Time and time again I read and hear how autistic people camouflage their autism so that they are more able to fit in. This makes a huge – and rather arrogant assumption – that we want to fit in – that we don’t want to be autistic.
I can only speak for myself but would like it on record that this is certainly not the case for me! The photo above is of a Speckled Wood butterfly, camouflaged against the woodland floor. This butterfly does not wish to “become” the woodland floor, nor does it want to stop being its authentic butterfly self. It has one reason for camouflaging and one reason only – to avoid predation.
Autistic people mask or camouflage their autism for many reasons; and frequently report the devastating impact of this on their mental health and wellbeing. Autistic masking is more than the reputation management and social niceties most people use every day. It is not simply about fitting in – often it is about avoiding bullying, discrimination, reduced opportunities or downright harm – predation even!
The framing of autistic camouflaging as a means to fit in, invalidates the lived experience of many autistic people. It fails to take responsibility for the discrimination and abuse directed towards autistic people. Until society accepts responsibility for the way autistic people are treated and changes this to become more positive, autistic people will need to protect themselves by masking their autism.
We may wish to take part – but this is not the same as “fitting in”. We may even be invited to join in – but frequently this is tokenistic. Inviting me to a place that I cannot enter because of my needs, but refusing to change it so I can enter or take part, is not inclusion.
I’d like to reframe the idea and commonly accepted use of language about autistic people camouflaging in order to “fit in” – and suggest we use the words to “take part” instead. It is a subtle change of language but the former suggests that those “others” want to become the same as the majority. Whereas “taking part” allows people to retain their identity whilst still belonging to the whole group.
Disabled people should not have to pretend we are not disabled. I would never expect my colleague who uses a wheelchair to put his chair to one side all day at work, because after all he can walk a few steps when he needs to. I would never tell him that I saw him walking a short distance the other day and he looked like he was doing it really well so why can’t he go without his wheelchair all the time? I certainly wouldn’t suggest that we all have to put up with things we don’t like and if we let him use a wheelchair, everyone will want one!
I will no longer be referring to autistic camouflaging or masking as a strategy used to better “fit in”. I shall tell it like it is. There are no excuses. Until society accommodates autistic people and stops the discrimination, mistreatment and abuse so that I can “be” autistic without needing to hide, I shall remind people that they play an important part in my need for masking; and they need to stop!
This brief piece was prompted by a number of discussions I’ve had with people about autistic masking, being authentic and true to your autistic self.
You may like to check out my writing about autistic masking via the menu.
What makes me different?
I’m autistic, so experience the world differently to non-autistic people. My senses work differently – my personal range of sensory experiences is broader than most non-autistic peoples’. I experience some things more intensely (e.g. sound and smell) and others less intensely (e.g. body sensations and balance)
I have less need to form hierarchies than many of my peers – I still love to organise things and compartmentalise them, but we use different systems.
I think about things differently. I tend to consciously think through things that many others find intuitive – and intuitively know things that others have to think about!
So what is the problem?
I am in a minority. A seriously misunderstood minority. This means I often have to hide things like the extent of my sensory overload or my need for clarification.
My logical and literal mindedness puzzles people. My drive for clarity and need for honesty perplexes them.
And often it is NOT a problem. I have integrity, I cannot tolerate inequality. I stand up for what is right regardless of the personal consequences.
So, when is it a problem?
It becomes a problem when I remain dysregulated because I cannot do what I need to do to be in a state where I can learn and thrive. None of us can. But for me, the sensory aspects of the environment – and inside my body (noise, smells, lighting, my emotions) tend to effect me more because my sensory processing works differently.
Being dysregulated always makes thinking, communicating, and looking after myself and others needs, more difficult. That’s the same for all of us.
Humans are social animals. I don’t particularly enjoy socialising and I certainly find humans difficult to understand, but I recognise my social responsibilities. I may not want to hang out with other people for fun – but I choose to have unconditional positive regard for them….. and in fact, some of them are actually quite nice!
When I was younger I would be blunt, straight to the point and say exactly what I thought. I knew I was right. I certainly didn’t aim to be rude. In fact, I thought I was doing people a favour by leaving the bullshit out and getting straight to the point! I saw no need for small talk. I empathised by finding common ground that demonstrated my understanding of the other person’s situation and shared this with them. I used my incredible capacity for problem solving to offer advice, find solutions and share them with others. I wanted to be helpful. My heart was very definitely in the right place.
How was this perceived?
I sometimes came across as rude, self-centred and insensitive.
I am not.
Reflecting on this, it is important to consider that other people don’t necessarily operate in the same way as me. Those sensory and cognitive experiences I listed earlier may be different.
When I appreciate this, I realise how invalidating my responses to others may be. Lets take empathy as an example – a subject I have written about in my personal blogs and for Neuroclastic.
My natural, authentically autistic response to someone telling me something distressing about their own experience is to trawl through my memory for something comparable.
I don’t feel a lot when people share their experiences with me. Other autistic people may be somewhere else in this broad range of sensory experiences and physically feel other peoples pain to such an extent it hurts them too. If I responded with a “yeah well, whatever” to someone’s loss, and my autistic friend with the intense emotional sensations responded with a “omg, that is so awful – look I’m crying too” – neither of us would be much use to the person who was choosing to share their experience with us.
So I developed a technique that uses my very natural abilities of logic and reasoning. I would find something comparable from my own life and tell them about it so they realise that I truly understand.
Except they don’t!
Of course, these genuinely autistic responses can be seen as invalidating for others. And it’s not just issues around empathy where this happens.
If I was to tell someone that they looked dreadful in their new dress when they asked me for my honest opinion, they’d likely be hurt.
I hate lying and I find the games people play where I am meant to know the hidden meanings behind questions, frustrating and disappointing. I am lucky to live in a family where we can be open and honest and not dress things up in untruths.
How can I stay true to myself without hurting others?
As I have matured, I have found ways of remaining authentically me, whilst recognising that other people may be running on a different operating system to the one I’m running on. Expecting other people to appreciate my straight talking just because I’d like them to do that for me, is a non-starter.
