When I was a teenager I was very unpopular and bullied a lot at school. I worked out almost as soon as I started high school that there was something about me that separated me from my peers. I knew I was ‘different’ for the first time when I was 11. I didn’t want this difference. It meant people ostracised and ridiculed me. I wanted to be like the other kids but I couldn’t figure out how. I thought my English accent as a newly arrived ‘pommie’ (as my classmates called me) was the reason so I set about becoming as Australian-sounding as I could. That didn’t work so I changed my dress sense to what I thought was generic and nondescript, once again without success. I really couldn’t work to how be more socially acceptable so I changed how I spelled my name – thinking being ‘Janette’ would make me more popular than ‘Jeanette.’ Of course that didn’t work either.
The chameleon-like qualities I discovered in early high school years became more finely honed as I reach adulthood. However, the only groups I could successfully blend in with and be accepted by were always negative and / or dangerous ones – criminals and people with drug and alcohol addiction issues. I was ‘acting’ or ‘masking’ my true self, with varying levels of conscious knowledge of it, until I was at least 30 years old.
My autism diagnosis was gained at age 20 and I had some vague awareness that fitting in and masking was a ‘thing’ related to autism but I had difficulty accepting my autism so didn’t apply it to me. I could effortlessly slip into whatever character I thought I needed to.It was effective as long as my worlds I didn’t collide. I remember taking a call from one of my university lecturers whilst l was living in public housing when one of my very down to earth neighbours was visiting. He kept saying I must be a liar to be two people at the same time. It bothered him which was the ‘real’ me. In fact I don’t think either were the ‘real’ me although my preference was probably the university ‘me’. I was confused by this as I hadn’t known anyone else witness the my social chameleon figuratively trying to turn glitter purple and grey at the same time!. I wondered if I was a liar but now I think it was something conscious r which I could be aware of at the time.
For me, and I imagine many other autistic people, my ‘masking’ was a complex thing, borne out of a need to be socially accepted. Life seemed easier when I was masking. People tended to be more friendly and less hostile. Even if I had no idea what was happening in a conversation or relationship I could at least escape being judged or ostracised by using he language and expression I knew were expected. Well for a lot of the time anyway.
I actually became so adept at masking in my twenties that I believed I genuinely belonged to my adopted social group at the time, drug addicts. When I decided to remove myself from that very destructive culture I didn’t know who I was. I had been playing the druggie Jeanette role for almost five years. I didn’t understand about masking and autism but I understood that if I kept being the version of me I was at the time I would not be around for much longer. I decided very clearly to change my life and a changed life meant a changed me. I considered what I wanted my character to include and set about creating it. It involved a further kind of masking but perhaps a more helpful one. I was like an author creating parameters for a character in their novel but the author and the character were both me.
My issue was always social acceptance, I craved it. I was desperate to belong to the extent that I didn’t care what I did or said to be accepted. Being disliked, bullied an hated at school left me with little or no self esteem. I disliked myself. earning to like myself again took many years, many accomplishments and a lot of support by the few caring people in my life at the time, mostly my parents. I often find myself criticising that younger Jeanette for choosing a damaging peer group but when I reflect that while I had a choice, I know it is not as simple as that.
I use masking as a coping strategy on occasion even now and I think a lot of people do. The difficulties I have when people need to mask is not due to their actions but in the reasons behind the masking and some of the responses to it which tend to happen from others, including:
- It costs someone their sense of identity – as it did for me. They can lose their sense of who they are. Almost as if they are a spy terrified of their cover being blown.
- Clinicians sometimes use masking and acting in Autistic people as a justification for misdiagnosis saying they are ‘too social’ or ‘managing too well to be Autistic”
- If it is not understood that masking is happening then the person who is masking as a coping strategy and going through trauma may not et assistance as they are seen to be managing
- It is often discussed as only within the domain of Autistic women and not men or gender divergent Autistics, which can impact on the support they receive, including misdiagnosis
- It is viewed as intentional dishonesty or a character flaw.
In my experience and understanding masking tends to be a social survival strategy, The key to address it is to address the reasons that such a survival strategy is needed in the first place. In a world where neurodiversity was understood and respected, where Autistic and other neurodivergent people were valued for what we bring to the world rather than expected to conform socially in order to be accepted… I reckon in that world masking would be a lot less necessary, So let’s work to create tat world and along the way support Autistic people to be proud of who we are and comfortable in our skin.