I have mixed feelings about the concept of autistic masking, as I mentioned before. Besides finding the concept very fuzzy and open, I’m also unsure how well it resonates with me personally.
I don’t think I was masking as a child.
“Taking on someone’s persona” requires advanced social observation skills and ability to mimicry, which I just don’t think I had at the time. I feel I had little self-awareness, AKA awareness of how people reacted to me or why, or how to navigate group dynamics, and didn’t have a strong sense of the perspectives of other people.
I view this in contrast to my cousin, who was highly aware and attentive to the feelings and hypothesised thought processes of other people, which I saw as quite an exotic mindset at the time.
During the school years it gradually sank in that I was somehow seen as different. Not hated, but perhaps a bit odd and marginal on the main social scene. I also found out that appearance, and especially clothes, affects others’ perception, and ultimately social inclusion. I found out probably a few years after my peers, way too late, and my growing self awareness correlated with disastrous drops in social confidence.
If your social identity has already become pariah-like in a particular social setting (AKA, you are an outsider in school, for example), then masking is not in your toolbox. It is too late, because your low social status will drag you down and keep other people away or make them guarded around you, preventing opportunities to learn and emulate.
I wasn’t able to mask in school – and so, especially in my late primary school years, I stood out as a loner in the crowd in a painfully obvious way, clumsily trying to hide my loser status by staying out of sight, or sinking into the ground, emulating non-presence.
That is not masking, that is just hiding.
On the other hand, I recognise that I did use masking later.
Trying to create and hold onto some sort of social life during my teen years, I emulated my closest friend of those years so intensely, that my handwriting became near identical to her rather unique handwriting style, and even now is still influenced by it. She was different from the mainstream too, but had a strong social standing in her circles, and made friends easily.
I stuck to her like glue, absorbed her universe. Her grungy fashion style, opinions, humour, music taste, circle of friends, became “ours” – except I never hung out with her friends without her, they were never really my friends… I was just accepted as her side-kick in the group as long as she was there. When she moved away, that role was gone and so were they. They didn’t dislike me (I don’t think), I just didn’t have a social “hook” in the group because I hadn’t become friends with anyone else, despite all the time I’d been around them.
That was sure masking, although I was unaware that I was doing it at the time.
Flying under the radar
I can think of many situations where I attempted masking-like strategies, even as a default desperate strategy, like copying elements of behaviours I’d seen others do which seemed to be what people were supposed to do, but the problem was that if I did the same as someone else, it was perceived differently.
That is masking too, even if it doesn’t mean emulating a particular person – echoing expressions and behaviours that appear to fit the situation, but using them cluelessly, so they don’t.
Even though I visibly didn’t manage to blend in in many situations where I was supposed to, I flew under the radar anyway. I didn’t get diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome until late adulthood, and no one mentioned it as a possible explanation during all my younger years of mental health struggles, and persistent failure to fit in anywhere.
I do present as an articulate, sensible, and approachable person (as far as I know). A voice of reason. I try very hard to accomodate people when I interact with them, to make sense to them and get along. People might find my sensible demeanour incompatible with their idea of autism or mental disability more broadly, especially if they only talk with me in a structured setting – where I usually do well, and haven’t seen me in casual social settings (like breaks, dinners, parties, whatever random social group settings), where I tend to struggle. Or they do see it, but make up excuses to close the cognitive dissonance gap.
Most people can not comprehend how socially helpless I can feel in unstructured social settings, because I’m so composed and meaningful and competent in structured settings.
That’s likely some of the explanation of why I flew under the radar. Not masking.
Masks, you let me down
My most memorable, traumatic and early-youth seriously socially derailing experience was my boarding school* time, when I was 15.
I had come up with the idea of going to boarding school myself, as a solution to my hopeless school situation. It was meant to be a fresh start and an opportunity to make friends and build a more social life. Instead, I soon became just as much an outsider as I’d been in the old situation, but now without the option to go home and recharge, and it wasn’t as easy to skip school.
A culmination was being the only leftover when everybody selected new room mates in a very public meeting, and the meeting couldn’t end until a solution had been found for me… I was referred to as “a hot potato” … and eventually got a room for myself (as possibly the only person in the school). It was intensely embarrassing and shocking, I felt I was branded to the world as a person that no one wanted to be around.
Eating/getting food was a major daily challenge, because the canteen was overwhelmingly social and noisy, and at that time I was developing serious social anxiety. Exposing my existence to other people was as bit like exposing a vampire to sunlight. I was a ghosts in the corridors, doing my best to avoid being seen until I could slip into my room again.
My room, I vaguely recall, had a broken window covered with a plate, causing the wind to make eerie hollow flute sounds during the Danish autumn darkness (but it could be a memory overlay). I staid in there most of the time.
I sure wasn’t masking in the sense of emulating successful social behaviours, it would have helped, but was a level of opportunity and skill was way out of reach.
And here comes another reason I have mixed feelings about the masking concept:
Thinking back, I imagine some of my peers considered themselves “different”, “a bit crazy”, or “abnormal”, because I heard people say or hint things to that effect about themselves. There were some who stood out, who had non-mainstream interests and obsessions and their own odd unique fashion style, who were seeking and experimenting to find their identity outside the mainstream, because they felt they didn’t fit the typical mould… and there were others who seemed more stereotypically “normal”.
Maybe some people had their own subtle social struggles, and felt alienated in some way that wasn’t visible to me. But as I saw them, they were part of a league I had no chance of making it into at the time: the OK people, the fairly normal people, the socially acceptable ones (even if in a non-mainstream way). They were belongers, and cool in their own ways. They had friends, they were part of the social scene, they were automatically factored in. Not ghosts in corridors.
But perhaps they were masking. The thought provokes me. I imagine a social scene of apparent misfits, taken over by people like my old peers from boarding school, all cliqued up and dominating the social culture, and I’m just as excluded as I was, because I’m still the same person, and so are they.
*Specifically “Efterskole”, which is a special Danish boarding school variant that emphasises social, artistic and personal development. It often has an artistic specialisation or another crafts specialisation alongside the standard school curriculum, for example music or photography or theatre. Many only offer one year (e.g. year 9), some offer up to 3, but generally only the last years of primary school (what would be called middle school in some other countries). Efterskole is often “prescribed” as a solution for school fatigued pupils, who struggle to finish the last years of their primary schooling because they just can’t stand going to school anymore.
This post is an off-spin from “Thoughts on Autistic Masking“.