I’m very open about the fact that I’m autistic, especially online. It’s become a massive part of my identity as an adult, and that itself was a long, complicated journey. I appreciate how fortunate I am to say that as others may not be at that level of acceptance. At least not to that extent anyway.
What I want to talk about now however is when it’s not easy; when I’m overwhelmed by everything and can feel myself about to burst. Because embracing the fact that I’m autistic doesn’t dimish the fact that it can be difficult. If anything, there are more challenging times than there are not.
Autism masking or camouflaging relates to when a person hides their autistic traits in social situations. It’s known as a way of appearing “more normal” in society. I’m sure every autistic person reading that sentence rolled their eyes so hard, but it’s true.
Everyone at some stage will change the way they do something because they want to fit in: at school, work and even with family members. In the case of autistic masking, it doesn’t mean we’re trying to be someone different; we’re most likely overcompensating for not being like everyone else.
To give you some perspective, here are some of the ways I mask my autism in everyday life.
Copying Other People
I’m not saying that I cheat using somebody else’s answers in an exam or anything: I’m just mimicking them instead. I didn’t notice a pattern before, but recently I’ve realised that there are some occasions where I do it:
- If I hear a specific phrase from a TV show or movie, then I will keep quoting it to people in conversations. Either I enjoy repeating it, or I feel because it’s worked before that it will keep working.
- I will have a script in my head from previous conversations for when I meet new people. I use these at events or previously in job interviews as an attempt to appear more outgoing.
- When I’m trying something new, I will always want to watch someone do it first as I don’t like going in not knowing what to do. After that I’m happy to do it on my own, otherwise, it’s rare for me to volunteer before anyone else.
It might not seem that unusual, but you’ll be surprised how much energy it takes up each day, and why I find social situations draining.
Making Eye Contact
I would be perfectly happy to never make eye contact with people again.
The best way I can explain it is that it can feel like more of a strain. But because it’s not socially acceptable to not give eye contact, I have to force myself to do it. I’ll be having a conversation with someone, and I will have to keep checking that I’ve looked them in the eye, or at least somewhere on their face.
To this day I’m still unsure whether people notice my lack of eye contact, or if I’ve become that good at disguising it.
Is Autistic Masking a Good or Bad Thing?
That in itself is a problematic question because not every autistic person will mask their traits consciously. For those that do recognise it, there will be multiple reasons why the choose to do it. So the short answer is yes and no.
It’s disheartening that we, as a community, feel like we can’t be our authentic selves. We’re told as kids that we should be who we truly are and not worry about what people think; until they decide that whatever we’re doing doesn’t apply to that. Despite this, I know that in some cases they want to protect us and sometimes to fit in means we’re safe.
It doesn’t mean we’re trying to be someone different; we’re most likely overcompensating for not being like everyone else.
For those that may suggest that we stop masking: it’s not that simple. I may feel like I have to otherwise I may not be able to get my point across to people. I still want to connect with people and achieve my goals, me masking doesn’t change that.
I’m sure many autistic people, like myself, would rather not have to mask. It’s certainly why I need more downtime and tend to prefer my own company.
I would never encourage any autistic person to hide who they are. Because once you start masking parts of who you are, it becomes more difficult to go back each time.
I don’t particularly like the idea of it, but I understand it. I’m willing to adjust at a level that’s comfortable for me.
Portrait Photography by Kaye at Fordtography