Autistic masking is why I have no friends

At a very young age, I learned a hard lesson, one I’m still working to overcome. I learned that if I wanted people to like me, want to spend time with me, and be my friend, I had to completely hide my interests and who I truly was as a person.

It was in grade school that I began to figure out that people were off put by my behaviors, by how loud I can be, or how much energy I had. Talking about my interests freely and intensely got me labeled a freak, weird, etc.

I was trying to connect by sharing my interests, to talk about things that made me happy and that I was passionate about. Whether it was my favorite book that I’ve read countless times or a TV show I wanted to reenact to show you just how hilarious that certain scene was, my way of relating was “too much.”

It’s how I communicate, and it’s how I’ve communicated since I was a young child. But yet, the world taught me that I should be ashamed of that. It’s freaky and weird to act like characters on the screen. My way of communicating my interests were weird.

That is what society and my fellow peers taught me. People made it expressly clear that acting things out as a form of communication is weird and off putting for others.

It wasn’t until maybe my second year of middle school that I put the pieces together and realized why I had no friends. It’s because I was myself. And if I wanted people to like me or want to talk to me, I had to “tone myself down” and act like everyone else to fit in.

And it did traumatize me.

I still do it today. There are things I need to do to make myself comfortable that I ignore to make others more comfortable being around me. To not upset people. To be “polite.”

I hate making direct eye contact with others. It can be physically painful to look into a stranger’s eyes, yet I do it because it’s the “socially acceptable” thing to do.

Sometimes I need to yell, make sounds, or let my arms and legs go wild to get rid of an overwhelming energy in my body, but I can’t because I’m in public or around family, and it would be “weird” if I did. So I let that energy build until I’m exhausted physically and emotionally.

Loud sounds in general are painful to hear, and if too many sounds happen at once, it’s like someone is sticking ice pics in my ears and hammering away at my brain. I just want to scream, or cover my ears to make it stop, but doing so will get stares of judgement or laughter.

So now, I have learned to dissociate and leave the world for a while.

I have to dissociate from my authentic self to cope with the extreme stress my mind feels when I am overstimulated and unable to express it the way I need to.

Masking in general can be so deeply painful for me. Having to pretend constantly and censor your every word, action, movement of your body is so exhausting and agonizing. And yet, people wonder why I need time to recharge after a day of being around others.

Yet, despite this, masking has become my normal.

I’m struggling to undo the habits I learned from my childhood. I have no friends, and I’m not sure if I have no friends by choice or if I’ve convinced myself no one would want to be my friend because I’m weird and “too much” sometimes.

I’ve masked for so long I have successfully fooled everyone into thinking I’m “normal,” even to the point trained psychologists don’t believe me when I say I’m autistic. I mean, “You make great eye contact and communicate so well!” I will never forget those words spoken by my previous therapist.

I functioned “normally” and behaved “normally” for her, so I must be fine, right? She never once considered that I was taught to mask my behaviors and mannerisms since I was a child. Despite being in a setting where I’m suppose to be my full, authentic self, I still can’t break down those walls and act like myself for fear of judgement.

Once I step into a doctor’s– or any professional’s– office, I enter into what I call “super polite mode,” where I follow a specific routine I made from my observations of neurotypicals to be “polite” in a professional setting. Make lots of eye contact, keep hands in lap, nod to show interest in what they are saying, and only speak when appropriate. It’s like a reel playing in my head, a formation of various behaviors I’ve learned and categorized for different situations.

It’s not really me.

It never was me.

And it never will be.

It’s so very damaging to have to pretend all the time. So very traumatizing.

My experiences led me to a discovery: neurotypicals aren’t too kind to those who don’t fit inside their bubble. If you aren’t a perfect cookie-cutter example of everyone else, society will ostracize you and label you a freak.

If you have weird behaviors and interests, you’re a spectacle to laugh at, another comedy bit for neurotypicals to mock their differences. It creates shame. People don’t realize just how cruel their words and actions can be.

Or maybe they do and just don’t care.

