Masking is a fuzzy concept which can mean a bunch different things, but in the strictest sense, I think this is what it means:
Autistic masking refers to the compensatory strategy of social mimicry, whereby someone on the autism spectrum imitates the social persona of someone else (or a blend of others) so thoroughly that it becomes their own social identity, in order to appear normal, and blend in.
The typical masking story
The typical autistic masking story goes like this: many autistic women manage to “fly under the radar” (AKA pass as normal and avoid autism diagnosis*), by becoming so great at masking that it becomes like a second nature, enabling them to use social skills they don’t have, suppress odd mannerisms and unusual behaviours, and blend in with the apparently normals. They are thereby able to survive their school years and go on to obtain careers, friends, marriages and kids… all the normal adulting stuff.
The downside is that masking takes an enormous amount of energy to keep up, and it is confusing and depressing for a person to constantly have to hide and suppress their true nature, and appear to know what they’re doing when they actually have no clue. In the short run masking is adaptive, but in the long run it leads to depression, burnout, and mental illness.
So the typical masking story ends like this: after many years of struggles with depressions, anxiety and other mental health disorders while keeping it together, a severe mental break down ensues, the mask cracks, and the person spiral into a scary and confusing identity crisis. This is often when the person find out that they’ve been autistic all along, and don’t really know who they are – beyond the mask.
What autistic masking is not
Autistic masking, in the strictest sense, is not just about playing social roles, or taking on professional personas, which is an integral aspect of modern life. That kind of masking is normal, and every person is expected and required to do it, although the instruction is distinctly omitted from the Complete Guide to Adulthood handbook (but written between the lines with invisible ink).
I guess what makes autistic masking different, is that the masker adopts other persons’ personalities and mannerisms as their social identity in an extreme and pervasive degree, not only situational sets of scripts and mannerisms (which is normal). The masking isn’t just situational adaptation, it is done with a detached and desperate sense of having no clue what you’re doing, and why it works, if it works – like Mr. Bean in the meme above.
Mr. Bean is probably going to use the stolen answers in the wrong context, cluelessly using the correct answers for the wrong questions. He may just pass his exam if he is lucky, with low average marks, and he will have learned little from it. Just like when you copy someone else’s successful social strategies and use them cluelessly in a different context, and get surprised when they flunk for you, even though they seemed to work for others.
If you do it relentlessly and put all your effort into refining your copycat skills, then you may eventually become proficient at masking and more socially successful, albeit still without having much clue what you’re doing. That’s what I understand autistic masking to be.
One reason I have mixed feelings about the concept of autistic masking
When I hear the concept of masking, I see it on one hand as a valid and useful concept explaining why some people who need an autism diagnosis, “fly under the radar” all their lives, and don’t get diagnosed until late adulthood. Like me (although I’m not that much of a masker – I’ll spin that off into a separate post, because it became too long already… *sigh*).
On the other hand, I also see the concept as a vehicle for an irritating cultural trend, most clearly embodied in the “Aspien” book series by the Australian psychologist Tania Marshall:
which promotes a glittery, quirky, and watered down vision of autism as a “superpower”, and holds up a catch-a-lot mirror which a wide range of women from all walks of life can see themselves and their daughters in, for all sorts of reasons.
I feel this “superpowered” brand of autism is more like a marketing concept than a diagnosis. It appeals to a wide & varied segment of the female population, which then becomes a profitable market for best selling expensive coffee table-type books about this new, more palatable version of autism, until “everyone is autistic” (almost), and no one really takes it seriously. The niche is lucrative and best seller friendly, because it appeals to readers who:
1. are numerous, AKA comprise a big market
2. live relatively normal lives and have successful careers, so they can afford to buy flashy and expensive coffee-table books
Conclusion about masking
Masking is real, masking is important. Masking as a concept is also quite diffuse and open to interpretation, and therefore it isn’t always entirely clear what people mean when they talk about it. Sometimes they mean it in the strict sense I’ve used above, and at other times they just mean playing roles and hiding emotional states to cope with everyday life – like most people do. The open meaning also makes it vulnerable to exploitation, and to be watered down so much that it ends up not meaning very much.