Autistic masking and authenticity. #TakeTheMaskOff

Personal stories in the context of #TakeTheMaskOff – hiding and camouflaging autism spectrum traits for so-called social acceptability. How I did it, why and how I’m doing it less, results.

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Accusations of authenticity

I’ve been accused by a friend, a while ago, of always trying to be completely authentic. Even in situations in which it’s hard, doesn’t make sense, or is overly exhausting. With everyone I meet, every random person. I take in everything about every person I meet, and pretty much show everyone my naked feelings and opinions in some ways. Create weirdness; get exhausted, too.

I didn’t know that I’m doing this. Wasn’t realising.

I don’t remember aspiring to be “authentic”.

Then, in conjunction with having followed the the #TakeTheMaskOff campaign for a while, it clicked that hey – she’s probably referring to the fact that I suck at masking. And, without even knowing the concept, I’ve been gradually giving it up in small ways over the years.

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How I masked and why I reduced it

Because yes, there was an age, when I was younger, when I was kind of copying people. Kind of absorbing their identities. Mirroring their body language, their tone of voice, their thought patterns, feeling their emotions. So much so that I’d stopped feeling myself.

I didn’t know who I was, what I felt or what I wanted – I remember being acutely aware of that fact at age 19. It took me another decade, or more, to start dissolving this (lack of) feeling, gradually.

In attempts to connect, I read psychology books, also developed a kind of “good listener” persona. Read on how you’re supposed to show empathy, observed and copied how people give compliments. (At that time I didn’t know anything about the autism spectrum yet.)

I still couldn’t predict why connections with people didn’t work out the way I wanted, almost never. Why I couldn’t integrate into groups, participate in them without utter anguish and exhaustion. Why people apparently still kept their distance, for reasons unknown to me, kept up walls. Didn’t become friends, the way I’d like to.

It’s true, perhaps gradually I decided to be authentic – because my masking didn’t really work; and as far as it worked, it left me with human connections that didn’t feel like connections. I still felt alone. I was separated from myself, means separated from others even if they tried to get close.

I didn’t have the concept of masking at that time. Nor really a conscious decision to reduce it.

Rather, it was a mix between a preemptive strike strategy; and just giving up.

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Preemptive strike: you’re likely to reject me or block further development of the friendship at a point, even if I try very hard. Why not save myself the work and give you the choice right now? Look, this is me, this is how I dress (you’re right to think I’m not straight), this is the stupid jokes I tell, yes I fidget around, no I don’t drink, and I don’t walk through noisy intersections or malls either, sorry.

Giving up: this has come at the age of what I learnt is known as burnout. I thought I’m sick or depressed. Over a space of years. This harrowed me quite a bit but also made me narrow down my life to the most essential, to the most important, and dump the rest. If I have energy just for 1 thing (not 20 like I used to), what’s that thing going to be? No, it’s not going to be making a good impression on people who most likely couldn’t take the real me anyways.

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Learning from #TakeTheMaskOff

Before bumping into the #ActuallyAutistic community, I didn’t realise that most of what I’m masking is considered autism spectrum traits. Things like constantly needing to move, making random noises, crazy facial expressions, rocking, jiggling legs, getting hypnotised by shapes or by music, tuning out, not really following what’s going on in groups of neurotypical people, and many, many episodes of sensory overload, meltdown and shutdown (I’d just “act normal” through them, until breaking point = not being able to speak, and being accused of a wide host of things by the people around me).

I didn’t know that most people don’t need to consciously monitor their turn in conversations (something I never managed, hence basically did and do not participate in group conversations) or think about the tone of voice they use with the shop assistant.

Now I just accepted that the shop assistant may think I’m weird if I say things the way I say them (e.g., awkward, too quiet, too loud, like a child, in funny words, in a circle or words that don’t make sense). Today I just did. She’s seen me many times, to my positive surprise she actually smiled. Sometimes people are scared. I see though that they seem to accept me after a few repetitions, seeing that I’m apparently harmless after all. They do seek contact. At least shop assistants and post office clerks in this tiny town in rural Poland.

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Close relationships and unmasking

Unmasking seems to have brought me some unexpected benefits in my social relationships. I was receiving guests (couchsurfers and such) to my rural hermitage this summer. I decided there is no reason to mask with them. I’m in my grandmother’s house, I’m hosting them – they can leave; there’s no reason to make myself fakely likeable or to conceal my needs. In fact, the latter will (experienced that many times) just lead to me freaking out and needing to be alone sooner, worst case asking the guests to leave (yes, has happened). So – in any case it won’t be worse than that.

I also hypothesised that my need to be alone so much could have to do with masking – because I like human warmth a lot. A lot. I need it. But it hurts to be among people, too. I hypothesised, perhaps that’s because I automatically suppress hundreds of tiny, little needs – that I learnt are presumably autism spectrum related – such as movements; rocking, stretching, walking around; making faces – rather than sitting rigidly and putting on a “nice” face and pretending I’m listening for far longer than I can focus or sit still. Forcing friendly eye contact (I like eye contact after a while, when I already trust someone, a longer, deliberate look to check how they feel from time to time.) … suppressing microscopic needs like tuning out in silence for a few seconds, or minutes, after a major conversation topic, a point I need to digest. Instead, I could try not forcing myself to respond immediately. Even stopping people when I can’t listen anymore because of sensory discomfort, or because I need to reflect (sure, some get offended).

I could try not covering up silence, because I’m actually comfortable with silence. The prolonged lack of it gives me a headache.

I could try letting myself use my body language the way I feel like. When I’m too tired, say things with my hands or face instead of words. People may think it’s retarded. Sure, I got criticised for that often enough.

