the burden created by masking Hello Michelle Swan

The burden created by masking

I am autistic.  Everything about me is autistic. I do everything I do autistically. Over my 44 years I have learned, often quite deliberately, to do things in ways that you will interpret as “normal”. But, I am still autistic, even when you can’t tell I am by watching my behaviour. I am using a strategy called masking to blend in. I am passing as non-autistic. 

The masking that I do is for your comfort and for mine.

It is for your comfort, in that when I seem to be “normal” you aren’t scared of me, you don’t feel a need to find explanations for my behaviour, and you don’t feel a need to go out of your way to support me in anyway, or to have to do things to help me that you might find inconvenient.

It is for my comfort, in that when I do not inconvenience you, you treat me better- you speak to me kindly, you value my words more, you respect me. When you don’t know that I am autistic. You also expect more from me. You assume I am capable. I hear your conversations and comments in schools, sport clubs, and community settings. I am aware of you talking to each other about the “special” people. I know you have different expectations for us. I hear your jokes about Rainman. I see you keep seperate awards for the disabled. I notice you look sideways at the people you see as different from you.

So I have figured out how to be accepted by you. It is by not being myself when I am around you.

But it is a double edged sword. Because I am not the same as you. I am autistic. So even though I might be able to make myself appear to be like you for a while in most situations and contexts, there are some things I just cannot do, and some I can only do up to a certain point before my resources are stretched beyond capacity and I can’t mask my autisticness any longer.  I know what the social expectation is. I just can’t always meet it.

I feel upset about it. Embarrassed. Ashamed.

My internal self talk mimics your outward expressions, “you can do better”, “pull it together”, “come on Michelle, try harder”. Just like the knowledge that people want me to be a certain way, I take it on and internalise it. In the same way that almost everyone around me unintentionally taught me as a child that conformity is the goal, I reinforce to myself that I need to be what you expect.

And I push myself closer and closer to a meltdown or a shutdown, for your comfort. I do my best to hide away from you during these times. I stay home, in my bed, and I “rest”.

Sometimes, though, I push myself so hard that I get to a point where I can’t mask any longer, and I am not home yet, and you will see.

My behaviour will change from what you have come to expect from me. You will call me “angry“, “clumsy”, “antisocial“, “rude”, “awkward”, “aggressive”, or “weird”. If you bring it up with me I will sometimes just say “I am tired“. But I am simply being autistic in public. In a child it might look like a tantrum. In an autistic adult it often looks like a sudden withdrawal with no explanation. It often looks like unexplained tears that you assume are unjustified because you don’t see the reason for them. You might call them weakness. They are not. They are a sign of strength and determination. And even the tears are for your comfort. They are what happens when I know I have to shut down for my own health and safety, but I choose not to in order to do something you expect of me.

And later, when I am alone, I feel intense anger. At myself. For choosing you, again, over my own self care. Because my masking isn’t honest and it lacks integrity. It hides who I am. The benefit for me is short lived and fraught with complications. There is nothing wrong with me. Nor any real reason why I should change myself to conform with your standards of normality. It is a burden that I carry for you. And I wish I wouldn’t do it.

One thought on “The burden created by masking

  1. Hi Michelle,
    Thank you for writing this. As a adult of 46 years with a relatively recent diagnosis of Aspergers, 5 years ago, or Autism Spectrum Disorder as they call it now. It is amazing to read that what I feel so perfectly put in words by you.

    Again, Thank you.

    Bert Singels, The Netherlands

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