I could simply say “I am autistic, I have every right to be autistic and this is how I do things” and expect them to accept this. But they won’t! People don’t. Maybe one day when people understand autism better they will accept our way of being a bit more. In the meantime, I do have people that I can be more blunt with, or skip the small talk. It’s great and is a very small step on a long journey to equality.
Or I could mask my differences and pretend that I am like them too. That I enjoy small talk, that I like to beat around the bush rather than get to the point. That I am happy to lie! But that sucks, and messes with my mental health. I sometimes need to mask my distress and dysregulation in order to feel safer and to blend in – and we all need to behave differently in different situations in order to act appropriately. But long term masking erodes your wellbeing and identity.
How do I find a balance?
The most important consideration goes back to my thoughts on how I treat others – and myself. Unconditional positive regard. Not being an asshole to others or to myself! Recognising our differences and accepting them. Using my desire to find common ground, but not in a way that invalidates other people’s experiences or takes from them and puts the focus on me instead. Not needing to change people, instead accepting them as they are.
I recognise that I am in a neurological minority. The majority of people tend to assume I am like them, because my differences are not usually visible upon first impressions. They should accept me for being me and for being autistic, but they usually don’t.
I want them to treat me in the way that I treat them.
When I am talking with someone that has a different way of being in the world to me, I try and understand how it is for them. Many autistic people do this – it is what makes us so great at masking and camouflaging our autism.
I still use my particular way of empathising to consider that the other person may get an unbearable sensation if I tell them honestly that their dress looks awful on them. Just like I sometimes get an unbearable sensation when I have to make small talk. I consider that they may find our surroundings drab and insignificant and easy to filter out – whereas I am annoyed by the background noise and distracted by their perfume. I hold on to the fact that we are operating on different systems. But I don’t necessarily say all this out loud.
I cannot get them to understand my way of being by forcing it upon them, just like they cannot get me to become less autistic by forcing me to enjoy soap operas and small talk! Nor can I bully them into changing their attitude by blaming or shaming them for simply being born different to me. Nor should they try and bully or “normalise” me or my autistic peers by making us keep still instead of stimming; or keep quiet instead of asking for the clarity we need.
We need to do this together…
I would love non-autistic people to put the same amount of effort into understanding autistic people that autistic people often put into understanding them.
If I am going to accept that I need to be diplomatic when telling you about your dress, so that we maintain our positive relationship and you don’t feel hurt; then I’d like you to reduce the amount of effort you unknowingly make me use when trying to understand your true intentions and desires when we are chatting.
We both need to recognise each others intentions – and we may need to get to know each other and see beyond the stereotypes in order to do that.
Autistic people often communicate really well with other autistic people – we clearly don’t have deficits.
When you know me, you will value my honesty. Don’t write people off because they say or do things that seem odd to your way of thinking. If I accidentally upset you, remember that my intentions may not have been the same as your intentions in the same circumstances – and I’ll try and do that for you too.
I will not compromise my values, but I’m happy to adapt my communication style to accommodate you – in fact I do this most of the time already! Please do the same for autistic people.
You can watch me in my first ever vlog by viewing the YouTube link below, or if you’d prefer a traditional written blog, you can read that instead.
I have decided to go to University. Now then, if Miss Hooper, my very first teacher in primary school heard that news, she might be quite shocked that I am saying this at the ripe old age of 47.
On more than one occasion over the past few decades, I have affectionately cursed Miss Hooper for setting such high expectations for me. Within days of me starting school she informed my parents that I was potential Oxbridge material. A child with my natural academic ability was clearly cut out for one of the top Universities in the land.
It didn’t happen. I didn’t even get close…
So what went wrong?
For a long time I assumed “I” went wrong; my teachers assumed I went wrong; my parents assumed I went wrong. But I didn’t go wrong. The education system simply did not respond to my needs. And this was because of my undiagnosed autism.
Mind you, I can’t think of a single child at school who was diagnosed with autism. This was the 1970’s and no one had yet described the spectrum of autism nor the triad of impairments. And we were still years away from Asperger syndrome being used as a diagnosis.
Right, let’s get back to my school days.
So it’s the New Year of 1978 -I had been to playschool for a year or so and was quite looking forward to joining the big school.
I was already able to read and write – and I already had a bit of a reputation, as I was not backward in informing my playschool leaders when they misspelt my surname. And I was most offended – and I told them – when their response was that a 3 year old shouldn’t be able to spell their surname anyway! You can probably guess how well I was going to fit in with the education system from this moment on.
So here I was about to go to school. I was looking forward to it. I wanted to do some proper work! Miss Hooper, my class teacher, seemed very old to me – I suppose she was almost at retirement age back then – in fact she died earlier this year at the grand old age of 100.
She could be described as an old-fashioned sort of teacher. Strict; slightly distant; very academic and serious. Not at all like the playschool leaders who would happily get involved hands on with the children and cuddle them and play with them and fuss over them.
It was bloody brilliant!
Miss Hooper gave me extra reading lessons and I was allowed to choose books from the junior children’s library, even though I had only just started in the infants. I was even allowed to stay in at lunchtime and do more reading instead of joining the other children outside to play. I very much fitted in with this school system and I was happy to be spending my time there, stretching my brain.
I’d like to point out at this point that autism is a spectrum. That doesn’t mean some people are mildly autistic and some are severely autistic. And it doesn’t have anything to do with academic ability either. Autism is a spectrum because whilst all autistic people share similar ways of processing the world; this manifests in different ways. I was academically bright – yet took a very long time to learn how to tie my shoelaces. I could talk with ease about one of my interests – maths or animals for instance. But I struggled to know what to say to make friends.
For me, it is these contradictions that are the very essence of my autism. The huge expectation from others – and myself – that because I can do this thing very well, I should be able to most other things very well too. I remember a phrase used repeatedly about me as a child. “How can someone who is so clever, be so stupid?” This very negative phrase has taken a lot of shifting from my internal dialogue, probably because I felt it summed me up so perfectly.
