Don’t assume I’m masking

Autistic woman looking left out but wanting to interact with peers

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.

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4 Responses

  1. This is actually really relatable to me. I’m visually impaired and can’t physically see facial expressions, so I can’t mimic people, even if I wanted to. I can see expressions a bit better post several surgeries, but it still isn’t perfect, and I still feel no inclination to deliberate mimicry. I spent my childhood being very passive and sometimes aloof, but because I’m AFAB, this git attributed to me being shy, quiet, reserved, etc. Because I could respond to social overtures “appropriately”—I.e., like an NT—no one really noticed that I never initiated them myself, or if I did, I did so upon the suggestion of an adult. I didn’t know how to approach other people. I was just as comfortable alone as I was in a crowd. Actually, I only liked crowds when I could tune out the conversations and daydream but still be surrounded physically by other people. As a child, that was acceptable. As a teenager, it wasn’t, and I’m still sitting of confused as to why that is. Anyway, thank you for writing this.

    1. Well, there doesn’t seem to be an edit button, so, oh dear. That should say this GOT attributed to. I’m not sure why my tablet decided git is a word, let alone the one I meant, but here we are. So sorry! Oh, right, because git is English slang. Well, regardless, got is the word I meant.

  2. Thanks for pointing out something that has been rather frustrating to see all the time: assumptions. It’s great for the community to know of as many points of view as possible instead of holding one or two as a rule for everyone, and that’s something I don’t see just in the autistic community, but in many other marginalized groups.

    But there’s something else going on: One could say “please, take this with a grain of salt because this is just my experience and this is something that may or may not help fellow autistics” and one’s not just taken as a singled-out example, but then consequently accused of speaking for the rest anyway. One can’t win anyway.

    On masking, I personally define it as a behavior made with the purpose of hiding traits against one’s own current – therefore not something just limited to so-called NT-passing people. If it’s congruent with your natural way of doing things then it’s not masking, it’s simply adapting or code-switching. Of course this is just my view and a fallible one.
    But with this in mind, I fully agree with you that specific behaviors don’t constitute masking by themselves (like eye contact or small talk) and it’s a dangerous assumption to do, if one starts thinking of how it’s going to reflect in diagnostic criteria, among other high-stake situations. It’s infuriating to see how some seem to take the meaning of masking from a performance angle instead of its inner workings.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Thanks, that’s an interesting post for me as I have similar experiences – I think it might not be insignificant that I’m also a science graduate with a semi-science job and currently living in Europe’s queer leftist capital, socialising largely with completely unconventional queers. I’ve found some circles where explicit and honest communication is valued over adherence to conventions. And … I’ve obviously moved here for a reason! (because more convention-loving places were problematic in various ways; but I can’t tell if this was because of autistic traits, or because of being queer and trans, or because of being multicultural and not fully “local” anywhere – frankly the trans thing was one of the main reasons to try different environments.)

    My ability to communicate and relate got better over time, but I wonder if that’s mostly because I found people who like, as stated above, direct and explicit communication that doesn’t rely on codes you have to know in advance. I’ve also (before I even knew what autism is) managed to surround myself with many folks who appear to be on the spectrum (whether they know/ care or not), I guess being drawn to each other by similar preferences.

    This has sometimes led me to wonder if I’m a “borderline case”. Which for me wouldn’t be a big deal because I don’t have a huge emotional investment in labelling myself some way or other – I’m already between cultures and genders, frankly I couldn’t care less if I were also between neurotypes (as I’m not getting anything for it anyways).

    My relationship to passing and masking is correspondingly complex. I pass for some things I don’t want to pass for. I’m not sure I pass for NT, as several folks directly asked me if I’m on the spectrum (which is how I found out).

    I never attempted to “mask” in a conscious way of trying to appear “normal”, because I was already from another country and queer (no chance) – plus my family didn’t even encourage my being like my peers. “Normal” didn’t seem desirable to me in the first place (and frankly it still really doesn’t – what is it even?). It never occurred to me to try to be that.

    But sure I had a great desire for communication and connection and collaboration, which was heavily frustrated especially in my youth, and in my 20s and until now into my 30s. However, what I did to somewhat improve the situation was more focussed on learning to connect to myself (what I feel, think, want, need, get a better grasp of who I actually am) and noticing this real time, connecting this to what others might need, learning to express directly (using some studied approaches like NVC etc., but I hope it’s less scripted by now). It was also observing how other people communicate their needs and get them met, sometimes even asking them, emulating them – but not to copy them to seem “normal” but more in the spirit of trying out new tools that might get me new places.

    When I first read about “masking”, I wondered if this process is masking – but even though it took/ takes energy, time, reflection and attention, I’d rather call it just “learning” or “personal development” or sth. I think the point another commentator made above is good, that “masking” for me implies that I’m trying to not be myself or to be someone else – but my concept is that by trying new communication tools and styles I’m trying to get my inner self across better (to both NT and ND people).

    When I read about masking, I realised I *do* suppress quite a lot of movements, funny faces and random sounds (mostly because I was casually told in early childhood that doing some face looks “retarded” etc., unfortunately), and I actually loosened up on this, which helped my well-being (muscle tensions etc.). I have 1-2 people around whom I do the full movement repertoire (unfortunately my family of origin is not included).

    I used to go to various dance and movement classes to find a socially acceptable outlet for some of this – where people would find me exceptionally, though weirdly, expressive; while in normal life, they’d complain that I don’t show emotion / am inexpressive. I guess that was because on a physical level I was frozen up by masking (internalised that my natural expression would get shut down), but in a completely unconscious way.

    I guess I’m still working out this whole thing around authenticity / masking / “true self”.

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