Put the Mask in the Prop Box

This post was inspired by @fidgets.and.fries and @nigh.functioning.autism compassionate, informed, and thought-provoking discussion of ABA on Instagram live. You can watch it on YouTube here.

One of the things that resonated with me in their discussion (there were so many other important things, but I don’t have the experience to speak to them) was that they talked about teaching kids about masking, how to mask, when you need to mask to be safe, and when you can take it off. I come from a place of privilege here, as I don’t need to worry about my life being in danger if I don’t mask with cops, but the more I think about this point, the more I agree that we can and should be talking to and teaching autistic kids about masking. As they point out, the significant damage is done when you are masking and you don’t know it, and you don’t know how much it is costing you or how and when you can take the mask off.

I think this is something I keep coming back to as I learn to unmask. I don’t want to throw masking away. I want to recognize what it costs, but it also has a purpose. I learned to do it for a reason. I wouldn’t have put so much cognitive energy into something didn’t feel fundamentally necessary for me to do.

My situation is possibly a bit unusual, as I have had two very different experiences of masking in my life. I grew up homeschooled and living in isolated areas, so I had a relatively unmasked childhood. I had the chance to get to know myself in a way that I don’t think a lot of autistic kids, regardless of when they are diagnosed, do. I had hours and hours where I was free to entertain myself, and I didn’t have to worry about other kids or adults judging my behaviour. I didn’t realize it was weird to love playing alone for hours or to perform physics experiments on my matchbox cars and rank them accordingly. I made up elaborate stories and scenarios in my head, stimmed freely, climbed all the trees, read the dictionary, and borrowed every book the library had on classical composers without any thought to whether I was “normal.”

Not that it was idyllic. My meltdowns were the behaviour that was “unacceptable,” and I did experience childhood trauma, but I have a wildly rare freedom to mostly learn who I was. So when I went into society, I assumed that I just didn’t know the rules because of my isolation, and I treated learning them as a game. Then I discovered theatre, and assumed that everyone must be playing a role! I also took “all the world’s a stage” quite literally. Again, it wasn’t perfect, as it wasn’t without hiccups, unexplained lost friendships, and trying on masks that I found morally uncomfortable because I wanted to make friends, but by the time I entered high school I had a very strong sense that I was making although I didn’t know that’s what it was.

I was part of an elaborate play when I was in public, and just assumed that so was everyone else. And my confidently quirky character (who was heavily based on Amy Lee), won me other “weird” friends. I didn’t have much anxiety around this role or whether I was “being” correctly, because I saw it as a performance. And I still knew how to take off the mask. I knew when I got home I could obsess over painting my desk with Lord of the Rings characters. I could close my door and sing and dance and stim to music for hours and do all the things that I knew were self-regulating because I had had the chance to learn about myself.

A very pale young woman with long curly black hair and a red corset sitting in a dramatic pose in a heavily photoshopped image with painted background that looks like a stone wall.
A young me as Amy Lee

The weight of the mask didn’t truly hit me until college. Suddenly my persona was wrong and I was supposed to also have a boyfriend. And boyfriends taught me that it was wrong and bad and deceptive to play a character in public. Boyfriends wanted me to “be myself… but not like that.”

As an aside, the very first college boy I developed a crush on told me we couldn’t date because he was autistic, and that might have been the one person who would have been more comfortable with my actual self. However, I am sure the chaotic confused undiagnosed ADHD/Autistic disaster who was having her mask broken apart because Amy Lee was not an effective persona for college — and had a very questionable understanding of the “rules” of dating — was immensely overwhelming, and I am very sorry to that person. I couldn’t have dated 18 year old me either.

Anyway, back to the main content. With my mask under question, and with no idea how to fit in, I let the intentional mask go and slipped into something far more insidious. I started to use alcohol as a part of my mask. And then I tried to turn it into my whole self.

While that mask has gone through different iterations, and at times it has been thinner, I no longer realized that it existed. I went from consciously playing a role, to thinking that being myself meant always being a way that made others more comfortable and happy. And when I failed, it wasn’t the mask that failed. I believed I was a failure.

And so I stopped my self-regulation strategies even when I was at home, because that me was weird. That me betrayed I was playing a part. That me betrayed that my self made people uncomfortable. The mask that suffocated me was the one I didn’t know how to take off.

For awhile I kept the mask more comfortable by moulding it into something a little bit “quirky.” But then I entered the tech industry, and just like Amy Lee didn’t work in high school, “quirky” didn’t work. So I tried to reshape it again. But this time I didn’t know it wasn’t me. The experience of my mask becoming even more dissonant with myself while having no idea how to take it off caused me to become unrecognizable to my then partner before I finally burnt out from the exhaustion of holding it.

Part of learning about myself and healing has been to see the mask as a performance again. I do try to unmask where I can because I have privilege and safety that many don’t, and I want to use this to help normalize being visibly autistic for those who are unable to mask. But there are still situations where that is not safe for me, for example, financially or medically. And if it’s not safe for me as a, generally female passing, white person, I know that it’s so much more astronomically unsafe for those with less privilege.

I understand why unmasking is important for those of us who are late diagnosed, but being able to do so all the time requires a level of privilege. I am learning to separate the mask from myself, and that is important. But sometimes the energy of putting on the mask outweighs damage that our ableist society will cause without it. So I do think in our imperfect society there is a need to teach autistic kids about masking. What it is. Why they are doing it. And that it is a role. Because too often there are two possible outcomes: the autistic person is at risk, or the autistic person learns to mask anyway without realizing that is what they are doing.