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Masking is an essential skill that you should aim to use less often.

Masking in terms of autism and Asperger's syndrome is a way of hiding your true self from others as a means of fitting in and avoiding harm. It can best be summed up as "pretending to be normal".

In this post, I want to talk about some of the ways that we mask, why it is necessary sometimes and why ultimately you need to minimize masking in your life.

a woman holding a couple of masks (generated from DAL-E2)

How do we mask?

It's often said that people with Asperger's syndrome are great actors because they spend so much of their lives pretending to be someone that they are not. 

Masking is a very normal activity and everyone masks in some form or other. The teen who loves classical music but listens to rock in front of their school friends is masking their musical taste. The guy who eats all his vegetables at his girlfriends place but never at home is masking for her parents, so that they will like him more. We mask whenever we put on clothing that is not us, wear makeup that we don't like or put effort into making ourselves appear different to how we really are.

What makes autistic masking different however is that we are not simply masking for parents, or for a person we are interested in. We're masking for "everyone" in an effort to appear normal. Autistic masking isn't just different due to the frequency though, it's also the range. Instead of simply masking the food we're eating or the clothes that we're wearing, autistic people will often mask "everything" to the point where they create entire personalities for different groups of people.

Things that can change with masking include appearance, clothing, accents, backgrounds (such as the way you tell your family story), likes and dislikes.

A Masking Example

When I was in year 7 and 8 at school (aged about thirteen), I remember masking for my art teacher. I guess I had a crush on her. I was always super-polite and quietly studious. My artwork was colorful and would often be bushland paintings or cute animals. Halfway through year eight, she went on maternity leave and we got a new teacher who was a "goth". I remember making conscious decision to stop masking (though I didn't know the word for it back then). I chose to stop because it was so tiring. 

My artwork took a sharp dive into all blacks and scribbles. Strangely enough, it got a lot better too. Instead of carefully erasing every wrong line, I followed my own mishaps and deepened them into shadows. It turns out that masking negatively affects creativity. I was also much more outspoken in class and perhaps a bit disruptive - but I was also much happier.

It didn't occur to me that my classmates could see everything that was happening but of course they could. Then, as quickly as it had started, our old teacher came back from leave and suddenly I was drawing flowers again... except that I didn't realize that some of my sculptures were still in the kiln, or that our substitute teacher would arrive one day to hand back some of our artwork and discuss it with the original teacher. 

My teachers asked me to stay behind to resolve the confusion. Initially they were both suggesting that I must have been getting someone at home to help me but they both also remembered me doing specific pieces in class. I didn't know what to say, so I kept silent. The following year, when art became an elective, I deliberately didn't choose it despite my teachers wanting me to do it. I didn't feel that I could do the darker art for my original teacher.  

Why do we mask?

Now that we know how to recognize the signs of masking, we need to ask why we mask. Often, the how will give you the why. If you're masking to appear better at something or to be more aligned with what someone else likes, you're probably trying to impress them. If you're masking to be less visible or more normal, then you're most likely hiding. 

In our formative years, masking is used mainly as a way to keep friends but as we get older, it can often come in handy as a defense mechanism, similar to camouflage. Masking makes us appear "normal" and thus less visible to bullies. In schools without appropriate supports (most schools), masking is an essential skill. 

Outside of school, we mask to survive in college, to get jobs or promotions, to keep in with an established circle of friends, to find  boyfriends or girlfriends and to fit in with our neighbors and social groups.

Why should we mask less?

There's no doubt that masking is essential at school. Even if you have your own "nerd group", as I did, it's still a critical survival skill to be able to mask in front of other people when you don't have your support group with you. 

At the same time, we need to recognize a few things about masking. It's a form of deception and it takes a lot of effort to maintain. It allows us to remain in proximity to dangerous individuals and situations instead of pushing us to move somewhere safer. In short, masking is stressful, dangerous and not productive. 

To really understand this, imagine that you are a hen, dressed as a fox, and living among foxes. The deception is necessary for your survival but it's stressful and one day, you'll probably be discovered. How much better would it be if you were a hen living with other hens -- surrounded by other individuals who love you for who you are and don't expect you to be something that you are not. 

Your reliance upon masking needs to reduce as you get older. The more that you are able to control your own situation, the less you should need to hide. This is especially true for aspies who are prone to meltdowns. Meltdowns are the ultimate in unmasking and having a meltdown in front of the wrong group can stigmatize you forever. Learning to control your reactions to unexpected change and unwanted events is excellent masking but it's still not as good as being surrounded by people who accept you for who you are and will support you through those difficult times.  

If you are still needing to hide as an adult, you need to look around you and work out whether your masking simply out of habit or if there are real threats. If the threats are real, you need to identify them and make changes in your life to remove them. 

This might mean that you need to "come out" to open-minded friends and "walk away" from toxic friends. It might mean that you need to move to a safer environment, change your job or find new places to pursue your hobbies. It might also mean that you need to spend time trying to figure out how you really think about things, such as what you really like and dislike - instead of simply following the crowd. 

It's not easy but it's an important part of moving forward. You don't have to do it all at once. You can meet new and more accepting people while still masking for a different set of friends. Just make sure that you don't allow the groups to meet.  

When you feel comfortable, you can slowly transition to a safer and more accepting environment. 


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