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