A Delicate Dance #masking #actuallyautistic

Neither Use Nor Ornament research residency work by Naomi Morris. Photo by Hugh Pryor ©Hugh Pryor 2018

Photo by Hugh Pryor. Image of Naomi Morris, Neither Use Nor Ornament, Research Residency.  © Hugh Pryor, 2018

This post is a series of reflections on unmasking at work on my Arts Council England funded project, Neither Use Nor Ornament, which is a collaboration by The Museum for Object Research and WEBworks.


Unmasking has become a hot topic for some autistics recently. In reality it is (and always has been) a daily negotiation.

What I want to say in this post is that, while (it must always be acknowledged) some of us don’t have the luxury of choice about masking, others are dancing a daily (if not hourly) delicate dance with their masks.

Some have (quite rightly I think) questioned the term masking – here meaning a survival strategy adopted by autistic people. The social carapace, role playing, performing neurotypicality, faking it – are all terms which can be used to describe what we do at any given time, mainly (in my case) unconsciously (until diagnosis that is).

And before we go any further – ‘faking it’ here goes beyond ‘normal’ usage.

One fascinating consequence of my identification as an autistic person is that I can now tell when I’m launching into social adaptations that go beyond the me I’m more comfortable with. There must be shades of masking, gradations if you will. Some late diagnosed autistic writers I’ve encountered (via blogging) write about the difficulty in knowing where the line is between the adaptations they’ve learned and the ‘authentic self’. Articulate and deeply intelligent beings they often conclude that there is no such line.

The ‘authentic self ‘as a concept is flawed. Perhaps what we can best say is that we are deeply influenced (as all other humans are) by our nurture – except that in the case of autistics the nurture has so often been the wrong fit. We want – in important ways to return to nature, to our natural selves. The problem is locating the self in an alien milieu. This search compounded by the ‘loss of self’ implied by masking (in my view).

My own experience is that second guessing what others want from you – as a blanket survival strategy – leads to immense confusion in the area of identity. I’m glad to leave this aspect of masking behind me.

That is not to say that I don’t mask – of course I do – my professional life depends on it (despite my also being ‘out’ as a professional), and in reconstructing my personal life (post diagnosis) I am often immensely grateful for the many masks in my repertoire. I am infinitely more comfortable and honest as I move through my days, and as I observe myself slip on a mask. But this doesn’t mean I have it made. I don’t.

I still get caught out. I still find certain situations overwhelming. I am still humiliated.

All I mean to do here really is observe some changes, and reflect the difficulties inherent in the actions both of masking and unmasking.

And this is pertinent to my professional life too.

Central to my work as an artist and  creative project lead is the idea of being ‘out’ as an autistic. My own creative work as such is not about autism, but I am committed to championing autistic arts professionalism (as I see it) within my sector (freelance visual arts practice). The autistic artists who currently work alongside me form part of an experimental project in which we seek to challenge preconceived notions about autistic artists. We are not savant, we are not outsiders, we are professional people doing a great job. (Unfortunately this will be news to many!)

This would seem (on the surface) to be a wholly professional matter. Except that of course it isn’t because it involves our unmasking – that delicate and infinitely unstable (because it is constantly shifting) negotiation of the self.  This is so utterly personal!

Imagine the masks we use as a cache of theatre props and costumes or a child’s dressing-up box. Imagine having to constantly judge each new situation in your day and rummage through the box for the right thing to wear. Imagine tuning in to the voices to find the right voice to use. Imagine studying the gestures to match them perfectly. Blend in, blend in – don’t show yourself as you truly are because you won’t be accepted! And all without consciously understanding what is happening or why (before diagnosis).

For some of us this process will have become entangled in our creative work. Performers especially so, I imagine.

For the artists I mentor I usually suggest tuning in to the inner voice. This is to avoid a tendency to fragment and mask in the face of outside influences. Locating a calm and loving inner voice can be a real challenge however.

This is why I’m currently loving the idea of quiet reflection – the practice of creating spaces in the day for the chatter to die down. Observe the masks, observe the self, practice with and strengthen these muscles of observation (if you can).