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16 Responses

  1. That bit, “neurotypicals aren’t too kind to those who don’t fit inside their bubble.” brings to mind a favorite lyric from a RUSH song of the 1980s, decades before I was finally and correctly diagnosed autistic, the line goes, “In the high school halls, in the shopping malls, conform or be cast out”, in their song ‘Subdivisions’.

  2. I love this. I have been the most invalidated and gaslit by therapists. I always recommend the book Unmasking Autism by Devon Price because it genuinely has changed the way I feel about myself and the world.

  3. We’ve come so far in many ways, and yet, when it gets right down to it, people often simply pay lip service to accepting others as they are. It’s an absolute shame. However, I think your honesty here is a step in the right direction. With every story told, more understanding finds its way into the world. I have a daughter that was just diagnosed. It was missed for a long time and they told me it is because girls are often better at masking than boys. I fear tolerance will wane as she gets older. That is why I applaud you for sharing. Bit by bit, story by story, you are creating a path that wasn’t there before, and I thank you from the bottom of this mother’s heart.

  4. Thanks very much, Faith. I like the term you use — “super polite mode”. Ironically, I find this mode actually very impolite at times, both when I am performing for others, and when others are performing for me. It’s like I get too caught up in the performing/pretending that I am not truly present with them, and I feel the same way when I sense they too are pretending and are just trying to be polite towards me.

  5. Hello Faith, I’m very sorry that you have been made to feel so uncomfortable about being yourself. I find it so ironic that society these days is dictating to the masses how we should all embrace the LBGTQ community, and how they’ve (the government) has invaded the education system with their societal views. In fact, the “push” and support has been so strong that many publicly traded brands out there (companies) have proudly shown their support by featuring the bright colors and or models in their advertising campaigns. It’s almost like ‘forcing’ a religion on someone or trying to persuade them to join an occult. Quite frankly, I don’t have anything against anyone! I’ve always treated everyone with respect and consideration and simply expect the same in return. After all, no matter what walk of life that you have come from it doesn’t cost anything to be “nice”. So what’s your excuse? So why are we being “told” to accept the LBGTQ community with open arms but individuals on the Autistic Spectrum are still being ostracized and labeled as “different” or “odd” or “weird” ?
    Faith, you aren’t the person with the issues it’s the people around you that have the real “issues”. Yes, I can understand that perhaps some of your interests might not necessarily intrigue someone else but that’s true of everyone. It’s about taking your interest and using it or advertising it as a positive instead of a negative. What I mean by this, is let’s say that you are just passionate about painting watercolors and that you spend all of your waking hours creating masterpieces. What you might do is to reach out to continuing education community to see if there is an art class of some sort that you could sign up to take. Maybe you could start out with watercolors and then try some of the other types of art classes that might spark your interest. If there isn’t a community group or classes, maybe there’s a class at your local community college. There might even be some sort of art class on the internet…perhaps a group of some sort. This would give you a chance to co-mingle with some other people that have the same interests that you do where you could converse perhaps even collaborate on some of your work. You might even have gained enough knowledge and skill to even teach or give lessons on the subject that interests you. These of course are just suggestions.
    Don’t stop being yourself Faith just because society has dictated that everyone should fit into a cookie-cutter mold. Years ago it was never like that, but the reason I believe that all of this is occurring (and we definitely see it in the public school system) is for the sake of dollars and cents. It’s cheaper and less of a drain on social services, department of education, health care services if everyone is the same whether they’re being forced there or not. And by the way, find yourself another therapist if they’re telling you that you don’t appear Autistic to them or if you are being made to feel uncomfortable by them. Going to seek mental health is suppose to assist you in feeling better and finding avenues to help you gain coping skills in navigating the world around you. The majority of these so called ‘mental health care people’ are not qualified enough, have not had training or experience with people that are on the Autistic Spectrum. Find a psychiatrist that has training and/or experience in that field not just someone that does general psychiatry.
    When you become overwhelmed (overstimulated) because of sensory overload, try escaping to somewhere quiet where you can be alone for a little while. Also, try including three (3) breaks into your daily routine where you may just sit and be alone for about 15 minutes or more. You may find this helpful in managing your overstimulation.

