I recently posted a meme about autistic masking which proved very popular so I thought I should unpack some of my thoughts on the topic in blog form. Masking is a very common experience for autistics. It is when we mimic the actions and mannerisms of neurotypical / allistic p[people in order to be accepted. It is not a good thing but many of us do it as a survival mechanism.
I used to mask a lot. When I was at school I was visibly and obviously different. My interests were not the same as those as my peers. While they were seeking out relationships and first kisses I was fascinated with American president Ronald Reagan and the cold war! I was top of the year every year despite never once studying for an exam. I was honest and awkward and brilliant. Needless to say I was subject to a lot of bullying. I knew I was different and that I was hated for it but I had no idea how to be like my allistic peers. I tried all sorts of strategies to appear more ‘normal’ but none of them worked. I hated school but more to the point I hated myself and my weirdness.
I left home at 17 and moved to Melbourne. By the time I finished school I was a very passionate Trotskyist, attending protests and selling socialist newspapers every weekend. Through the socialists I met an older man who was very dangerous and scary. We started a relationship. I was naive and it took me a long time to figure out that my new partner was bad news. By the time I figured this out I was in too deep. I resigned myself to a life as his partner. This didn’t happen as we were both arrested for a crime we committed. We both went to prison and this is where I learned to mask.
When I arrived in prison I realised it was just like high school – same dynamic only the bullies in jail would kill you rather than knock your school folder out of your hands. Remembering how different I was in school and how that caused me a lot of grief I set about learning the rules in jail. I became very adept at this and soon had everyone – and myself – convinced that I was a scary criminal and drug addict. I was successful at masking – very much so. I continued being a criminal for some years, fitting in with my peers like never before.
When I was 25 I realised that I wanted a different life. Drugs and crime was a pretty desperate life and I wanted something nicer. I had a lot of guilt and shame about the things I had done in the past few years and felt like I was a terrible person. I also realised I had lost any sense of who I was due to all my masking. What should I do? What I did was decide upon what kind of person I wanted to be and go about creating that. I observed what I thought were good qualities in others and set about learning how to do them. I had an unparalleled opportunity to be a decent person and put my dodgy past firmly behind me. I consciously stopped acting to fit in and instead tried to be my new, more positive self. I wanted to be a person who didn’t have to act in order to fit in. I wanted to stand up proudly as my true self.
I now am almost 100 per cent masking free. An autistic friend recently told me I probably don’t get burned out because I am not spending my energy on masking. She was right. Masking is exhausting! It can also be seen as the opposite and the enemy of autistic pride. When we value and like ourselves and have a sense of pride we are less likely to mask. I wish we didn’t need to mask. I wish we as autistic people were all proud to be who we are and that the world valued and respected us as is, without any masking or camouflage.
A couple of years ago there was a social media campaign called #take the mask off. This was great but a few people pointed out that it is actually very difficult to just decide to take the mask off. It isn’t really something you can just decide to do and then make it happen. We mask for real, material reasons. We mask because we live in a world that doesn’t value, like or respect us a lot of the time. Masking is not a flaw – it is a response to a hostile world. To really be able to take the mask off we need to change the world. Advocacy and activism are ways to help autistics take the mask off. It should not just be down to individual autistic people to do it! Taking the mask off requires a movement and a fair degree of changing the world.
I am delighted that I was able to take my mask off as it has been life changing. I hope things change so we can all take the mask off as we are so beautiful and amazing as our autistic selves, just as we are, no need for masks.
And I should note that I am not talking about the use of masks to address COVID19 – if you are able to, definitely wear one of those when you go out!