A while after I wrote my article about autism and masking, I was asked to pen the sequel you’re reading. It's understandable. If you’re not on the autism spectrum, socializing likely comes instinctively to you. However, many people on the autism spectrum, such as myself, process social situations differently, and it’s a whole other experience. We examine examples of autism masking.
What is autism masking? A recap
Autism masking is the act of hiding one’s autism-related behaviors, as well as displaying socially-expected behaviors, to fit in. Speaking solely for myself, the process involves applying social skills manually rather than unconsciously. It requires consciousness, constant focus, and effort.
What are some examples of autism masking?
Autism masking is the living, waking nightmare of receiving a barrage of social information, scrambling to interpret it, and determining the best response to it, on the spot. I have to choose and use the tone of voice, body language, phrasing of words, etc., that are appropriate at any given moment.
This process is required in even the most basic of interactions. For instance, if an acquaintance walked up to me, said hello, and asked how I was doing, I would have to go through an entire cycle of thinking to come up with an instantaneous response. This would be:
- Look up at the person and form a smile on my face.
- Look up my mental artillery of phrases I am expected to say after smiling in this specific context. I decide I need to respond with the customary, “Hi!” and “how are you?”
- I know my tone of voice needs to be bright, chirpy, and excited, and I act accordingly.
- I determine that saying two sentences does not contribute enough to the conversation. Two short, clipped sentences would seem too awkward. In addition, trying to get answers to “how are you?” at this point would transition me into the deeper end of our conversation. We are currently at the greetings stage of this interaction, and people feel it is abrupt when you do not finish this “toe-dipping” stage of it. I have to maintain the stock pleasantries until it is time to get into the rapport installment of this conversation. Thus, I add, “it’s so nice to see you again!”
- In addition, I make a note that I have to ensure this “greeting” stage does not end abrutly or go on too long. If this stage lasts too long, the other person will grow bored or unsettled.
- I generate common questions that will branch into a conversation, such as “how are things? What have you been up to?” and ask follow-up questions to maintain the conversation.
- Then, every time I sense that one topic has run its course, I try to move to the next topic until it’s an appropriate time to end the exchange. I provide canned pleasantries and say goodbye.
A study by Laura Hull et al. recorded the experiences of autistic people who mask:
I try to copy socially successful people by imitating their speech and body language and trying to understand their interests. (Male, 71)
I look in people’s eyes when I first meet them [...] even though I wouldn’t naturally because I know you’re supposed to. (Female, 26)
I say as little about myself as possible as the more I say, the more likely it is that I say something inappropriate OR give away too much information about myself, which can then be used against me. (Other, 31)
Spectrum News also shared the story of an autistic woman who masks named Jennifer, who didn’t share her last name. Jennifer noted that she practices her social behavior before she encounters social situations.
For example, before attending a birthday party with her son, she prepares herself to be 'on,' correcting her posture and habitual fidgeting. She demonstrates for me how she sits up straight and becomes still. Her face takes on a pleasant and engaged expression, one she might adopt during a conversation with another parent. To keep a dialogue going, she might drop in a few well-rehearsed catchphrases, such as 'good grief' or 'go big or go home.' 'I feel if I do the nods, they won’t feel I’m uninterested,' she says.
Autism masking is like improv acting, except that you’re acting in real life, not a stage. It should be emphasized that, as Spectrum News noted, “Nearly everyone makes small adjustments to fit in better or conform to social norms, but masking calls for constant and elaborate effort. It can help people with autism maintain their relationships and careers, but those gains often come at a heavy cost, including physical exhaustion and extreme anxiety.”
At least for me, masking feels unnatural, as if I was not built to do it. I believe that autistic people’s brains are not made or meant for social thinking. However, because we live in a social world, we must force ourselves to change the very fabric of our minds. Autistic people have no choice but to mask to survive.