem, but it risks to become wishful thinking when it doesn’t develop into actual knowledge, tools and practices to make those supposed skills turn into positive outcomes.
        I’m sorry if you felt diminished by my initial joke, as I’m sorry for what happened to your relative, but I can assure you that if there’s one person that doesn’t need to be lectured about the many horrors of psychiatry, that’s me. I’m well aware of it and I hate that shit with a passion.
        I can’t withhold one thing, though: if I decided to comment your posts, it’s because I felt that my knowledge and comprehension of autistic people are lacking, and since it’s something that affected me personally, I was – I am – eager to fill that void, to make things right, at least in retrospect. In other words, I want to improve myself. In your latest reply, though, you just assumed a bunch of things about me and my relationship, without knowing anything about either. How can you talk about broad assumptions if you’re making them yourself?
        Fyi, I was clear about wanting to know her and loving her for who she was *since the very beginning*. I sincerely tried to listen, to understand, to reassure her about her fear of being judged, I asked her what I could do to make things work, but it’s no use doing all that when your efforts are met with utter silence, when the other person has already decided that, no matter what, it’s bound to fail anyway, you can’t possibly like her for who she is, and she won’t give you any chance even to get close to her. In fact, she regularly dodged the issue when it came to openly talk about her autism and what impact it had on her life, and I couldn’t possibly be asking about it constantly because I didn’t want to make it a looming, dominating presence in our relationship, and I was afraid of being obtrusive or make her uncomfortable. I always tried to accomodate her, to give her space, because I knew how much she needed that, but it came to a point where that meant giving up my basic needs for affection and reciprocity, and when I say “basic” I mean the absolute minimum, like my existence being acknowledged. And what’s even better, the more I did that, the more she would withdraw or push me away. Can you imagine how that feels? Are you empathetic enough to imagine the helplessness, the consuming feeling of rejection and unworthiness? All while you still love that person more than anything and you don’t have a clue of what’s going on? When everything you can do or be seems to be completely irrelevant?
        There isn’t one day when I don’t suffer because of it, or when I don’t feel guilty and ask myself if I did something wrong or unwillingly hurt her, but now, thanks to your insight, I know it’s been my fault all along. You know, when I previously mentioned judgement and bias regarding NTs/auties interactions, that’s exactly what I was talking about. It just happens to work both ways because, yes, I agree with you that auties are fully human, but you’ve got to take the whole package, which means they can perfectly suck as any other human being. Being different doesn’t make you inferior, but it doesn’t make you better either. Sorry (not sorry).
        I came here with an open mind, trying my best to get a honest discussion and possibly a better understanding, little did I know that I was only going to get salt rubbed in my wound. Well, thank you very much. Maybe that’s the autie way to empathy you were talking about. Good luck with that, then.

        • February 11, 2021
          Reply

          If you appreciate honesty as the “autie way,” then appreciate all of it, please. I was responding to your words, and I’m sorry if that was not exactly what you meant. I was literally asking the questions of “might it be this way” with the hope that you would examine and be able to legit say “Yes, maybe that was it,” or “No, I really tried hard to do XYZ.”

          I *do* fully sympathize with you as a someone who wanted to have a “blended relationship,” only to find it not work out. I’ve been in many of those, often with the same result of having needs not met, being unable to communicate fully, and being unable to satisfy my partners’ needs. I’ve even been in relationships with auties who were unable to bridge that gap.

          With the insight that you’ve given, I can give you this complete-stranger-on-the-internet assessment: It sounds like she herself was not prepared to understand her own autism, and/or had not received or pursued proper therapy to integrate it. There is a gap for many of us between the time we find out about our autism and when we figure out what it means. She might not have known *herself* how to handle being loved at all. As I said before, you can love someone with all your heart, and still not know *how* to love them. That’s enormously complicated if *they don’t know how to be loved.* And there are still yet times when they’re just not into the kind of relationship you want to have. (Auties generally do not subscribe to “traditional” sexuality or relationship standards.)

          (I literally teach a course on this, and you’ve be *amazed* how little the average person knows on the topic of how to negotiate and understand relationships, and also how to express love to each other, and then how to communicate that love… it’s not always simple stuff.)

          The “superpower” thing isn’t a statement of aggrandizement or superiority. Really look at all of the superheroes (DC or Marvel or Dark Horse, I’m not picky). They’re fucking broken, and not in the OP (over-powered) kind of way. They’re not normal people and they don’t fit into society like “they should.” Cyclops can’t be around anyone without that hair banana over his eyes. Rogue potentially kills everyone that she touches. Even the Flash (Barry Allen, of course) has an impossible time reconciling his powers with his ability to cope with the world at large. They might be afraid of hurting people, or they might be afraid of what they see in the world that no one else does.

          Using “superpowers” as our tagline (as many of us do) is a way to acknowledge that there are often many parts of us that will probably never be “okay” compared to the average bear, but we can enjoy the parts of us that are pretty fucking cool anyway. ADHDers will spot everything wrong in a house that an NT inspector misses. Auties can hear things through the din of a crowd that no one else would catch because some of us hear everything at the same time. We can remember things in a different context, and we see things from a different direction, which is one of the reasons for the “name-dropping list,” as evidence both that we have value, and that we don’t have to hide anymore.

