This topic was requested by two different people in two different ways. One friend wanted me to talk about masking, and another asked what seemed to me to be a really challenging question: “How large is the area within the spectrum which is better treated by teaching coping skills and social conformity? Thinking of hyperactive sixth graders who need physical movement, or socially awkward middle schoolers who need to learn small talk.” It took me a while to realize that this question was really about masking, too.
What is Masking?
First things first: masking (also called autistic camouflaging) is a behavior that many autistic people develop in order to function more typically in the world. It seems to be especially prevalent in girls/women, which contributes to the gender gap in diagnosis.
Masking is, put bluntly, trying to suppress your natural instincts as an autistic person to seem more normal.
Examples might include:
- forcing yourself to make eye contact (or teaching yourself to look at a spot between the eyes)
- forcing yourself to not fidget or rock when stressed or processing
- suppressing your desire to talk about your passionate interests
- practicing facial expressions, or rehearsing a laugh, so that you can react “normally”
- memorizing scripts (verbal and nonverbal) for social conversation
Sounds Good, Right?
Okay, you may be thinking, these all sound reasonably okay. In fact, these all sound like the sorts of things therapists and special educators are working with kids to achieve! Desirable outcomes! Cure the autism! Give them a normal life!
I can’t get into all of the mixed feelings and conflicting messages surrounding that in one blog post. I mean, you’re talking about The Essential Questions, about the medical model vs the social model… that’s huge stuff. Book-length stuff. And if you’re wishing right now that I would stop and address all of it, let me give you an extra credit assignment: read an article on Deaf culture, specifically the controversy over cures/Cochlear implants/etc.. Here’s a decent one if you don’t feel like searching. Ponder. We’ll discuss in class next week 😉
And I’m struggling to ground my thoughts. I want to rant and rave about society and conformity and the rat race and standardized education — stuff I’ve believed long before I knew anything about autism — and I promised myself not to write such a long post this time… yargh.
Let me say this: Yes. To some degree, it is desirable to find ways to conform to social norms, if you want to (or need to) find a role in our modern society. It is a good thing for my career that I, like many many many autistic girls, semi-unconsciously studied the other children and learned phrases and behaviors and facial expressions that would make me fit in better. It is a good thing for my career that I learned to “play the game.” It is a good thing for my career that I taught myself how to be a Pleasant Inoffensive Woman Without Abnormal Interests.
We’re stuck here on this world, which currently is not built for autistic people. Lacking a different world to live on, and while waiting for/working for improvements, you’ve either got to do your best to cope and conform, or… not. And if you don’t mask, if you don’t conform, then as unjust as it is, you’re going to be othered and you’re going to face a great many social struggles.
(All this is assuming the case of the autistic person who is capable of masking to this degree. Not everyone can, whether they choose to/are pressured to, or not.)
The Problem With Masks
For an autistic person, masking or camouflaging our symptoms/traits/instincts can cause a lot of psychological and even physical harm. I keep thinking about people who were forced to learn to write with their right hands, or people who are forced to remain in the closet. That’s a lot of suppression, maybe even a lot of rewiring the brain.
Nearly everyone makes small adjustments to fit in better or conform to social norms, but camouflaging calls for constant and elaborate effort. It can help women with autism maintain their relationships and careers, but those gains often come at a heavy cost, including physical exhaustion and extreme anxiety.
The thing is, these behaviors that autistic people are suppressing when they mask aren’t just nervous tics or bad habits. They have a purpose or a meaning.
For most, stimming (hand-flapping, rocking, tapping, etc.) is a way to self-regulate.
Have you ever been so overwhelmed — like, extremely stressed and behind schedule, and eight preschoolers are all tugging at your sleeves and whining, and also you desperately need to pee — that you just want to scream and punch something? If you’re neurotypical, you take a deep breath and release that urge, or maybe you step away and go find a pillow to scream into and then punch!
For an autistic person, that sensation of being completely overwhelmed with sensory input can be constant and endless, and provoked by seemingly innocuous things in their environment. And when they stim, that’s how they regulate and release that tension. That’s their yogic breathing, their punching bag. It’s what helps keep them in balance and able to pay attention and remain calm.
For many autistic people, eye contact can actually be physically painful in a way that I can’t fully understand and certainly can’t begin to describe. For many autistic people, the effort of making small talk and bland polite facial gestures will take up all of their mental processing space and completely derail their train of thought or course of action…. and then the obsessive worry, or ruminating, that they’ve been perceived as rude may rob them of sleep or the ability to concentrate on their work for days.
Another problem with masking is that if you mask too well, you may find that you aren’t given any grace or understanding when your mask slips. If no one has any reason to suspect that you have neurological differences, they’re not going to assume you meant well when you meltdown at work — they’re going to assume that you were being an unprofessional jerk. If no one can tell that you’re struggling, they’ll keep piling on and won’t offer supports.
And to be clear: just because the outside observer can’t tell that you’re autistic because you’ve learned to fake normalcy so well, does NOT mean that you are “cured of your autism”. The person who learns how to hide their autistic traits is still exactly as autistic inside as they ever were — but on top of the challenges that come with being autistic, they’re also stressed out, suppressing natural instincts, and being forced to live in a way that is completely alien and uncomfortable to them.
So… Take Off the Mask? Or…?
Inherent in the prompt of “talk about masking” or “how large is the area within the spectrum which is better treated by teaching coping skills and social conformity” is, I think, the question of whether masking is a good thing. And to get to a response to that, ultimately what you need to ask yourself is, what is your goal/preferred outcome?
And if you’re the parent or the teacher asking yourself that question, and not the autistic individual… really slow down and think about it. R-e-a-l-l-y pause and consider whether your goal is “be more like everyone else at school”… and if it is, ask yourself why. (I am a mom, and a teacher. And I am wrestling every day with this question. Not claiming to have the answers or any moral high ground. Just wanting you to wrestle, too.)
For the person with Level 1 autism or Asperger Syndrome, unless they didn’t attend school or therapies, masking is probably inevitable. After all, all people organically learn social behaviors, and the negative reinforcement of being bullied or ignored because you’re “weird” can be a powerful motivator to change. I had no idea that I was learning how to mask until decades after the fact, because I had no framework or vocabulary for that. I didn’t consciously take “how to be typical” lessons, nor would I have, but life has a way of molding us whether we see it or not.
And for that person, I think masking can be beneficial — but. Earlier, I talked about how masking was very good for my career. But it’s critical for my well-being that I code-switch from work to not-work, that I remove that mask when I can, because that’s not me and pretending that it is builds up pressure like pus under a blister.
If — and let’s be clear here; I’m not at all convinced that we should — we are going to teach our children to suppress their natural instincts in order to conform in the classroom and the world at large, then we also need to teach them to respect their needs and their bodies and their minds, and to find appropriate outlets to do the things they need to do to be emotionally and physically healthy. It’s bonkers to make stimming and other “undesirable” autistic behaviors taboo (just like, IMHO, it’s bizarre that manually clearing our noses is a taboo) when (and if) they don’t hurt anyone and are helpful to the person doing them.
Right now, full participation in American society demands social conformity. So if your ultimate goal is to fully participate in contemporary American society, well… better practice making eye contact and learn how to make small talk. But be kind to yourself. Give yourself grace, and time to be yourself and do the things that come naturally to you, lest your pursuit of “normalcy” end up causing you harm.
For further reading:
“Putting On My Best Normal: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions” (this one is a scientific paper, for those of you who want SCIENCE instead of personal accounts)