I got hold of some old pictures I drew in my first school year and some of my classwork too. I can remember the sheer joy of finishing my work and asking for some extra sums to keep me busy while I waited for the rest of the class to catch up. I remember exactly how I used to think aged 4 when I drew these pictures – I was exactly the same then as I am now. So it’s nice to look back and remember that I was actually quite a sweet, fairly ordinary little girl too.
Have a look at my vlog (about 4 and a half minutes in) if you’d like to see more of them.
I am begining to see how I was starting to look to the other children. I mean – a 4 year old who asked for extra maths – for fun! Yep, my differences were beginning to show…
But no one suspected that this socially awkward, pedantic child with a massive obsession about numbers and animals was autistic. I was lucky in a way because my academic brightness and extremely polite “good” behaviour, masked some of my difficulties. My quirks – as they were probably perceived – were tolerated because I was bright and well behaved.
I was told I was clever – I knew I was clever. I was probably a total pain in the backside because my need for accuracy, order and consistency, combined with my academic ability meant that I would correct people whenever I felt it was needed and not really take into consideration anyone else’s feelings or opinions. However, I was – and still am, a polite person, and very considerate. I would happily correct someone because – goodness me, that’s what ‘I’ would want them to do for me. Surely, they must want me to tell them what they got wrong? And I’d tell them with no malice; no unkindness – just total honesty, straight to the point logic and reason – you know what? – they’d probably find me super helpful. Wouldn’t they?
Of course – this different way of experiencing empathy and interacting with others was not the typical way of my peers.
Let’s skip on a few years to secondary school.
Secondary school was bigger. More people, separate lessons, different classrooms, and a timetable to negotiate.
Things started relatively ok.
But over the course of my 5 years at secondary school, things deteriorated. I’ll share some genuine extracts from my school reports…
Year 1: This is from the Head of Year: “Emma has shown herself to be a pupil of the highest quality… She is enthusiastic and often terribly energetic and excitable about what she is doing… She is clear thinking and responsible and I am sure has much to offer the school in the future… The staff reports speak for themselves. An excellent report”
Yep, there I was. A bright future ahead of me. Lets see what the individual teachers had to say..
Maths – there should be no problem there… Grade A for effort and A for achievement – great, now what did my teacher say? OK, here goes: ”Emma works extremely well in class. She is a little dogmatic in her approach to mathematics, but at least discusses with me any disagreements she has over method!”
Yeah, well. I suppose that sounds a bit like me!
The rest of that first year report was also good. A’s for everything apart from P.E.
That wasn’t a surpirse, I have the coordination of a blancmange! I can remember from primary school how my parents were told that there hadn’t been a single P.E lesson where I didn’t injure myself in some way.
Anyway, lets look at my second year at secondary school…A good performance in all subjects according to my Head of Year. Perhaps a little too talkative.
Yep – drama teacher here says “very talkative but pleasant with it”.
Mmmm. Spanish: “Emma is a lively character, perhaps a little too lively at times for her own good”
French… “Emma’s concentration in class is apt to lapse rather too much”
Science… “Emma does not seem to work to her full ability. She can occasionally behave stupidly”
Actually Mr Hughes, I don’t think you are meant to use the word “stupid” when referring to your pupils.
History next…”Disappointing…lacks depth, Emma must be wary of developing a superficial approach”
Right, so not quite the “pupil of the highest quality” from Year 1. And whilst I was still mostly getting A’s for achievement – my grades for effort were now tending to be B’s.
But, Oh how I wish they knew the sheer amount of effort I had to put in just sitting on that crowded, noisy bus whilst teenagers screeched and sprayed copious amounts of Impulse body spray around; so that I could spend a day in brightly lit classrooms, full of people who were just not like me.
By the third year I needed to be choosing my options for GCSE’s – the new exam that was replacing O levels. I was not happy about GCSE’s. There was coursework required and homework to complete – I liked tests and exams – coursework meant sustained efforts and the ability to demonstrate you really understood something and could apply it across a range of contexts. And I preferred relying on my good memory, and winging it in the exam!
“Emma must learn to pay attention” – that was from my English teacher – and this is one of my favourite quotes ever – “Her ability cannot be questioned; her attitude can!”
And there you have it – my shift from being a bright, lively engaged member of the class, to a child who is perceived as having an attitude problem.
“There is room for improvement” according to the French teacher – I still got an A though, so where I needed to improve, I’m not sure.
Around that time I also remember frequently being told that I wasn’t listening. And I would of course reply that I was and repeat what had been said word for word.
And then… wait for it, I’d be told “Well look like you’re listening then”
So I developed my “listening pose” based on Rodin’s The thinker ….. It also felt nice to do and is still a favourite soothing strategy when I need to calm myself in front of other people without drawing too much attention to it.
“Easily distracted” in Spanish
“Needs to do a great deal to redeem herself” … that’s physics
Here’s a nice one… History “Emma is a highly intelligent and articulate girl with a waspish sense of humour”
Thank you for that, I only didn’t take history as a GCSE option because I didn’t like the other history teacher – he was sexist – and I told him. He said that the girls should help their mum’s with cooking and cleaning in the holidays.
“Fussy and disorganised” …that’s the Art teacher
So I entered the last 2 years of compulsory education. I had chosen my options, which were as science based as possible. I wanted to study medicine and unfortunately I had told my parents and teachers this aged about 7, so everyone was counting on this actually happening. That initial pressure of being Oxbridge material had stuck with me.
Inside, I knew I was different. I pretended to like pop stars and boys like the other girls did, but I didn’t really. I pretended to like make-up but actually found it felt extremely unpleasant to wear. I liked animals and nature and thinking about things and being on my own. And I was the most gullible, easiest to tease, bully or pick on child ever. And I repeatedly kept doing whatever it was that made people pick on me. And I had no idea what it was. No amount of masking my undiagnosed autism, ever really hid it. I knew I was different. Everyone else knew I was different.