  6. Oh, and by the way Faith I understand when you are saying that you have to be in your super polite mode. But everyone should do this from time to time simply because a person should make an effort to be considerate of others. It’s like what goes on between a married couple when they are expecting their first child together. The husband doesn’t want to tell his wife the truth when she asks “how do I look, do I look okay?” He doesn’t want to hurt her feelings, perhaps make her cry and feel bad about her appearance, by telling her the truth….. well sweetheart, you resemble a packyderm! It is good and right to tell the truth in most instances but there is that “gray” area which is difficult to learn when you are living in a black & white world. Hope helpful.

  7. As a high-caliber autistic individual, I am able to personally attest that American society is still not that tolerant toward autistic individuals.

  8. I know Albert, you’re definitely correct about that. I am truly sorry that society has to be so cruel and uncompassionate towards other human beings. In fact, I haven’t really noticed much improvement in how society perceives or communicates with individuals on the Autistic Spectrum since my son was young. It was very challenging for my son growing up as he not only was diagnosed with Asperger’s but he has Dyslexia, a math disorder and he had speech delays and a disorder of written expression. I don’t even want to think about how far he wouldn’t have gotten if he had gone through the public school system! All the Federal funding that they receive for special services and the money is absolutely wasted! They view these children (in my personal opinion) as being less, being a bother to them, being stupid and they’re ignored. A friend of mine, who is a very highly trained special education teacher (she doesn’t teach anymore) was actually told in a public school to “keep her mouth closed” when she identified a child as being Dyslexic and requiring special services. That’s the reason she’s not teaching….. because she won’t keep her mouth shut!

  9. This makes perfect sense and I’ve lived through the exact same experiences my whole life, except the way people would treat you for being different sounds incredibly tame compared to some of the bullying and discrimination that I received for my “abnormal behaviours”. The nasty insults that people have said to me make the average Howard Stern radio episode seem honourific by comparison. I was subject to corporal punishment in school many times. Both peers and authority figures would often scream the most vicious insults right in my face at the top of their lungs. Worse yet, I’ve almost gotten arrested or stabbed to death because some crazy people misunderstood me even though I did nothing wrong. I’ve been sent away to institutions several times because no one wanted to try to understand me. Worse yet, the times I’ve called out these blatant human rights violations I’ve been dismissed as “just whining” and told to “just grow up, be a man and deal with it!”. Um, i hate to break it to you, but this is not your twisted fantasy world where autistic people can magically just start behaving perfectly neurotypical. Everything I’m saying now should concern even neurotypicals because humans of every background and way of thinking just naturally tend to fear anything unfamiliar or that they’re not used to, and too often people tend to react to new or unfamiliar events or behaviour with suspicion, anger, and even aggression and violence. I especially hate how no one who gets angry at me for my differences ever bothers to ask me questions and try to find out the truth about me and why I do the things i do, all because they’re cowards only concerned about being in control. It’s not like I can just explain my autism to a random stranger or someone i don’t know very well, because I’m afraid the person will get even angrier and more aggressive towards me. The least bad thing that could happen is I’ll (for the 99999999999th time) get accused of “using my autism as an excuse to misbehave and be a nuisance”, while the worst case scenario is I’ll get arrested and thrown in prison or a so-called mental hospital. The “attack first, ask questions never!” way of thinking is exactly why the USA where i live has by far the highest incarceration rate of any country in world history and is one of the last remaining countries on earth that still has a death penalty.

