Hello Folks. I decided that today is a fine day to talk about masking. It’s a term I have used reasonably often, but have perhaps given less explanation as to what it is than it warrants. Put simply, masking is the act of changing your natural behaviour to try and fit societal norms. This may involve putting on certain facial expressions, adding intonation to your voice, supressing stimming, etc. If you think of masking as intensive acting, when you aren’t entirely sure of the role you are trying to play, you might be able to understand why it is so tiring.
Masking is a complicated issue, not least because for the vast majority of people, it isn’t something they ever have to think about. I’ve been masking for as long as I can remember: way before I ever even knew why I was doing it. When I switched from primary school to secondary school, I knew that my natural behaviour was not the same as my peers. I decided that I would teach myself how to be like other people. I practised eye contact in the mirror, studied non-verbal language, learnt different theories about why some people are friends and others aren’t, and more. I was 11-years-old. That was way to young for me to be worrying about that. But as far as I could tell, everyone else knew how to do it instinctively, and so I decided that I would just learn it so that they wouldn’t ‘catch me out’. I have a strong memory of testing out my story-telling skills on one of my friends by recounting a time when a person in the shop was buying 5 watermelons. There was very little point to the story, except that I thought it was quite an unusual amount of melon, but when my friend said it was a boring story, I took that to mean I had failed my test of learning to be interesting. I therefore resolved to work harder.
For me, masking is mostly focused around adding facial expressions and intonation when I otherwise would lack it. Occasionally I will be talking to my friends and they will ask if I am okay mid-conversation, and I realise I just forgot to put an expression on my face. When I am not masking —or indeed when I’m unable to— it’s instantly obvious, as my voice is much flatter, my expressions are perhaps more unusual, and I tend to rock in place or move my limbs in way which I otherwise wouldn’t. I am aware that this often ‘freaks people out’, and so I don’t make a habit of doing it in company. Furthermore, I also struggle to stop masking in front of other people as it makes me feel vulnerable and open to potential exploitation. As a consequence, most people I know have only ever seen me stop masking when I am in overload or having a meltdown. This then feeds into a vicious circle, as they associate me being in that state with me struggling or being in pain. However, the vast majority of the time when I am alone, I’m not masking. It’s easier for me to leave off expressions and stim openly. Something I want to work on doing is relaxing my mask around those that I trust, letting them see how I naturally behave so that they can understand how I prefer to live in the world.
A question I get asked about masking is whether or not I laugh when I’m not masking. The answer is: Yes! I still smile and laugh and talk and gesture, it’s just generally less overt. And in between laughing, I might lose my expression rather than having a half-smile on my face. One of the most interesting things I have ever been told about my masking was that the person “never understood what it meant to be blank-faced until [they] saw [me] not masking.” I completely understand. I don’t look sad or angry or happy. I just have no expression. My face is completely neutral.
There are other issues associated with masking though, aside from it being tiring. It’s much harder to concentrate on other tasks when a portion of your mind is focusing on maintaining certain behaviours. For example, if I am doing a piece of Maths coursework, I’m very rarely masking. I need all the concentration I can get, because my lecturers have an annoying habit of setting problems that I can’t immediately solve… Almost as if they are trying to test me and stretch my mathematical skills.
Burnout is also a very real issue within the autistic community. Constantly masking means expending extra energy to those around you, just by existing. Stopping yourself from stimming also means it is harder to self-soothe, and so managing anxiety and overload is more difficult. Constantly having to do this day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year takes it’s toll on a person. Autistic people often eventually run out of steam and get burnt out. This does not mean we spontaneously catch fire (that is a different type of burnout), rather it means we no longer have the energy to function in the way that we previously were. It contributes to various mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD etc. Even without reaching burnout stage, rates of mental health problems are extremely high within the autistic community. Emotional dysregulation is also a huge problem for autists, perhaps as part of the condition itself, but also because learning to supress your feelings and actions from a young age means you never get the chance to practise letting them out healthily and understanding what they feel like and how to manage them.
Constantly having to modify your behaviour also means the autistic person themselves may lose their own sense of identity. It can get tricky to work out what is genuinely you and what has just become a habit in the past few years because you felt like you should. Authenticity can be a struggle, as hiding who you are and how you act for long periods of time can lead to feelings that those you love don’t know “the real you”, however cliché that sounds. Fears of slipping up and other people seeing you without your mask can also be anxiety inducing. Not masking in front of people is about as scary to me as walking around in only my underwear. Okay for some people, but terrifying for others.