But overall, academically I was doing ok- ish. My fourth year report refers to me “having ability but not quite attaining what I am capable of”
I was told I needed to be more disciplined and determined – to get things done on time – to be more consistent.
My math’s teacher was worried about my attitude; yep, so was my French teacher; my physics teacher criticised my ‘forgetfulness’; my chemistry teacher said I needed to apply myself more. The careers teacher was concerned about me being “nervous over using the telephone”
But there were some positives too.. I went to a religious school so R.E lessons were compulsory. I opted for the GCSE called ‘Religion and Life’. It was interesting and there were plenty of philosophical discussions to be had. Mr Paul, my R.E teacher is firmly stuck in my memory. I started secondary school in 1984 – and he suggested we read the George Orwell book of the same name. he welcomed my questioning mind. Here’s what he said about me….
“Emma has so many ideas that the effect can be torrential! I am considering issuing the rest of the group with umbrellas so they can survive the deluge! Actually, Emma is invaluable as a catalyst of ideas and her learning and grasp of religious ideas is very promising.”
That was a nice thing to say about me. But I bet you can imagine how I was starting to feel confused, troubled and frightened. I was still mostly getting A grades for my achievements, but I didn’t look like I was putting enough effort in. I was distractable and inconsistent and forgetful. Some teachers thought I was great. Others thought I had an attitude problem and found me exasperating.
The background to this was of course my autism – my very different sensory processing system that found some noises so painful, it was even agreed by the school that I didn’t have to go in the woodwork or metalwork classrooms. But the impact of my autism was not just academic – yes I was dogmatic, I was distractable and so on. But I was also bullied mercilessly. I found fitting in and making friends painfully difficult. I also had some horrific life events to cope with that were secret and almost unbearably painful to cope with. My life outside of lessons was horrendous – and none of those teachers knew.
In my fifth, and final year, the teachers seemed more positive about me. Probably because I did well in my mock GCSE’s. My report comments are mixed, but so so many of them are describing a very typical autistic girl.
Listen to this positive one: “Emma has an occasional tendency to gallop off into the sunset in the pursuit of an idea that attracts her, but which is not strictly relevant. But I suspect that is just the way she is. A super student and a lovely person”
My confidence in my cleverness was diminishing and my physics teacher describes how I underestimated my own ability.
My chemistry teacher refers to me being disorganised and “not averse to stopping him mid-flow to clear up any point that has not been made clear” – I’m not sure if that was meant as a positive or a negative. Either way, it’s pretty autistic.
I was feeling relief I think that school would soon finish, and I could leave. I planned to take A levels in a College of Further Education – a much better setting for me. The teachers tended to drop the dark sarcasm in the classroom once you got to call them by their first names, instead of Sir or Miss.
So I sat my GCSE’s. I did well. I went off to take science A-levels – but as the college staff reported, I did not cope well with the transition. I tried A levels a second time. But no. Education just wasn’t working for me. If you have a read of my blog about how I learn – and the difficulties this causes my teachers, then you’ll understand more about how the combination of sensory, social and teaching factors just don’t work for me at all.
So we skip forwards 30 years and I’m off to do my PhD. I’ll be a doctor – but not the medical surgeon I had planned to be. My PhD is about neurodiversity and employment.
And this is because I have been successful in my career. Being a catalyst of ideas is useful. Being nervous of using the telephone is still problematic, but where my skills are valued, colleagues are often – but not always, happy to make accommodations. My differences can be an asset. I have an appreciation of the world being a far more complex place than I did as a child. I still call people out when I need to – I’d still tell that history teacher he was being sexist. But I’d be more diplomatic with my maths teacher, and I certainly wouldn’t tell him he was “wrong” just because his way of working out a maths problem was different to mine.
I got hold of these old reports when I went to see my family in early September. I didn’t even know they were still in existence. I wondered if my autism would be apparent when I read them. Judge for yourself.
I struggled my way through school, without knowing why. Surely a bright, talkative girl would be successful? But she wasn’t. Well not in the way school expected anyway.
Usually in life, I have been most successful when I have played to my strengths, and other people have played to my strengths.
I’d like teachers to think about the bigger picture when they are writing or thinking about pupil’s “stupid behaviour” or “attitude problems”. Neurodiversity could be behind it. Especially when you view the bigger picture and see the pupil’s strengths as well as the issues. These characteristics often create a picture of someone who experiences the world differently – and that can bring innovation as well as challenges.
Teachers also don’t always know what goes on outside of the classroom either, and the impact of these things on a child too.
School age Emma was academically bright, full of ideas, disorganised, forgetful, distracted. She had a tendency to go off on a tangent, to question and to say what she thought. She was – and still has, nervousness around using the telephone. Still accident prone when it comes to doing P.E. Still can’t even be in the room with certain noises, smells or lighting. At times still socially awkward.
Unfortunately, school put me off learning. Put me off making friends. And put me off myself, if truth be known.
Our son is home educated. He had a fantastic primary school experience but once we saw that some secondary school teachers still used the same old sarcasm, still viewed difficulties with writing, copying from the blackboard or having the correct equipment at the correct time as “behaviour issues”, we decided to educate him ourselves. And we are all thriving because of it.
I have no energy for masking at the moment and know that this means I will either appear totally unstable or I’ll muck up everything I have worked so hard to create.
It makes me want to give up as there seems no point.
Situations remind me that no matter how hard I try, how well I mask, and how fantastic my skills are – I am still really crap at being a neurotypical person. But I’m not neurotypical so why does it matter?
Because autistic people are not valued as whole people. My skills can be appreciated but the rest is still measured in deficits.
People assume I want to be more normal, or I’ll somehow learn to fit in. I don’t. I won’t.
I want the whole of me to be appreciated.
I often find neurotypical people dishonest, vague, inconsistent and tricksy. I still love many of them though. I accept I find those aspects of their persona difficult and confusing. I may not even like how they do things sometimes. Perhaps they occasionally annoy me. But I still love them and wouldn’t dream of writing them off as lesser, or as a broken version of me.
