The title of this post is one of the most common things I’ve had said to me since I started this blog. The fact that nobody had ever told me, or even suspected as far as I’m aware, that I might be autistic suggests that I really don’t seem autistic. So how come nobody has noticed? The answer is that I wear a mask…and I’m very accomplished at it….oh, and most of the time I don’t even realise I’m wearing one.
To an extent, we all wear masks in life. Whether it’s pretending to be interested in a dull conversation, pretending you care deeply about a customer’s problem when you’re actually thinking about what to have for dinner or just acting like you’re feeling great when inside you want to cry. For most people, it’s pretty simple to wear a mask. A fake smile comes easily.
Autistic people find masking particularly tricky due to their neurodiversity. Acting differently to how you’re feeling is confusing, especially when faced with difficult circumstances. Even though in many cases (including mine) it’s not something that’s done knowingly. This often leads to burnout and mental health issues.
As I’ve mentioned before, I find eye contact difficult, especially with people I don’t know very well. It doesn’t come naturally. It makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable. But I do it for much of the time. It can be draining. And it’s not just eye contact; trying to stay still, forcing a smile or another appropriate facial expressions, feigning interest in subjects I find dull etc etc…it’s all seriously tiring.
The reason I do it (as do many autistic people) is to fit in, to be normal, because that’s what everybody else does. And if you do something all your life you get seriously good at it. So after a while, it just comes naturally and I don’t even think about it. It’s ‘safer’ to mask, rather than being the outcast or the ‘weirdo’. It means I can be ‘normal’ and move forward in life. For children, it can stop them getting bullied and labelled. For adults like me, it helps them get jobs and have a social life.
That’s not to say I’m always masking. I have some fantastic friends and family members whose company I enjoy greatly. Then I can be myself and that’s when I can feel a bit more relaxed.
Unfortunately, there often comes a time when the pressures of adult life and responsibilities lead to the ‘mask slipping. On top of the aforementioned mental health issues, that can be when adults begin to realise that they might have autism. It’s also one of the reasons why there’s such a strong link between autism and depression.
Masking is something that can make getting diagnosed difficult. Doctors are looking for signs of autism, but that’s somewhat harder when the patient is brilliant at hiding them.
The truth is that, like autism as a whole, masking is something that is different to every autistic person. There’s a huge spectrum of masking behaviours, thought processes and consequences, which doesn’t making it easy for non-autistic people to spot.
By writing this blog, I’m taking my mask off to an extent. I’m explaining who I really am. And it is a challenge. I’m essentially saying that I’m not ‘normal’ or neurotypical. In many ways it’s like a weight off my shoulders. I don’t need to pretend as much anymore. I can be myself more easily without worrying as much about whether that means I fit in. But I’ll still be donning my mask when it’s needed!