But why should I give myself a headache in situations in which nothing huge is at stake? And why should I give the other person a drama or scene or bad vibe later – which is what usually follows the “headache” (i.e. overload)? Isn’t it better for them to get some weirdness over me melting down and becoming unbearable?

So, I tried that.

I was totally shocked at how well it worked. Yes, I invited wonderful people. But if I had met them while masking, would we have spent so much time together and gotten so close in this time frame? Or would I have crashed exhausted, irritated after a day, as is usual, not knowing what’s going on and why, and worst case blaming the other person?

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The mindfulness required for unmasking

When having guests, and the conscious project of masking even less, keeping up the conscious intention and attention up constantly was indispensable.

Noticing: hey, I’m forcing my face into a fake listening mask now, and my muscles and eyes are tired. I want to look out the window and think about what they have said.

Hey, my body needs to move. I’ve been forcing myself to sit still in a socially acceptable posture for so long that I feel inner itching and inquietude and I can’t even focus on what they’re saying. I’m starting to get irritated. Maybe it’s time to get up, stretch, make a bunch of funny gestures, walk in a circle a bit outside, change topic. Or be quiet.

Hey, I can’t actually understand what they’re saying (cause of an accent, of distance – physical or initially mental, of tiredness). I’m getting a splitting headache from trying for so long. I’m nodding meaninglessly. It hurts my heart and my soul, because I want to communicate with this human being. Let me stop nodding and say that I can’t understand, and they have to repeat 5 times or we have to find another way, accommodations, another language, another method, or time.

Hey, I’m somehow starting to be fake. This feels like me going fake – why am I saying things that I’m not actually interested in? That I don’t mean? Why am I speaking in a voice that doesn’t sound like me? When did this start? It has a bad taste. Let me just shut up. Take a break. Feel. Reset this conversation. Change topic, change tone, or take a break. Because I know I’ll be sick and exhausted for hours even after an hour of fakeness over lunch.

Corrective measures. Almost every moment.

Hey, why am I sitting in a place that makes me uncomfortable. I won’t be able to focus on anything. Let me change.

Hey, I forgot to monitor my needs … for food, or sensory needs. Hey, I totally forgot that I have emotions, preferences, a personality again and started acting out meaningless scripts that aren’t really a conversation. And that will make me feel so sick later.

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Reverberations

I seem to be lucky in that I’m surrounded largely by reasonable and compassionate people, and they take it well. I may have been pulling off all that theatre unnecessarily, in most cases. Didn’t know before I tried. It might also be specific to my situation – or to my innocent face and innate charm (yes, that was one of those weird jokes).

It will be hard to find my way with this.

Some people do respond horribly.

The friend who freaks out and startles from the more spontaneous movements and sounds I now allow myself to make. The friend who gets offended by my spacing out in silence, ignoring her for minutes, or even putting in earphones to get a short break while she’s talking on the phone.

I hope there will be a middle ground, over time.

On the other hand, the friend who seems to genuinely enjoy that I can’t spend a more than a few minutes without either cuddling, physically teasing, playfighting, bouncing around or into him, making a silly face or sound, and that I allow myself to sink into non-verbal mode for extended periods of time.

The old friend who told me she feels like there’s more of a person now in me, a person she can sense.

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Body language and self-liking

Childhood memories of family saying my gestures and movements and faces look stupid or like “Romanian orphan’s disease” – well-meaning, probably good they taught me that as it may be even harder if I wasn’t aware (as I’m probably still not of a bunch of things). But yes, it did program into me that my spontaneous bodily-emotional expression = looking unacceptable.

The thing is, not to everyone and not in all context.

And the reward – say of stimming as much as feels good, touching, jumping, moving, playing around with my face and being a bit funny and silly – is I think a really noticeable decrease in anxiety and general tension. Literally muscle tone going down, the body and mind feeling more relaxed, a major cloud lifting. I didn’t even know it’s possible to feel that way. Probably not since early childhood.

Not really like there’s a special way it feels, just the absence of a major, disturbing obstruction that I didn’t realise was there – I thought that’s just what it feels like to exist. But it was actually a huge block of anxiety and tension in my body, there, and it wasn’t what existence is meant to feel like naturally.

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Joy

So yes, overall joy. 

At the discovery that there’s such an easy way, apparently, to release so much tension and discomfort – stimming you may call it, but I guess I’d just like to call it natural body language, natural emotional expression as much as the situation permits. (And sometimes more, sorry but I’m going to pay you back those years, world.)

Overall joy, that there was this huge thorn I didn’t realise was there, which can actually be pulled out. Yes. And it seems to solve some problems that I didn’t realise were problems – that I thought were just a given (like my total exhaustion after social encounters; the bad taste many left; even in part my inner feeling of fragility and lack of identity).

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Self

Some joy at finding myself more.

Sure, conflicts with the world.

But at least the feeling that there’s now some sort of (feelable) me, there’s more realness and something like a point in all this brushing and scratching up against everything. There’s some shape and resistance I can offer the world.

I didn’t realise that the fact I couldn’t, over so many years – that I often felt like a fantom – had to do with things like this. With the microscopic deprivations of gestures, glances, postures, moments of silence, moments of reflection and … breath. With something as intangible as the violation of rhythm – of cognitive rhythm, of the rhythm of thinking (and feeling), by constantly violating all natural rhythms of the body.

Of perception, of movement, of breaks, of tempo, of proportion.

Speak like others. Look like others. Don’t move like a retard. You’re irritating.

Funny thing is I never even managed (people who barely met me asked me whether I’m autistic before I knew the term). Still, so much energy gone into it.

To fit into the Machine, yes.

It’s most likely going to eat me alive whether I mask or not, so I do know what to chose: moments of aliveness.

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