We are all perfectly imperfect human beings.
That’s why I’m fed up of being autistic today. I’m tired and overwhelmed and have no fight left. I get more tired anyway because my brain does so much more processing. On top of that I have to put all that effort into fitting in so I’m allowed to have a go at normal stuff like work and friendships.
My brain rarely rests. My body is usually alert to danger and ready to react.
Most people don’t realise this, and when I end up having to tell them so they’ll stop unintentionally hurting me, I feel humiliated and reminded of how the world is not designed for me.
That’s why I’m fed up of being autistic today.
So I’m taking it easy. I’m cuddling my dog. I’m taking care of myself and hoping tomorrow will feel better.
Self-care is the only way. I have a capacity for joy that others may never achieve. I seek out those sounds that reset my soul. I notice the patterns the rain is making on the window and trace each tiny droplet until it has my full focus. I read those comments that remind me I am not alone. I move in ways that reminds me I am in here – I have a right to be alive.
I rest, I recharge. I don’t plan my next battle. I remind myself that this neurotypically biased world is not of my making. I look at the birds and the trees and I reflect on the words of Mary Oliver. I remember where I belong.
I had never heard of this phenomenon until last year. I was having a discussion with a professional who works on the local NHS Autism team, and she asked if I wanted to have a look at a questionnaire about camouflaging and masking. I thought why not, and promptly set about answering the 25 questions. I emailed my response back and was delighted to hear I had scored really highly on all areas! “Well, I’m clearly not as autistic as I thought I was, I knew I’d get a high score because this is all obvious stuff that everyone does all the time. See I’m as normal as the next person”. I thought to myself.
My high score wasn’t because I’m not that autistic, in fact it indicated that I mask almost all of the time and this is a very common experience in autism. I was beginning to feel uneasy. I had realised I was autistic by then but wrongly assumed the ‘autism spectrum’ people talk about was a linear thing with mild autism at one end and severe autism at the other. I would probably be a little bit autistic – because I work, I have a family, I function well enough to convince most people I’m normal. And I’ll forget about all that other stuff; the never fitting in, the always knowing I was different, the misdiagnoses and failure to reach my potential – that’s probably all because I’m just such a crap person! Of course, it is not like this at all – you can no more be mildly autistic that you can be a bit gay, or slightly pregnant. The spectrum is a collection of different elements, aspects and strengths and every one of us who is autistic, has their own unique combination of these. And everyone that isn’t autistic is not on the autism spectrum.
The questionnaire was scored in the areas of compensation, masking, and pretend social ease. Until this point, I had assumed everybody pretended to be normal all the time. I realised that some people were more ‘normal’ than others, but I had no idea that there was even such a thing as masking. I still cannot comprehend how neurotypical people operate in terms of social interactions, so watch out those of you who know me, I plan to find out and will probably question the hell out of you!
Types of masking.
There are lots of different ways autistic people cover up their autism and its worth having a read of other people’s experiences . I’ll touch on three elements of camouflaging and my choice of terminology has no great thought behind it and is not a definitive explanation – to be honest, much of the language used in research and accounts of masking feels a little judgmental to me – it suggests ‘normality’ and deficits :
Compensation – this includes all the tricks and tips I’ve taught myself (and others) over the years. The techniques for making realistic eye contact by looking at the person’s mouth instead of their eyes. I had the added bonus of having regular investigations and treatment for hearing problems as a child, so my lip reading was positively encouraged. A few years ago, I considered writing a book for autistic people about how to get by in life. I had worked as a manager of a residential service, with a woman who had been in the care system since childhood and had a whole host of psychiatric and behavioural diagnoses. I supported her through assessment for Asperger’s (as it was known back then) and when it came to my work appraisal she wrote some feedback that said “Emma is really good at teaching me the tricks of the trade”. I was delighted at this – not least for the compliment, but for her accurate use of complex language. In fact, I was the one who said to my line manager “What do you think she means by that Karen?”
Masking – this includes hiding my distress, confusion, and difficulties whilst pretending all is well. I have spent my life feeling as if I have been winging it, and I am often only moments away from making myself look totally stupid by asking a question that everyone else intuitively knows the answer to. The further in my career I have gone, the more I have had to mask. Every time I hear a new piece of business jargon I have to look it up so that I can keep up with the conversation. I have to suppress my need for clarity and my desire to blurt out “Why are you talking such utter nonsense?!” But pretending I know what is going on isn’t always helpful. I’ll give you one of my embarrassing moments:
I was sat in the board room in a very serious meeting and the person talking used the phrase “the elephant in the room”. Now, I absolutely knew this was not to be taken literally. An alarm went off in my brain that said “idiom/metaphor/figure of speech alert”. So I used my quick thinking brain to whiz through everything I knew about elephants to try and work out the meaning. Elephants are big – are they talking about something that is big? Elephants have big ears and a trunk – no it can’t be to do with that and stop it Emma, do not go off on a mental tangent about the different types of elephant and their respective physiology. Elephants never forget – aha, maybe it’s to do with memory or remembering something. What else do I know about elephants?….And then the question came: “Do you have any thoughts on that Emma?” And I realised that I hadn’t got a clue what was going on, or what the question was, and I couldn’t even grasp at an answer out of thin air. The conversation had moved on and I was lost in the world of Proboscidea. I was probably the only person in the room with the taxonomic knowledge to name the order that elephants, mammoths and mastodons sit in – and I was probably the only person in the room feeling stupid, anxious and lost! And all because I didn’t want to make myself look stupid for not understanding something. I challenge you to spend a day in your workplace or school considering how complex language is if your default setting is to take things literally.
I also mask my need to move about or do anything that ‘looks’ autistic. I find moving is very regulating, it helps me concentrate, focus and come up with ideas – all the sorts of things employers and teachers encourage. But it would put me in the firing line of ridicule, misunderstanding and people would assume that there was clearly something wrong with this otherwise bright and articulate woman who can’t keep still and behave ‘properly’.
