Masking was one of the key terms that helped me realize I’m autistic. I never thought I could be autistic because I’m adept at verbal and nonverbal communication, holding conversations, and engaging with people in general.
However, when I learned about masking, I realized that our external capabilities may not mirror our internal experience. Many autistics perform socially, but they’re not intrinsically acting on what comes naturally to them. Instead, they are doing what they think is best, denying how they would prefer to act, and internally analyzing all that they are doing and everything happening in the environment.
In social situations, I may be asking all of the right questions, maintaining the right eye contact, holding my body in the right way… but that is not because it comes naturally or it’s what I want to do. I’m relentlessly thinking about these things in mind as I’m doing them. I’m assessing the other and assessing myself at the same time. I’m asking myself monitoring questions like, “Are you talking too much? Does your face look bored right now? Do they feel you care?”
THIS is masking.
One of the main things that most newly identified autistics grapple with is discerning what is masking behavior and what is truly themselves. This sets up a false dichotomy. “Masking” is implied to be bad, since you are performing and not acting in alignment with your true self. Being your full autistic self is “good.” The trap is framing one as good and one as bad. It also implies that we need to always be our full autistic selves since that is what’s “good.” That’s impossible and unhealthy.
There needs to be a middle ground where we can choose the degree of being our full autistic selves based on our own well being and the context. For example, when I’m with a group of people and I have an observation about the physical appearance of someone that would come off as benign and rude, I don’t want to say that thing to that group. Just because I don’t say that thing doesn’t mean I’m masking. I’m still being my full self by assessing the situation and discerning the best choice at that moment.
I think the difference between masking and living more fully as our autistic selves lies in choice. When we unknowingly do something to fit in, it falls into masking. When we are aware of the situation, our motivating factors, and consciously choose the degree we want to be our full selves, we are acting in alignment with our autistic being. We are making choices that honor our needs … and there is nothing more fully autistic than that.
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