Many women on the spectrum mask during social interactions in order to survive. As the name indicates, masking is a hidden process that must happen internally. If it does not, then it has failed. From the outside looking in, it presents as benign coping mechanisms, like taking a deep breath, biting nails, or fidgeting with a pen when anxious. But, there is a darker side to masking that cannot be overlooked.
Masking is the constant monitoring of the socially appropriateness of one’s words, actions, and feelings because, by definition, these words, actions, and feelings must be disguised. Most people can relate to self-monitoring during a job interview or first date, though perhaps not with the same intensity and duration involved in masking. However, understanding the foundational reason driving the need to mask is far more difficult and troubling.
Let’s begin by describing the mask. The internal dialogue of masking sounds a lot like this:
Is my tone of voice right? Too harsh? Too soft? Can they hear me? Do I sound aggressive?
Am I looking at the person’s eyes? Am I staring? Am I not looking enough?
Are my shoulders straight? Do I look uncomfortable?
Do I smell? Can people smell me?
Are my gestures too big? Too small? Ill-timed? Inappropriate?
Am I smiling? Am I smiling too much?
Am I moving too much? What do I do with my arms? What do I do with my legs?
Do I look anxious? Do I sound anxious?
These questions are supposed to help autistics accumulate meaningful information about the interaction, the other person, and how they personally are fairing in the interaction. Head nods, smiles, eyebrows raises, head tilts, and changes in tone are a few of the many, many nonverbal and verbal communication tools that neurotypicals use reflexively. In contrast, for autistics, a smile, laugh, or nod occurs because the person has internally questioned and internally approved the appropriateness of the element for the context. Think of controlling a marionette: Nod of the head — pull a string. Gesture “shhh” — pull a few strings. Raise the eyebrows — pull a different string. For far too many, nothing happens without planning, effort, and execution because the autistic brain is manually controlling the autistic body.
For autistics, the reflexive nature of social interaction is limited; a cognitive decision is involved to do everything — either before the action or after. The questioning “after” is sometimes more challenging because deciding whether or not something is “okay” can be very difficult once the moment has passed. Hence, the endless cycle of questioning, correction, and self-doubt that eventually results in overwhelm and incapacitation. And what if you can’t shed the mask in the privacy of your home? Sometimes, the internal voice whispers, “But, if I was in public, I can’t do that.” Sure, the rules are looser, but they exist.
Masking is a purely neurotypical construct created by autistics because of neurotypical social control and neurotypical expectations of the behavior of autistics. At its core, masking is about requiring autistics to appear less autistic for the comfort and benefit of the neurotypical.
The underlying assumption of masking is two-fold. First, masking rests on the foundation that autistics are naturally inclined to act in ways that are incorrect, discomforting, or “weird” to neurotypicals. They are presumed guilty, even if they have no idea what social law they broke and why that law matters. Actions like tapping fingers to one’s thumb, spinning wrists, avoiding eye contact, and flapping are pathologized because of how they make others feel.
Pay no mind to the fact that the masked behaviors hurt no one and may be allowing autistics to survive and/or thrive in an environment with neurotypicals. Masking puts the autistic in perpetual self-analysis mode that is by design fueled by identifying mistakes or doubting the appropriateness of choices already made. Dread becomes the prevailing mood for social interactions, as one is waiting for the shoe to drop — knowing it will drop — but perhaps not knowing why it dropped or how to fix it.
Masking is also founded on the notion that autistics are the perpetrators of all social discomfiture and faux pas, and, as a result, autistics can and must do the social manueverings to avoid or fix the social crime. Yes, that’s right: The people who inadvertently cause the problem have the responsibility to avoid the problem. If it was that simple, then, wouldn’t the need to mask be moot in the first place? But, I digress.
Let’s be clear: Masking is about autistics acting like neurotypicals because, if they do not, neurotypicals are so uncomfortable that neurotypicals cannot function. So, we put autistics in the impossible position of setting aside their true selves in order to survive the social and emotional backlash of neurotypicals.
Somewhere in this discussion, there is an ironic commentary on how superficial neurotypicality can be, but that’s for another time. The costs of masking have been well-documented but deserve the spotlight: depression, anxiety, loss of self, suicide, exhaustion. At its core, masking about changing who you are because you have no choice. Should this be the cost of interacting with neurotypicals?