Assimilation – I never felt like one of the girls at school but I knew my life would be easier if I pretended to be like them. I learned about boyfriends by listening to what other girls had to say and joining in the conversations as best I could. I was not attracted to boys at all as a teenager and I wasn’t attracted to girls either. I learned the language of relationships but had no idea of the meaning of some of the terms (‘getting off with’; ‘blow job’ etc). You’ve read how my brain works when I described the elephant in the room – go figure! Many of the girls at school read magazines and studied and giggled at the problem pages and articles on how to know if a boy fancies you and how to flirt and so on, so I joined in and copied. This was useful because it gave me some proper concrete information on how to have relationships with boys and made me appear to have something in common with my peers. I wasn’t interested in having a boyfriend but knew it was a normal part of growing up. I worked on how to flirt and how to tell if a boy was interested in me but unfortunately put so much energy into ‘getting it right’, I never considered consent or whether I wanted to go out with them. I can’t remember having feelings towards other people as a child, sexual or otherwise. I didn’t like or dislike people. I didn’t look at someone and find them attractive. My sister covered her side of our bedroom with posters of pop stars and my friends talked about boys they fancied and got excited when certain actors were in films. None of this did anything for me at all. I bought a small photo in a frame of George Michael in Speedos, because Wham! were very popular back then and I knew it would be easier if I said I liked someone. The photo sat on my bookshelves whilst I lived at home and was my attempt at fitting in and somehow feels a rather ironic choice now – gay and dead! RIP George x.
Don’t we all mask?
I assumed everyone masks. I know for a fact that my old line-manager swears her head off outside of work but was always totally professional within her role as a director. I know that it would be rude and feel hurtful if I replied honestly when someone asked if I thought they looked good in the item of clothing that I thought looked dreadful on them. I know that you cannot go through life being impulsive and doing and saying whatever you want at the expense of others. So isn’t masking something we all do?
I’d argue that it is not. Those things are the normal day to day, not being an asshole type things we do because we are sharing this planet with each other and need to get on. Kindness is essential, even if it is frequently overlooked and undervalued in our society. Kindness comes first for me. If I choose the kind option then it may mean I modify my behaviour or instinctive response. I may need to hold back and rephrase my honest response into something diplomatic and kind – but I can still be true to myself and be honest. Assertiveness is a good way of being true to yourself because you still meet your own needs but also meet other people’s needs too. I will compromise my behaviour but not my values.
So what is different about autistic masking?
Quite simply. The cost.
Masking your autism always comes at a price. And I have paid with my mental wellbeing. The costs are twofold. The direct mental health costs of camouflaging are exhausting. Whilst I’m concentrating on getting my eye contact right, I’m using valuable capacity that could be used for answering the question or thinking. And the continual anxiety of whether I’m getting it right wears me down emotionally and cognitively. The indirect costs are things like low self-esteem from getting into all sorts of scrapes while pretending to be normal, and not feeling sure of who I am and whether I am an ok person or not, as I feel I’m living a lie.
It erodes my identity because I’m not sure which bits of me are truly me. If you ever share doubts about your identity with mental health professionals, it can indicate various psychiatric conditions and personality disorders. Misdiagnosis of autistic people is common and once a label has been given; every trait, behaviour and experience may be interpreted as part of that labelled disorder – this further erodes the sense of identity and creates a sense of being damaged or ill. It also creates a sense that you can somehow get better and recover. Autism is not an illness and recovery is not going to happen. Living a fulfilled and valued life can happen though, but in my opinion is unlikely to whilst you perceive yourself as broken and needing to be fixed.
The knock-on effects of mental health treatment can further affect your wellbeing. Stigma, discrimination, and side effects of medication are just three of the many ways this can happen.
Another effect of masking is that you don’t regulate your emotions or senses when you need to. All those times I stop myself from moving about to regulate myself, I stay dysregulated. All that energy that goes into keeping still or not reacting to whatever it is that is causing me to become overwhelmed further increases my distress. And no one knows. That is a serious issue because if no one knows how distressed I am until I absolutely have to show it by either falling apart or completely switching off (some people would describe how they experience meltdowns or shutdowns) then I will look like I overreact. I struggle to identify and verbalise what I am feeling anyway and if I am hiding what my body is telling me I need to do to feel better, no one can ever help me. Also, the idea that so-called ‘high functioning’ autistic people don’t do all those autistic things is reinforced – which is unhelpful and inaccurate. The same is true of not asking for clarification, or time to process information – my needs go unnoticed and therefore unmet.
Regular masking means you may never learn decent coping strategies because no one knows you are not ok. Then when something happens in life that is difficult, traumatic, or distressing, you have no idea how to cope.
Should I take off my mask?
Or even could I? Or do I want to? Yes, I would like to be more “me”, but that doesn’t mean going about my day impulsively and insensitively doing what I please or saying whatever comes into my head. I have a choice in much of what I do. I do not have a choice in how my senses work or how my brain processes information. I will react strongly to a loud noise because my body and brain think I am in danger and no amount of me telling myself otherwise will change that. I will take things literally, or not be able to read between the lines sometimes. I do have a tendency to be honest and upfront, and my brain will opt for the honest answer every time, regardless. I cannot choose how I react to all of these things and sometimes other people need to be more understanding and patient. Where I can choose how to react, then I do my best. Or if I’m having a bad day, I’m a pain in the backside – just like everyone else can be!
I have been very fortunate in having a career where I have had some excellent mentors, role models and line-managers. I trained to become a registered manager by taking part in a scheme where I had placements in a range of different care services under a number of different managers. I used my excellent skills at masking to observe, analyse, copy, and practice the management styles in each placement and gradually hone them into my own style that worked for me. This is where my ability to mask has been a huge benefit. I wasn’t doing it to disguise something, but rather to try out what worked for me so that I could become a good leader myself.
So I don’t necessarily need to stop masking. On occasion it can benefit my mental wellbeing because it enables me to learn skills that are good for my personal development. It enables me to ‘test out’ how to behave in certain scenarios. It helps me learn rules for behaving in particular situations.
