Lowering the Autism Mask

Where does my masking end and my authenticity begin? Who am I, really?

Having just recently learned that I have been walking around with autism for decades without even realizing it, I’m spending a lot of time learning about the condition, and reevaluating the events of my past through the autism lens. Things are finally starting to make sense.

A huge element of autism, especially with level one autistics, is something called “masking”. Basically, it’s trying to pass yourself off as neurotypical. We all want to fit in, so I’ve been masking my whole life. I did it by pure instinct, so imagine my shock when I discovered that it was actually a thing.

Without consciously realizing it, I now know that I sometimes mimic facial expressions even though my default position is to keep my face blank. I sometimes force myself to have eye contact, especially at job interviews and the like, even though it inwardly makes me squirm. I do my best to pretend I understand certain types of jokes. I try not to fidget or hum too loudly.

I know it’s probably best to keep my weird thoughts to myself, but I struggle with keeping any thoughts to myself, if I’m perfectly frank. I try to fake interest in things that I couldn’t care less about, and I try to dial back my fascination with things I’m obsessed with, because they bore people. I try to have my meltdowns and my shutdowns alone, because otherwise people will think I’m unhinged.

Going through life having to constantly second guess myself and anticipate what will be expected of me in upcoming situations is exhausting. It sucks the life force right out of me. Because of this, I tend to avoid people. I think if I could just be myself without being judged, if I could be 100 percent certain that I’d be accepted for who I really am and that I wouldn’t freak people out, I might learn to completely do away with the mask, and I wouldn’t be so averse to people’s company.

“Just be yourself,” you’re probably thinking. “Who cares what anyone else thinks?”

That’s easy for you to say. If you’re not autistic, you can’t possibly understand the daily microaggressions we are faced with. We mask to survive. We mask to avoid humiliation, irritation, condemnation, hostility, confusion, misunderstandings, and rejection. We mask so as not to offend people with our blunt honesty. We mask because if people call us weird while we’re masked (and they do, constantly), just imagine what they’d be calling us if they really saw us.

This is not just a thing to be snapped out of. Even if we’re not particularly good at it, masking is a coping mechanism that would be hard to give up. That, and the mask is so pretty, and after all these years it feels like a second skin.

I have been allowing myself to unmask, in whole or in part, in certain circumstances, now that I know what I’ve been doing. My dogs don’t care who I am, as long as I feed them and I’m kind. Dear Husband is super supportive, so I’ve been unmasking more and more with him, but a few times I think I’ve moved too fast and I’ve rattled him a bit. Some friends and relatives have been really wonderful about it, others are now uncomfortable around me, and still others have stopped speaking to me entirely. That has been rather informative. I used to actually think I was a good judge of character.

Needless to say, I’m still learning what I can show and do and say, and two whom. I’ve been at this for 58 years, so it’ll take a minute or two to get adjusted. A lot of times I just do it without thinking about it. I never meant to be disingenuous. The change will not be effortless.

Being born at a time when very little was known about autism was just the luck of the draw. And now there is such a huge bubble of newly diagnosed adults that the support system we desperately need in order to adjust is rather thin on the ground. But I am lucky in that in this modern world, we have more ways to find our tribe than we ever had before.

For example, this blog has allowed me to virtually meet a lot of amazing people. The comments they leave are often profound and inspiring. Sometimes they result in a blog post like this one. They have quite regularly caused me to increase my self-awareness by leaps and bounds. I will always be grateful for that.

Lyn, a long-time reader and my most prolific commenter, had me thinking about masking in a whole new light the other day. One phrase in particular, “hiding behind the illusion of faux acceptance,” really made me think. If people are accepting the masked me, am I really being accepted? Where does my masking end and my authenticity begin? Who am I, really?

I’m a work in progress, that’s who. And for now, that’ll have to do. Hopefully my favorite people will still be with me when the dust settles. Time will tell.

I’ll leave you with more of Lyn’s comment, below. I think she’s an excellent and profound writer! She’s also a huge comfort. Thanks, Lyn!

“You’re discovering that the you behind the mask has many unhealed wounds that the mask hid, not just from the world, but from yourself. You’re slowly letting go of that mask and realizing that fully accepting yourself means risking rejection from some, as you remake, repair and reshape yourself. 

“It’s scary to endure those little deaths after decades of hiding behind the illusion of faux acceptance. Take comfort, as you embrace your authentic self, that no matter how much changes, you’ve always known your name and now there will be others who do also. Unmasking is stressful, but its end result is a freedom only you can give yourself.

“I’ve known your name all along. You haven’t been twisting in the wind alone. Some of us have been by your side, having recognized a kindred spirit, and are here to support you as you heal and grow.”

Like the way my neurodivergent mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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