  10. It is deplorable how you (Ban all corporal punishment!) and others have been treated in our society today, especially in the school systems! School use to be a place where a child enjoyed going and where they could always count on a teacher as being sort of an “extended mother” or at least, “friend”. But it’s not like that anymore mostly because a lot of parents, years ago, started stepping up and complaining about their “angels” receiving punishments when in many instances, some of these angels were indeed guilty! My son use to get bullied and was a target for some of the children that enjoyed tantalizing other children. I was lucky in that the teachers who knew my son would look out for him and in certain instances, they would watch how certain children became known as “tantalizers” and particularly kept on eye on those kids. In this one scenario, the teacher watched this boy repeatedly kick my son’s chair under the table and she heard my son ask the boy more then once to “please, stop”. My son was quite patient, and he would be calm and reserved for some time before he would “act out” and retaliate. But, because this was a small school (K-8th grade, with about 220 kids total), Parochial, and with a nun as a principal and two nuns for the two first grade classes, it was a close knit community of families and educators that were involved with the fundraisers going on at the time and all pretty much knew each other, they were all very fair and knew each of the kids. I had to make adjustments with my job several times, altering my schedule and changing my hours to become more involved with my son during school hours, and I would NEVER have been able to have done this if I hadn’t developed such a professional rapport at my place of employment! But later on, as my son entered the higher grades at other schools I pretty much had to give up working a full time job. At two occasions, my son was put on “home-bound” instruction, and believe it or not it specifically says in the agreement with the resident board of education that the “….parent or legal guardian must be present when the tutor arrives to your home or location to provide instruction for the child….” so that means; no grandma, no grandpa, no babysitter, no other relative, etc…. so the one time he was already in the month of March and school was done in June when they placed him on homebound instruction. The second time (in another state) they placed him on homebound instruction it was in the beginning of the school year. So, since I couldn’t work anymore anyway, I made it my job to become so involved with the schools that he attended that they didn’t dare do anything that was “out of line.” The one school (again, this is a Catholic school) they tried to punish him for behavior which was “….considered a characteristic of his disability…” which is all clearly outlined in the ADA and chapter 504 as an absolute “no, no”. I also made it my business to clearly understand and practically had memorized the education laws as they pertained to disabled students. I was offered employment at one point with a law firm that advocated for disabled children in schools, but I had my hands full with what I was doing already. I only got the detentions for son eradicated with that one school because I physically remained at the school for the length of time during the day that he was there and I had an attorney in “my pocket”. Let me also point out that I had my son under the care of a psychiatrist and that he also saw a clinical neuropsychologist (who specialized in Autistic Spectrum disorders) on a recurring basis. The reason that I am providing so much background on all of this is that…. the laws were created for parents/advocates that pushed hard enough to get them enacted but they mean diddly-squat unless you (as a parent) have; 1. a lot of $, 2. are a minority 3. are a prominent member of your community 4. have political involvement in your community 5. Your an attorney 6. or you’re so much in their face all of the time that they’ve become intimidated by you as a parent and they can’t stand you anymore. Yes, I obviously for the most part was able to stay home to care for my son because my husband made enough money to support us but now I wasn’t working anymore so hiring attorneys to carry this thing on and on (& in the meantime, my son isn’t getting what he needs) was out of the question. I saw mountains moved for disabled children who were in one of the #6 points that I mentioned above. In one scenario, the school district approved paying half of an out-of-district placement ($40K year) for a child to attend a specialized boarding school (the parent was an attorney). Another instance I personally knew a child getting an out-of-district placement to a specialized day school ($30K year) in less then a month (parent was an attorney). The one child grew up and became a Heroine addict and the other child, I don’t know.

    All of these instances occurred 20+ years ago! Things have gotten worse, not better! Where I lived in NJ when my older son was young the psychologist that I took my older boy to asked if I would like his assistance in getting him in a specialized day school. Now that is around 30 years ago or more…. and I declined as my older son simply had ADHD with no learning disabilities. I felt that a Catholic school would be just fine for him. Society doesn’t really care about disabled people and some states are worse then others. I’m physically disabled now and worn out and in the northern states most people couldn’t care less whether or not I need some assistance. More then half of these buildings (VT/NH) don’t even have railings at public buildings, handicap parking that makes “sense”, or more then one mechanized carts at the grocery stores. We (the disabled) are the lowest man on the “totem pole”.