However, it is essential that I have balance, and any period of masking needs to be balanced with times of not masking. For me, camouflaging for lots of the time is not sustainable. I am blessed with having people and places that require the minimal amount of covering up.
What am I masking?
I am similar to many autistic people because I compartmentalise things. The world is so chaotic and unfiltered, the only way I can cope is to divide it all up into bits that have their own rules and explanations. That way I can function day to day because I have less to work out. If I am at work, I know how to behave in an appropriate way. If I am in the village shop, there’s another set of rules to follow as far as conversations, behaviour and social interactions are concerned. I can even cope with people being in a number of a categories – living in a rural village, it is quite normal to see people in a number of their roles – my conversation at the GP surgery is very different to my behaviour when I see my GP at a concert we are both playing in. This works well for me until people pop up in the wrong places or the rules change! It enables me to mask better too. I can have a mental phrase book of small talk for the shop, small talk for work, chats while dog walking and so on. I am more comfortable with defined roles and tend to have more meaningful relationships within boundaries. I know how to pretend to be whatever the particular type of ‘normal’ is in any situation. It helps me predict and I feel more confident.
The trouble is, this reinforces that very disjointed sense of who I am. It adds to the questions I have about my identity and what is authentically me. I have needed to join up my compartments a bit more so that I feel more whole. I am not just autistic Emma or wife Emma or mum. This also makes me question again – what is it I’m masking? Where is the autistic bit? Of course, there is no autistic bit in the same way as there is no female bit of me or British bit. These parts of my identity run through every part of my being.
How do I take off my mask?
When I was first diagnosed with autism I went through a process of revisiting every experience in my life and viewing it through the lens of my autism. I looked for anything that was out of place (how very autistic of me!) and I could not find one single example that would show I was not autistic. Things that had puzzled and frustrated me about myself for years became crystal clear. I felt liberated. I felt that I wanted to be proudly autistic and why should I hide? I felt like I wasn’t autistic enough because I was so good at hiding it, and maybe I should try and act a bit more autistic? But I didn’t really want to. I wondered if I was properly autistic because I don’t do lots of stereotypical autistic things. Was that because I was ashamed? How the hell do I be this authentically autistic version of me?
I thought all around this subject and could not get my head around it at first. But like so much of my processing, it took time and involved taking the long way round and detouring off all over the place. I concluded that my need for compartmentalising everything was holding me back. The autistic bit of me is all of me. When I masking, I’m still being me. When I am being a pedantic, annoying know-it-all that won’t stop telling you what it is I need to you to absolutely know, right this minute, that’s me too! The totally scatty, unable to organise her own lunch woman – that’s me. The hyper-focused, innovative thinker that solves problems others can see no way round – that’s also me. The cowering from the sudden noise Emma is the same Emma that stands up confidently in front of people and shares her knowledge. The woman pretending she’s ok because she doesn’t want to let on she hasn’t got a clue, that’s Emma. And so is the woman who stands up for others and tells the truth regardless of the effect, because it is the right thing to do – it’s all me.
When should I take off my mask?
I am not letting myself down or failing to be authentic by masking. How dare others judge me for coping the best I can. Particularly when the risks of not masking are so dire – ridicule, discrimination and misunderstanding. And how dare I force myself to act in a way that doesn’t sit right either – be that through masking or not masking.
My wellbeing is important. If my masking affects my mental health in a negative way then it is clearly destructive and I need to reduce it. But that’s not just down to me. I may decide “Fuck it, I’m going to flap my arms about next time I need to in a meeting as I’ll feel much more able to concentrate”. That will not go down well – regardless of the rights and wrongs of it.
Do I have the right to? Absolutely. If I had a different disability then it would be accommodated. No one says deaf people can’t move their arms to communicate through signing, because it looks funny and might upset the other people in the room. Do I need to be the warrior out there being authentically autistic so that stigma is challenged? That’s up to me, but no, I don’t have to be.
What would help though is better understanding. Being sensitive to the needs of autistic people and creating more accommodating environments that don’t create sensory overload. Using language that is clear and not open to interpretation. Giving people time to process questions instead of asking again in a different way and thus doubling the amount of processing. If autistic people were properly, compassionately and genuinely listened to, all this would be clear – I am not saying anything out of the ordinary. If people acted in this way then I wouldn’t need to ask so many questions or regulate myself as much. If people got to know me and understood my values and recognised that although I may seem serious, I have a good sense of humour and although I may seem unemotional, I am passionate about many things. Then, when I do say the wrong thing or act in the wrong way, they’ll know it’s just Emma being Emma and she doesn’t mean anything harmful by it.
How will this look?
Living authentically, is about living. It’s the journey not the destination. The world is not ideal so it is likely I will always have occasions where camouflaging my needs is preferable to meeting my needs publicly. If I choose to mask, that’s fine and totally authentic. If I can’t help myself from masking or don’t even know that I’m doing it because I’m so used to it, then that is clearly authentic too. Masking is never a sign of failure. Aspiring to not mask is not essential – the world gives autistic people a hard enough time without us giving ourselves one too. I have more acceptance of myself because I have more understanding – and that means I feel more in control and more able to choose how I live. Will I apologise for needing to meet my own needs and regulate myself? No. Will I ask more questions when I need to? Almost definitely. Will I do things that make me feel self-conscious? Probably not. Will I compromise my values or lie? Never.
But how will this work for everyone else – if I have considered my part then what about you? If you are someone who has good social skills and understanding then do you really have to insist that someone who is uncomfortable with eye contact looks at you? If you are good at all that stuff then why is it not you that is changing your behaviour? If you understand something and someone asks a ‘stupid question’ then why not be patient and explain rather than show your frustration. If you are puzzled by another person’s sensory experiences then why not enquire in a gentle way so that you can adapt and adjust so that they feel as comfortable as you do?
