Masking is a common trait among category 1 autistics. It’s a defense mechanism that is often misinterpreted. As many category 1 autistics will note, we often find our diagnosis questioned because we don’t fit the stereotype for autism. Many people expect us to be physically disabled, unable to speak clearly, have constant meltdowns, etc. Masking makes getting to the bottom of what is really happening difficult.
I’m able to live independently, and this is by and large why I am a category 1 autistic. Many people will understand this to mean that I am high functioning, which is a problematic term. You can read more about that here. I’ve been able to hold down jobs and even be promoted rapidly. My tendency to obsess often gets focused on my work, so I tend to become extremely knowledgeable and skilled at the jobs I take on. Still, I have to socialize at most jobs and that tends to be an area that I can struggle at. It has created roadblocks in my upward movement in companies or my continued employment.
Part of learning to mask my autism has come out of the desire to move up at jobs. I’ve had to learn how to socialize. For years I worked in restaurants and was a manager. My first management job was in family dining as a kitchen manager. I loved working in the back of the house, but I had to run shifts by myself and that required engaging the public. It was hard for me to approach people and make small talk. To this day, small talk isn’t something I enjoy, but I’ve improved at it largely due to my experience working in restaurants. It was an area that my bosses always seemed to be coaching me on though.
I also had some difficulty with figuring out what rules should be applied and when. I could recite the companies rules almost verbatim and I applied them strictly. I really saw no point in having rules, that I was accountable for ensuring were followed, only to be told that I applied them too strictly. To me it seemed that the rules needed more clarity. Honestly, I just think some people were showed favoritism over other employees. I’ve had the concept of doing this explained to me and I still don’t understand having two sets of rules for people that allow better performing employees, or those who are socially favored by management, to get away with breaking the rules.
To deal with these issues in the work place I’ve developed a lot of canned responses to situations. When I don’t have one, I spend a lot of time working through possible conversations in my head until I can develop a canned response that I think will work. Canned responses are an important part of masking. Many people with autism will have an array of canned responses to scenarios. It’s not at all uncommon for us to quote pop culture for our canned responses. It provides a few things, a canned response, a way to connect with people that can be entertaining or personal, and it also says a little bit about who we are and our interests.
Canned responses come in handy in emotionally intense moments. Many autistics are hyper empathetic, and we absorb other’s feelings. Empathy is an approximation of feelings. That is to say that, a person gets a sense of what the other person is feeling based on their own past experience and emotions. Autistic people tend to feel intensely, so we might feel the non-autistic’s feelings more intensely than they do. Those feelings can be overwhelming and can cause us to panic. In my case, I often don’t know what to say because nothing seems appropriate. I also don’t want to say something that could make things worse, so I rely on canned responses. It may make me seem robotic and uncaring, but that is the furthest thing from what is happening. I actually care a lot.
Another form of masking that is common is emotional masking. I talk about this to some extent here. Often, autistic people start learning from a young age that our emotional expression is outside the norm. Many of us will experience some kind of abuse as a result. In my case, I had to learn to keep my emotional expression in check. It was also useful to me because the tendency to emotionally spiral would often do more harm than good. It’s important to understand, that because I don’t show my emotion as readily as many non-autistics, I do feel them just as intensely as I have always felt them. I just learned to control my response to my emotions.
Another form of masking that I have acquired over the years deals with stimming. Like a lot of autistics, I stim to deal with some of the overwhelming aspects of dealing with my environment and socialization. I’ve found ways to hide my stimming in the open. One way I do this is to rub my face, which I do a lot more since I grew a beard. I also cross the toe adjacent to my big toe with my big toe. I apply pressure with my big toe to the other toe. When I was younger I would lightly tap my head against a surface, which I broke myself of. Sometimes autistics will find more subtle ways to stim since many of the more obvious forms of stimming tend to be received poorly.
Masking can be very complicated, and it can take many forms. The idea is pretty simple though. We live in a world were autistic behavior is undesirable. There tends to be more understanding for autistics that are so disabled by their autism that they can’t live independently, but for those that can appear to be non-autistic, the stakes are higher. To live independently means blending in but blending in doesn’t mean we aren’t still autistic. We are often doing a lot of self-monitoring and great deal of extra work to be able to pull off the ruse. It’s generally bad form to question a person’s diagnosis simply because they don’t look autistic enough to meet a stereotype. I hope this helps people to have a better idea of why many autistics don’t fit the stereotype and why we mask our autism.