Recently I’ve had cause to think about this key element of the incredibly powerful and exciting Neither Use Nor Ornament  project. I can’t assume anything about where we will all be with our masking at any given moment. And that’s a wonderful dynamic to work with when you think about it. What better example of nuance in presenting autism could I dream of than the now you see us and now you don’t reality of our lives.

In writing this I realise that so much of the anxiety of unmasking is in the reception we receive – and that’s the bit we fear most because it can be dangerous (and or humiliating) for us and that is unpredictable. SO privileged am I in my unmasking today that I often forget the deep deep root of my social conditioning in the playgrounds and playing fields of school. I forget that for many autistics, especially where other minority status’ intersect, unmaking is unsafe and not an option. I plan to work much harder to remember – and to coordinate the project with this at the forefront of my mind.

If we wobble in our resolve it won’t be through cowardice – if we chose to mask in specific situations there’ll be no judgement at all.

I emerge from blogging today with a new image for the project – that of a beautiful sparkly multifaceted gem. Not all surfaces catch the light at the same time. Let this be our motto.




Published by soniaboue

I am an artist.

4 thoughts on “A Delicate Dance #masking #actuallyautistic

  1. This post was very helpful to me. I have often felt like I am constantly having to change who I am based on situations and even on individual people just to fit in. After reading your post, I am glad to find I’m not the only one. I don’t truly feel like my real self until I get home and sit with my chickens in the evening. They are what I draw and write about here. Anyway, thank you for sharing from your experience.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In my role as a Trainer and Supervisor of volunteers at an LGBTQ+ Community Center, I have multiple documents of written behavior rubrics I’ve created for myself to script my language and reactions to every scenario I’ve thus far encountered. It’s the Professional Mask, necessary, but as discussed above and in many related posts by my Autistic Cohorts, the deliberation and energy is profound and hard to quantify to our neurotypical world.

    I’m blessed to have tremendous allies in my work team who give me the space to be myself behind the scenes and guide me in professional etiquette without judgment. If only the world were like my Team.

    One thing I did want to reflect upon here is the character creation we essentially do. I have to be deliberate in creating my performance with impact in mind. Very deliberately I have to create methods to lead while counteracting sexism and misogyny, and, as Autistic, it’s been difficult to feter out the existence of it, my being microaggressed against, not realizing I’m being disrespected, and not knowing if a situation will have sexism I have to combat in order to solve a problem.

    As example, I’ve had to interject to male socialized Center Guests needed behavior modifications, and nothing changes. I ask my male perceived colleague to interject, and, miracle, they get listened to. So, I have to create rubrics that include accounting for sexism. And, I often have to depend on my colleagues to tell me when microaggressions are being directed at me. Sometimes I notice, sometimes it’s more subtle, and my Autistic Brain, ever evolving, doesn’t grasp it every time.

    Also, I have to be aware and mindful of my social privileges that my race, class, and education afford me, and, as Autistic, I’m sometimes not aware that persons who have been oppressed are behaving skeptically toward me due to oppression they have experienced which my whitness reminds them of, and has nothing to do with me specifically. Too, I have to be aware of assumptions I’ve been told by people of privilege that can be wrong, prejudicial, and created to hold power. As Autistic, I depend on the honesty of folk to convey a collective lived experience, and, many in the world are deceitful for gain.

    The Mask is a Method Act which enables efficiency, indeed, and to a degree, a Mask is a universal practice. Yes, ours often takes an energetic toll, and has specific consequence, but I don’t think we are unique in creating masks and losing ourselves behind them, in execution, due to the incessant requirement. LGBTQ+ folk are required to Mask for safety, and, indeed, there is overlap of Autism and LGBTQ+ identity coming forth via research.

    As referenced above, our intersections and oppressions necessitate masks for safety, and I agree, beyond Autistic experience.

    In this pervasive environment of Masks as tool, it begs the question of society, of why so many are required such masking protection from the select few, and how that is not good enough.

    Liked by 2 people

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