    1. Re: “We (the disabled) are the lowest man on the “totem pole”, of course we are when evolution is all about ‘survival of the fittest’ and we disabled are not the fittest.

  11. Arguably everyone even people who are neurotypical has a social mask that they wear during social interaction. I myself have by necessity gotten shall we say “comfortable” in my mask. Unfortunately I have a bad habit of slipping and talking too much. An off comment about a topic I’m completely desensitized to or talking to much about my fixation of the day is followed by an ever present amount of self loathing. I’ve had inner monologue that consisted of “shut up freak no one wants to hear about that,” and “what the hell is wrong with you normal people don’t act like that when talking about those things,” quite regularly.

  12. Aren, please don’t be so hard on yourself. There are no “normal” people. What is “normal’ anyway?? Normal is just a term that they (society) has affixed to a large group of people that just happen to comprise a majority. Let’s just take a moment to look at it in a different way….. I use to breed show cats at one time. I bred for top show quality as a professional cat fancier. In the litter of kittens (sometimes as large as 7 kittens) I would be lucky if I got 1 kitten that would be considered “top show quality” and would go on to become a Grand Champion someday. That 1 kitten was the prize. That 1 kitten would be considered the “cream of the crop” so to speak. The rest of the litter was the majority- the one’s that most breeders would consider, undesirable. Of course, I never felt that way about them at all. To me, they were all very beautiful, sweet natured and unique in themselves. I sold all of the rest to loving pet homes with neuter/spay agreements. People were so happy to get them and lots of them even won ribbons for their owners, just as pets.

    Individuals on the Autistic Spectrum are actually the “cream of the crop”. However, because they do not comprise the majority, and therefore don’t have as large of a voice, they are pushed down in society and made to feel less. It is perhaps, I have noted with my own son, that the majority sometimes feel threatened by the talents, abilities and higher intellects of these certain individuals. My son possessed gifted abilities in the area of technology from the time that he was quite young. He built a computer (from ground up) when he was nine years old. He was very interested in science, computers, engineering, microscopes, telescopes and anything related to these areas of interest and most his peers just simply weren’t. His classmates were mostly kind to him in his younger years because the Sister (nun) implemented a very strict rule in the school regarding criticizing others. It simply wouldn’t be tolerated. But children would become jealous of some of his accomplishments and the praise and attention that he would receive. Encouraging him to pursue his talents and interests helped him a lot in getting others to talk with him, although he never really made any real “friends” of his own age.

    Go out in the world and pursue your interests Aren and don’t be afraid to try. It doesn’t matter who you are, how rich you become, how well admired you may be, if you became famous and or a legend……. people will always have something to say, no matter what! So don’t worry about it….just be happy and enjoy life!

  13. FYI……
    Well know individuals on the Spectrum…… people that have followed their passions and developed their unique talents.

    Leonardo da Vinci – Artist
    Vincent van Gogh – Artist
    Steven Spielberg – Director
    Alfred Hitchcock – Director
    Thomas Edison – Inventor
    Alexander Graham Bell – Inventor
    Benjamin Franklin – Inventor
    Henry Ford – Inventor
    Ludwig van Beethoven – Musician
    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Musician
    Bob Dylan – Musician
    James Taylor – Singer-Songwriter & Guitarist
    John Denver – Singer-Songwriter & Record Producer
    Charles Darwin – Naturalist & Geologist
    Carl Jung – Psychiatrist & Psychotherapist
    Lionel Messi – Football Player
    Samuel Clemens – Writer
    George Orwell – Writer
    Jane Austen – Writer
    Charles M. Schulz – Cartoonist
    Albert Einstein- Genius
    Sir Isaac Newton- Mathematician, Physicist
    Thomas Jefferson-Author, Declaration of Independence
    Michelangelo- Artist
    Andy Warhol- Artist (Campbell Soup label)
    Anthony Hopkins- Actor
    Dan Aykroyd- Actor
    Elon Musk- Entrepreneur
    Charles Schwab- Entrepreneur
    Temple Grandin- Advocate for Autism
    and many, many more….

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