          And it’s not just “hey, psychiatry treats us like shit.” They literally fucking killed us for centuries, well into the 20th.

          I honestly do not mean to run salt in your wound, but it seems that what you’re expecting is sympathy, not empathy. Sympathy is, to be fair, something auties *do* have a hard time with because… well, it just doesn’t make sense usually. People seem to want to hear, “oh, you poor thing,” and “that’s just awful,” and “oh, totally, that bitch!” That’s kind of “wasted cycles” because when we see someone in distress, we want to *fix it*.

          I saw that you clearly were dealing with a person who was not letting their masks down and additionally not letting you behind their Glass Wall (the inside world that auties have, where the word “autistic” originally comes from). I wanted to find more about it and asked questions according to the most common contributors to this type of scenario. They are not *comfortable* questions, no doubt, but the situation itself is not comfortable. It hurts, it sucks, and sometimes it’s not resolvable. That’s not your fault, and it’s not their fault, because either assumption puts someone in the Bad Guy Chair – also something that a lot of auties don’t understand.

          I’m not trying to be an asshole, even though it probably feels like it. If you truly want to understand why your autie won’t or wouldn’t open up, you need to be willing to have a really serious and – yes – potentially uncomfortable conversation about it. And I don’t mind having it. I don’t think *you’re* being an asshole, either, I think you’re in a lot of pain and confusion and trying to figure things out.

          • DD
            February 11, 2021

            I’m not too familiar with superheroes, but I can see where you’re coming from now that you’ve given some examples. My autie had one those gifts, none of those stereotypical, silly “Rain Man” gimmicks, but it was a quality of hers that could make me feel in awe. As long as things were fine, she could be just the most amazing person, in her own unique way.
            When I mentioned the horrors of psychiatry, I was referring to many things, such as asylums, electroshock, lobotomy, restraining, heavy medication, occasional manslaughter, etc. I researched a few of those things, and they’re still happening in some parts of the world, sometimes even in so-called civilized countries. It’s something that didn’t use to affect just autistic people, but also people with mental disorders (I’m not saying that autism is a mental disorder, but doctors connected it to schizophrenia and psychopatology when they began to study it, or to hysteria, as you suggested; I believe it was just an easy diagnosis for something they didn’t fully grasp, a diagnosis that unfortunately ruined many lives). I think that all this oppression, this stigma, as well as your comparison to superheroes, can be applied to anyone who could be considered an outcast, someone who happens to perceive the world in a different way, whether in a more literal, sensorial sense, or because of a different sensitivity. In your preschool taxonomy, I would have been the silent child who’s off by himself. Once, out of curiosity, I took an online neurodivergence test, and in my results there was this big spike of neurodiversity in the ‘relationships’ field. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, if it even means something, and I’m not trying to pass off as autistic, but what I’m trying to say is that there are many people, even among NTs, that don’t fit in, that never really felt “normal”, and maybe that’s one reason why people like me are drawn to people like you (I don’t mean “you” personally, of course, lol). Being on the freaky side of humanity is not enough to bridge the gap, though, I get that. I also agree that most people are emotionally illiterate. I think that many issues concerning NT/aspie relationships are the same that affects NT/NT relationships, they just become kind of extreme when autism is involved, because of the cognitive differences.
            However, I’m sort of getting carried away by thoughts. The main point is this: I don’t mind facing uncomfortable truths or taking responsibility if that’s what it takes to make sense of it all and become a better person, that’s something I’ve never tried to back out of my life. I appreciate honesty and I’m not looking for sympathy, I just didn’t want to feel judged for something I’ve always tried to avoid with all my strenght. I have made mistakes, but I did also because I was left in the dark, trying to figure out things on my own. I even discovered what some of these things are when it was too late (one of these is precisely masking, you can imagine the kind of shock and doubts a discovery like this can elicit),
            I appreciate your willingness to discuss, but I don’t really feel comfortable about going into detail about my relationship on the internet. It’s very personal and I’m not the only person involved, so it doesn’t feels right. If I said something more specific about it, it’s just because I felt the need to defend myself, probable more than it was necessary. You did get a few things right in your assessment, though. You’re also right about me being in pain and confusion. It’s funny… the glass wall metaphor you used is exactly the same I came up with some time ago. If I had to pick one question and get an answer for it, I would want to know what’s behind her glass wall. But I guess all the scientific research in the world would never be able to answer that question, would it? We’re all living behind our own glass walls after all, and I believe there’s a reason if we can never completely get to the other side, it’s something we should even respect. With autism, though, what you see on the surface, from this side of the wall, can be so confusing and apparently incoherent that it leaves you completely oblivious of what’s happening so close to you, yet so far away.
            There were other circumstances that hindered our relationship, she must have weighed up pros and cons and decided it wasn’t worth it, and after she had made her decision I didn’t stand a chance. You people are so damn logical and practical, not everything that feels good must make sense, you know? Like sympathy. As for me, I’m too emotional, just like my comments. I also don’t think you’re an asshole. Thanks for replying again, it did help in some way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.