I feel compelled today to write a bit about masking. Not protective face masks, no, not those. We’ve all heard quite enough about those. But the protective masking of their emotions and behaviors people with autism feel like they have to do every day to get by in life.
I have recently been reading a book entitled I Overcame My Autism And All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder by Sarah Kurchak. In it, Sarah talks about her lifelong efforts to mask her emotions, feelings, and “stim”s. She got so “good” at this skill that people began to question whether she was actually autistic or not, but later in life, she struggled with confusion and finding out who she really was.
I acknowledge that the experiences of autistic women are much different than mine as an autistic male. Autistic women are conditioned in social graces at a very young age, and therefore sadly forced to mask more than their male counterparts, whose behaviors are often dismissed as “just boys being boys”. This also leads to them being underdiagnosed for autism because they are simply better at “hiding it.” But as someone who has experienced what it feels like to go through life always and eternally masking, I wanted to offer my thoughts. I have reached a place where I no longer even make an effort to mask most of the time, and at times, I wonder how I got here.
I don’t really have much memory, thankfully, of my childhood and adolescent years through high school graduation being much more difficult than they are for the typical child. I learned that some of my behaviors, like the stimming, were really inappropriate when I did them excessively. But I never stopped them altogether; I simply learned to curb them to a place others deemed “reasonable”. College was the first place where I realized my behaviors were alienating people. In freshman year, I went through an unfortunate few months where I felt like I was successfully part of a social group for the first time in my life, and then felt completely ostracized from them just a few months later. I committed other social mistakes that were far worse than simply not masking that were the primary reason for me being “kicked out” of the group. But being kicked out of the group caused me to question everything. And I realized that, since I was a textbook case of all the typical autism behaviors, including not making eye contact and making loud, repetitive noises with my hands, if I ever truly wanted to feel the good feeling of being included in a group again but NOT get kicked out this time, I needed to start masking.
And so it began. I tried to sit up straighter in my chair and to make more contact with others. I kept constant watch of my hands to make sure I wasn’t waving them around or performing repetitive “stimming” motions. And while it worked sometimes and helped me make more friends, it also helped me realize that I have to expend a lot of mental energy to make eye contact, something that just comes naturally to most people. There were times I was not as mentally present as I could have been in conversations because I was making so much extra effort to control my physical actions. While it was largely working, I felt like I was going through life scared to be myself. For me, masking was an action that largely decreased my self-confidence, because it reminded me every time I did it that I had to hide part of my true identity in order to be “acceptable” to the larger public. And that’s something no one likes to think about.
I would relax my “masking” standards and be myself around family or close friends, simply for my own sanity and also because they knew who I was already and I knew I couldn’t hide it from them. Getting home from a stressful all-day public situation where I had to “mask” and being able to take my mask off caused the same sense of relief that taking my physical mask off after a long day out in public during the pandemic does.
I masked through pretty much the entirety of my 20’s, but I’m happy to report that things have started to change now that I’m in my 30’s. Things are perfect – I’ve still never attained a job in my life where an in-person interview was required. But I’m lucky enough to have attained a work-from-home job where I never have to have any face-to-face contact with anyone except via the rare Zoom meeting. Thus, I can be myself and focus on my work when I’m working, which is a welcome relief. I’ve found friends around me that like me for who I am and don’t mind if a little bit of repetitive tapping slips in from time to time. And through this lucky change of environment, I’ve found myself relaxing my own standards. It’s still unfortunately necessary sometimes to mask in short bursts, like at a job interview or a social event where I know I will be meeting new people. But it’s certainly not something I feel like I have to do all the time in public anymore. I felt very burned out through the majority of my 20’s, and I think a lot of the reason was because I felt obligated to mask in public situations, and it wore me out and made me think less of myself. There are times when everyone has to mask – to put forward their best selves in a situation for a short period of time, or simply because most people don’t act the same way around their parents that they do around their best friends. But it should not be a way of life and something we feel like we have to do all the time. For people feeling exhausted now because they feel like they’ve been hiding themselves their whole lives, it does get easier. And if you’re in a situation where it does feel like you have to hide your true identity every day, maybe that’s not the best fit for you. There are times and places to mask, but no one should ever feel like they have to hide their true selves all of the time.