There is also the pressure of having to maintain your mask in difficult social settings. Large crowds of people usually come with larger amounts of sensory input. This requires more energy to be expended on masking, thus meaning I am unable to maintain it for as long. However, slipping up in this situation can be quite terrifying, as there are more people around who will see. Add in any effects of alcohol or drugs, the people may not react in the way that you would otherwise wish them to. All of this can start to induce a very real fear of being around others. It’s therefore not surprising that so many autistic people end up with some degree of social anxiety. Worries about losing friends if they see you not masking —perhaps because they may find your behaviour confusing, and thus lash out at you— are also problems.
Now we’ve got an understanding of what masking is, I want to look at why we do it. If it is so tiring, what’s the point? I’ve just listed lots of reasons why it can be so horrible and draining. “Why do we do it?” is therefore a very reasonable question to ask.
The first reason is that masking can make you less of a target for abuse and/or bullying. We’re all familiar with the people in school who would make fun of the disabled kids, and as horrible as it sounds, masking the more ‘obvious’ parts of your disability means you are less likely to come under attack. In a way, masking gives you ‘able-passing privilege’. It means it is not immediately obvious that you are disabled, and while identity-erasure is not exactly great, if it keeps you out of harms way then it is still preferable.
In a similar vein, masking can give you access to privileges as people are more likely to take you seriously. In my personal experience, masking means people are more likely to talk directly to me rather than the person I am with, more likely to take me seriously when I give an opinion, and more likely to talk to me in the first place rather than avoiding me. And as much as I dislike calling these things privileges, it’s my lived experience that not masking (and so seeming “weird”) means I do not get treated in the same way as I do when masking.
Unless they have experiences with autistic people, most neurotypical people are more comfortable and at ease when they recognise your behaviour as similar to that of their own. It’s understandable of course, as unusual behaviour can be alarming, such as the man on the bus who kept yelling at people and then dropped a bag of needles on the floor. I found that quite scary, especially as the needles started rolling around on the floor as the bus moved. (For all it’s charm and antiquated buildings, London can be a very terrifying place. This even happened in the suburbs.) So seeing a person repeating words to themself (echolalia), making repeated motions (stimming), and with unfamiliar facial movements, would be confusing and potentially scary. That being said, there is still no excuse to treat people as lesser or to assume incompetency. When the man on the bus asked me if I knew where to get coke, I politely told him “no, sorry”, and got off the bus at the next stop… along with all the other female passengers.
Employment chances are also higher for autistic people who are able to successfully ‘blend in’ with their colleagues. Under the UK Equalities Act 2010, it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against a person based on disability. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t. In addition, there are circumstances in which employers are legally allowed to ask about your disability. One example (taken verbatim from the UK government’s website) is:
“to help decide if the interviewers need to make reasonable adjustments for you in a selection process”
This means that employers can find out whether you are disabled under the guise of deciding on “reasonable adjustments”. And then guess what! They can turn you down by making up some other arbitrary reason, rather than potentially having to deal with making adjustments or having a disabled employee. And so masking during interviews can help to ‘disguise’ the fact you are autistic, thus decreasing the likelihood of the question being asked. Although, that’s if you even make it to interviews, as another legal reason for asking candidates to disclose disabilities is:
“to help find out if you can take part in an interview”
So they can ask before you even get there.
The last reason I can think of, as to why people mask, is that sometimes you just want to. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I actually find it quite difficult to stop masking, as it makes me feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. I get nervous about what other people will think, even though I trust my friends enough that logically I know they would be okay with it (although still probably quite wary). Not masking isn’t a source of embarrassment for me, but I have spent 21 years doing so without any (intentional) breaks. Letting that go isn’t something I am comfortable doing. People only see me not mask when I lose the ability to. This might be during a meltdown, during sensory overload, or sometimes when experiencing really strong emotions. For me, masking has become a necessity. As much as I appreciate people saying “you don’t have to mask around me”, it’s not something I can stop doing whenever I want to.
And so, yes. Masking is a complicated topic. There are more influences I could have talked about, internalised ableism being one of them, but this post has covered the basics. There is also an unfortunate irony, whereby the more autistic people mask to try and be accepted into society, the harder it is to cope, leading to a burnout. But then after a burnout, if we then don’t mask, we are told that we are “making it up” or “not trying” because people assume that our natural behaviour is that which they saw previously, a.k.a. masking. And so masking is both necessary to live independently, but also feeds into the system of its own oppression. There isn’t really any way to win. To mask or not to mask is not really the question. That decision was never ours. 11-year-old me knew it just as well as 21-year-old me does.