The Play That Never Ends
Everybody masks, to an extent. We don’t swear around grandma. We show off around our those we’re attracted to. We pretend to like our job more than we do when the boss is around. Those of us who are depressed or heartbroken pretend to be fine in public. It’s not exactly deception. We just don’t want everyone in our lives seeing every side of us, for the sake of things going smoothly in social situations.
Autistic people also have different masks for different situations. But there’s an additional mask we have to wear underneath those ones: the neurotypical mask. If I don’t wear my neurotypical mask, I’m called retarded. I’m told I have mental problems. People stare. I’m mocked and threatened by random strangers. I’m excluded from every group, except maybe autistic support groups. Not only can’t I work without masking, I can’t even get past the first interview. If I don’t mask, parents pull their kids away when I pass them in the supermarket. I’d probably be kicked out too if there weren’t laws against it.
Autism is a pervasive condition. It affects everything about my life. To hide it, I have to mask so thoroughly that I’m hardly the same person. Imagine acting in a play. You dress up, get into character, follow the script, and please your audience. But at the end of the play, you get to take off the costume and stop pretending. I never get to exit the stage. If I stop performing, I face all the negative consequences I mentioned before.
I strictly regulate my facial expressions, body language, and gestures so other people aren’t uncomfortable around me. I pretend that this whole world of behavior is natural and makes sense to me because sometimes it’s nice to go out in public without being noticed. Because of this 24/7 masking, I quickly become exhausted around other people. I have to spend lots of time alone to recharge.
Masking all the time also causes me a lot of social anxiety. I always wonder if I’m masking well enough or if the other person can tell I’m different. Appearing neurotypical requires constant self-monitoring. Since socializing doesn’t come naturally to me, I have to remember which social reactions are expected of me in any given situation and fake them with conscious effort. Then I have to evaluate if the other person buys it or not.
Masking also causes feelings of alienation and loneliness. Every culture on Earth is a neurotypical culture with laws, institutions, traditions, and ways of thinking and being that are intuitive to neurotypicals, but exclude people such as myself. I don’t belong anywhere. The more people I’m around, the lonelier I feel because I don’t relate to them. I’ve never met anyone remotely like me in my entire life. It’s alienating. At various points in life, I’ve even considered going off to some remote location and living there just to avoid the constant masking and rejection.
Masking alienates me from myself too. I’ve been unable to socially and emotionally express myself genuinely for my entire life. If you put me in a room full of people who were guaranteed not to judge me for my autism, I’d still mask. I’ve been wearing the neurotypical mask for so long it’s as if it’s bonded itself permanently onto my face and I don’t even know what the original face looks like. In fact, I never knew what it looked like because I never had the chance to find out.
None of this is to say that neurotypical masking can’t cause feelings of anxiety, alienation, loneliness, or what have you. But to compare it to autistic masking in its negative effects is nearly always disingenuous and trivializes the autistic experience. So please don’t compare the two like they’re the same.
Through writing these entries about autism, I hope not only to educate the audience and share my experiences, but to also impart a sense of respect for the unique challenges autistic people deal with. If you have any questions, feel free to send me an email and I’ll do my best to answer.