Unmasking My True Self as an Autistic Person
As an autistic person, there’s one thing above all else you should know about me: I have the habit of masking. Masking, in general, is where an autistic person picks up mannerisms and behaviors from others and weaves them into their own mannerisms to appear “normal” to the outside world. They copy how others speak, how others react, and even their body language to blend in so they don’t stand out like a sore thumb and get made fun of for being different.
This description matches how I’ve acted in public, and even around my family and friends, to a T. Since I was in middle school, I have always copied what others do just to go with the flow, to avoid being noticed and pointed out. Several incidents happened to me in those adolescent years where I discovered I was acting differently than most people, and chose to be silent and avoid standing out so I wouldn’t get made fun of. And yes, I did get made fun of. Sometimes it was to my face, other times it wasn’t. I don’t know how many conversations have been held behind my back about me, and to be honest, I don’t want to know.
These experiences have led me to paste a mask on my own actions, attitude and speech. I have despised being made fun of, even in a joking manner, for as long as I can remember. To avoid it, I force myself to mask. I have always been considered the “good kid,” the kid who doesn’t talk back to authority and who teachers use to set an example for the other kids. Sure I didn’t talk much in group discussions, if at all, but I wasn’t disruptive and I didn’t talk out of turn and I wasn’t a distraction to the other kids. I was shy, and I blamed that on my introverted tendencies.
But there was more to the story that even I didn’t know.
I was quiet and reclusive because I was trying to hide. I was the class chameleon, the student who blended in with everyone else, who barely said a word. This was because of habit-forming masks. I saw that the kids who didn’t say much and kept to themselves were less likely to be pointed out in class, so I chose to behave that way. When it came to social interactions, I tended to use mannerisms and phrases the other person I was talking to was using. If they said “Hey, girl!” I would more than likely say it back. If they spoke to me in a certain vocal tone, I copied it. If they talked with their hands, I talked with my hands also. See what I mean?
To be honest, I wish I hadn’t created this habit. If I had decided to not let what others say about me dictate how I acted around them, I would be completely myself in front of everyone. But because I chose to mask, I changed my perspective on myself and how other people see me. Sometimes I don’t even know if my reactions are my own or copied from others. It’s sad, but it’s the way I’ve lived for as long as I can remember.
If you’re someone who isn’t autistic, what can you do when faced with a masking autistic person? Excellent question. One thing I would say for sure is find ways to make them feel comfortable around you. When someone makes fun of something I say or do, even not on purpose, it bothers me to no end. I personally would be able to be more open if that didn’t happen. Another way to help them take off the mask would be to ask them questions directly. Maybe about something they’re interested in that you know about, or asking about their family. I’ve been conditioned to be afraid of asking people questions because I’m afraid of how they will respond or how it makes me look as a person. But when you ask me questions, I feel I can trust you and understand that you want to know more about me, not just pass time.
When I am in the right group of people, where I know that no one wants to make fun of me or joke about something I do, I am able to fully be myself. I am able to completely let my guard down and say whatever I want to say because I know I won’t be judged for it. To be honest, I have yet to find that group of people. In every experience I’ve had with a certain group of friends, I always find one person who will make fun of me in one aspect. Or they’ll talk about me behind my back or not acknowledge I’m there. Please, save yourself some time and some energy and don’t do that. To anyone. Respect your friends and relationships. Take it from me if you haven’t taken it from anyone else. Your future self will thank you.
Getty image by JNemchinova.