There’s this narrative around masking––in my head, if not in yours. Here’s how it goes:
If an autistic adult seems neurotypical while socializing, they’re not being authentic. They’re using analytically-learned techniques to mimic neurotypical eye contact and mannerisms. They’ll suffer later from the strain of acting neurotypical for too long. AFAB people are diagnosed less often as children not because we didn’t matter very much to the adults around us, but because we supposedly learned to mask at a young age.l
I can start panicking when I hear these narratives. My brain already seems impossible or alienating to neurotypical people. Where do I fit in if other autistic people feel the same way?
What masking is like for me now
I do mask. Changing how I sit so I can swing my leg instead of rocking, mouthing involuntary words I’d say out loud if no one was around. I’m often on auto-pilot in casual, functional conversations. I give the person at the grocery store scripted answers (but so does almost every neurotypical).
When a distant acquaintance I’ll never see again says something so excessively neurotypical, I respond by badly mimicking another excessively neurotypical person’s social flair. When I’m in group hangs, my brain is sometimes so overloaded that my language not only doesn’t match anything I believe in, it frequently doesn’t even make sense.
But I’m not masking when I make eye contact. I actually want to socialize for hours on end. I don’t have to do any mental calculations to understand body language, non-literal speech, or facial expressions.
I’m not even capable of thinking analytically if I’m in a situation that exceeds my sensory and emotional capacity. Some autistic people describe learning to imitate neurotypical behaviors through a type of reverse-engineering process. I can’t imagine being as observant and mentally-alert in challenging social settings as them.
Growing up maskless
Autistic people don’t have the same strengths and weaknesses. While we all have a history (and usually a present) of some sort of difficulty communicating with neurotypical people, what that difficulty is varies widely.
I matched the idea of a “passive” subtype of autism growing up––a child who just… didn’t initiate social contact. I wanted to interact and have friends so badly! But for reasons I can’t describe, it never occurred to me to do so as a child.
Once I reached my teens, I became self-aware enough to know that I could cure my loneliness by starting conversations––theoretically. Instead, I developed intermittent mutism and chronic catatonia.
While my communication challenges have been debilitating, they’re not amenable to any sort of extensive masking efforts. If I can talk freely, I don’t have anything to mask. If I can’t control what I say, I’m either silent or operating a very rudimentary form of masking not based in conscious thought.
The interactions will be brief, lack depth, and likely mark me as neurodivergent far more than authentic, intentional communication ever does. Since my early 20s, I have regularly been in social settings where I can be myself without masking, and in those I’m usually neurotypical-passing.
There are ways that I think and act “more neurotypical” now than I could have in my late teens, even only looking at times when I could communicate freely and authentically. Maybe that’s just part of my unique neurotype and how my brain was destined to develop. But I suspect a lot of it is due to experience.
When I was young and very isolated, I did not have opportunities to learn how and why other people thought what they did. In my 20s, I had enough interactions with neurotypical people for my thinking and behavior to naturally converge toward theirs. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable or forced to me.
Not needing to mask
For the most part, it doesn’t matter that some of the extremes of neurotypical social style remain beyond my grasp. Think of the sports-loving man who saunters into work, slaps someone on the back, and says something incomprehensible in booming, macho slang.
More people than just autistics find that kind of behavior obnoxious. At least for me, it’s been easy to find settings where gratuitous performances of excess neurotypicality are not the norm.
In the phases of my life as a tech professional, full-time activist, and returning student studying science, I haven’t needed to be more fluent in neurotypicality than I naturally am.
If I seem out of my element, I can always turn the conversation to something more on-task. As for making friends: I’m a queer leftist in a metro area of two million. I haven’t found any shortage of friends who eschew unhelpful social norms and want to have the same long conversations that I do.
The more-universal mask
In some contexts––at work, around friends who clearly don’t get it––I mask in the way that neurotypical people, too, might wear a mask. I don’t talk about certain aspects of my past, might not share that I’m autistic, leave out things that are going on in my life or things that are on my mind.
This isn’t the healthiest way to live, but it isn’t stressful in a specific way that wouldn’t also apply to someone else with a disability or stigmatized status.
As a transgender person and a rape and abuse survivor, I know this kind of masking all too well from other angles. It’s both a psychologically-damaging effect of internalized oppression and a necessary part of healthy boundaries in this non-ideal world.
Hiding from fellow autistics
Unfortunately, I can also mask in this sense around other autistic people. It’s painful to hear people state certain aspects of autistic experience as universal when they’re opposite from what I experience. For instance, I like small talk. It took me a year of working full-time after graduating college to finally be able to just chat around the water cooler. I still appreciate that release from the mutism that kept me from social contact I craved for so long.
Often, I lack traits that fit the stereotype of an adult autistic. For example, I just tested above three-quarters of neurotypicals on a measure of identifying neurotypical expressions in photos cropped to just the eyes. I’m expressive myself, when I’m not in some phase of shutdown, and that’s natural, not feigned.
Imagining looking into someone’s eyes calms me down when I’m freaking out over a text or email where I can’t read the emotional tone like I could in person.
My increasingly neurotypical-passing social style has evolved through my twenties alongside a reduction in issues with sensory processing and other autistic challenges––though autistic traits and challenges are still very present in my life.
All of these things can feel like a barrier between me and other autistic people who “should” get me. Sometimes I stay silent rather than share my differences.
I have never forgotten the time another autistic person told me I was “a border case” instead of actually autistic. Yet the more I read autistic adults’ writings, the more I suspect most would easily relate to how different we all are.
You can’t know without asking
I am writing this to carve out space for myself in the socially-constructed version of the world. I don’t exist if I’m autistic and all autistic people who act the way I’m acting are masking. The hollowed-out mask would be all that is left, a phantom vision of me as the stereotypical autist floating behind it.
Many of you are likely autistic and find that the masking narrative speaks to your experience. I just ask that when you talk about it, remember even some of the time to throw in a qualifier that it is not every autistic person’s story.
If you are not autistic and you are thinking about someone who is––actually, even if you are, too––don’t assume their social persona is a strenuous or inauthentic mask. Check in and see if they need a break or would rather interact in a different way. The answer may surprise you, in any of the unlimited ways it could.