I don’t purposely do things to make other people feel uncomfortable, but I can’t tolerate bullshit either. The world feels very different at the moment and I’m pleased to see people acting in a less bullshitty way. It is good to see that we all wear casual clothes at home when we are on our work conference calls. It is good to see that many of us have pets and children that are important to us and what we really like is having a walk or sitting in the garden. When the ability to shop, spend and consume indiscriminately disappeared, many people re-evaluated what was important to them. Why not make understanding and accepting each other more, part of that?
I’ve always known I am me. I’ve also always known I am different to many other people. It has been hard to put my finger on it. As a young child I wondered whether it was because I was too clever – I was thriving academically at primary school – this was before my experience of the education system went terribly wrong! Or maybe I was an alien because I certainly didn’t seem to be on the right planet at all. Or perhaps I was a psychopath who was manipulating everyone she met with her constant conscious processing and analysis, and superficial charm that enabled her to pass off as normal when she very clearly wasn’t.
Of course, it became apparent that my difference is very real, but also very easy to explain. I am autistic. I have always been autistic and I’ve viewed hospital notes from around the time of my birth and listened to my parents accounts of how I was a slow feeder that didn’t like being held or comforted. In fact, there is nothing in my life’s events that cannot be accounted for by my autism and these early accounts of my atypical sensory processing are the start of a lifetime’s worth of examples of how my differences have created opportunities, challenges, misunderstandings, joy and normality for me.
Unfortunately, I did not know I was autistic for a very long time. I only knew I was different. I did my best to try and fit in and the resultant masking of my autistic traits played havoc with my wellbeing. Deep inside, I felt that I was probably ok – how could I not be? I was kind, I was thoughtful, I always did my best, I tried hard. But I also related strongly to the little boy in the Hans Christian Anderson story ‘’The Emperor’s new clothes”. Was I the only person on the planet who could see what was actually going on? Why when I helpfully pointed out mistakes or inaccuracies or called people out on the bullshit they were preaching, did they act as if what I saw was wrong? Why in this world where I had been brought up to be truthful was I being told to buy into the lies? My sense of probably being ok was gradually eroding into a sense of there being something fundamentally wrong with me.
Again, I struggled to put my finger on what it was that was wrong with me. My sensory processing is not typical of many peoples and I don’t experience things like a gut feeling or awareness of my gender, sexuality or even my likes and dislikes. Everything I “know”, I know in my head. I am female because I have a female body – I have no ability to comprehend what trans people mean when they say they know they are in the wrong body because I have no idea whether I am in the right body or even on the right planet! I am heterosexual because I love my husband and am attracted to him, however I do not even look at other people and sense attraction towards them because that would go against my commitment to my husband who I love deeply. I eat the food that annoys me the least and that I can tolerate in my mouth. Growing up I also knew that I didn’t “get” lots of the stuff that other people intuitively got. My attempts to understand and soothe myself took me down a variety of constructive and destructive paths and some of those led to long-term involvement from mental health services.
I have tried fitting in with a variety of groups of people, medical diagnoses, philosophies, and beliefs throughout my life much as most people do. The desire to know where we belong seems universal throughout humankind regardless of neurology or any other part of our identity. Although I developed an ability to camouflage my autism, I always knew when I wasn’t being genuinely me. My lack of a gut feeling doesn’t mean I don’t notice things, only that I notice in a different way. People use the expression “like an alarm bell going off” and I understand why they use that metaphor. When I meet someone or go somewhere and things don’t quite fit as they should, I experience an uncomfortable, edgy, clanging, noisy sensation that warns me something is definitely not right. I get this feeling when I meet people whose words and actions demonstrate different sets of values. It is more than the usual difference between the two that most people show in normal day to day behaviour – the typical modifying of our behaviour to act appropriately in a variety of situations – not being rude or insensitive and so on by kerbing our urge to swear or tell the truth regardless of consequences. This is something fundamentally different that sets off alarm bells for me. The contrast is as out of place as a spelling error on a typed page or a tiger showing up in my local woods. It is a concrete mismatch that is quantifiable and nothing to do with feelings. I know it (in my head).
I also “know” absolutely solidly when something is correct. I know my autism diagnosis is correct because I can (and have!) matched every single scenario in my life against that fact to test if it is accurate – and it is. And that is how I have come to write this blog. I have more of a sense of how I am as well as who I am. The label is so correct, I forget I am autistic a lot of the time, in the same way as I don’t consciously consider myself British or female or Caucasian as I go about my day. These things only matter when I am facing advantages or disadvantages based on these parts of my identity, the rest of the time they are irrelevant.
Gaining the correct diagnosis has righted a lot of wrongs, particularly with regard to incorrect psychiatric diagnoses. The hardest wrongs to right have been the labels I have attributed to myself, based on the lies I have believed that others who have misunderstood me have said about me and to me. The process I have been through post-diagnosis has been intense and all consuming at times.
It has left me with a sense of freedom to move on with my life. I am solid in my identity – I have always been me all along. The mislabelled bits were still me, the camouflaging bits were still me. I have desperately tried to unpick and categorise what is autistic me and what isn’t. How should I be authentically autistic, how do I unmask? I want to be able to be myself and act in a way that is more noticeably autistic at times e.g. by asking for people to adjust the volume or lighting in a meeting or to be able to regulate myself in whatever way works without feeling ashamed of flapping my arms about or bouncing up and down. I question whether I am too damaged, or too untrue to myself, or whether I am ashamed of my autistic identity because I can’t do these things comfortably. I am not. Every single bit of this is authentically me. No one is purely their neurology, no one is only their gender or their job title or their sexuality or religion. We are a mixture of all of these things and to try and stick the autistic bit in a separate category just doesn’t work for me.
I have seen the jigsaw puzzle piece imagery associated with autism and I don’t relate to it personally. I am my own puzzle that is still being put together. I have no idea what the picture will be and in fact I have thrown the box away! My autism is not a piece that was missing, it is more like the glue that holds all the pieces together. It was there when the first piece was laid and will be there until my puzzle is finished.