A blog post on autistic masking, the benefits of self-knowledge, and achieving congruence.
There are many things this blog post ‘should’ be, which it isn’t, and I’m aware of the unappealing nature of beginning with ‘failure’, but this is where I must start.
As autistics, god knows, we’re used to that! Those of us late discovered autistics (credit to Annette Foster for this wonderful alternative to the term diagnosis) have decades of social ‘failure’ tucked (not so neatly) under our belts. Though as I write this I begin to feel that the word exclusion works just as well as failure, if not better.
Curiously, one way to be ‘included’ for autistics is to mask our autism and play an elaborate game of pretend.
Those of us who could have learned to mask, which is a survival mechanism, using observation and imitation to camouflage our difference. The effect of this in the short term is social survival (going under the radar of bullies, and avoiding humiliation and derision), but in the longer term we can experience serious identity confusion though masking. The pressure to mask can lead to a fragmentation of that all-important sense of self, which I believe all humans need to live happy and fulfilled lives. Many of us probably retain a powerful core identity (which at different times and in different contexts must be pushed underground to survive) and that’s possibly why we often have a rich imaginary lives, enabling us to ‘compensate’ for all the masking to some extent.
For non-autistics, the thing to remember is that often masking is not a conscious choice, it can therefore be hard to uncover it in ourselves. Before my discovery, I experienced it as a force beyond my ken or control, with a good dose of shame attached to it. Why couldn’t I get a grip and just be me?
Yet although it’s so often involuntary or indeed forced on us, it can be so deeply embedded in our personalities that approaching the question of the ‘authentic self’ (a flawed concept in itself) can’t be separated from an element of masking. All humans mask to an extent (the social carapace as my longtime therapist used to call it), but autistic masking is of a different order. I believe this is due to the extreme effort it can take to sustain it, as well as the consequences on our personal development and safety. Some of us get trapped in relationships and situations which are abusive or toxic because we’re masking our true needs and identities, and don’t know how to stop. Potentially, there’s a huge amount of fear, anxiety and danger involved.
My own impression, before my discovery of autism, was of being surrounded by people who had a curious sense of purpose and admirably stable identities, while I blew with the wind – literally taking on the characteristics of those around me. In order to shed them off I craved significant time alone – I now see – to ‘get back to myself’. ‘Myself’ needed recovery time to allow these other personalities to ebb away. Somehow they seemed more alive than I, and a cacophony of voices, astonishingly accomplished phrases, and carefully coordinated gestures coursed through my veins like a wrong blood type transfusion. I was often enchanted by their glamour and tortured by endless false comparison. These days the wrong blood transfusion experience is a curious memory. I’ve strangled this malady at source. They do say knowledge is power, and I can mainly chose my activities (an acknowledged privilege) and adapt to my needs, so that recovery time doesn’t dominate my days.
Imitation is still the font of all my learning. If I spend time with you I will quickly pick up traces of your accent, mannerisms and inflections – it means I like you, but I experience this in a less invasive way these days. I know who I am, and I don’t have to inhabit your every way to know you, but I will joyfully observe (notice in detail!) and enjoy the you-ness of you. I’ve got to know the many forms of my masking, and I understand that you mask too (I sense it, and always did if I’m honest) – but there are moments when our beings touch with the lightest of butterfly kisses, and it’s real.
I want to say that I’ve learnt to mask more smoothly since my discovery – as though I’m now a more experienced driver, who doesn’t crunch the gears so often, though (of course) I can still find myself on a rough road at times.
These thoughts coalesced in my mind as I listened, in particular, to Will Mandy and Catriona Stewart present at #InsideOutAutism, in quick succession. The impact of masking on our mental health, and the benefits of finding ourselves in community and through making, impressed themselves on me in new ways. The importance of congruence in my own life journey came to mind.
It wasn’t until I was home again and took off my handmade brooch (pictured above) that I made the connection between the powerful congruence I felt at #InsideOutAutism and wearing it on both days. I’m still processing why this act of making and wearing felt significant. I’ve never been one to wear text on my body in any form, perhaps because my identity has been at times uncertain and under siege.
But my self-fashioned brooch was different. Here was an artefact, crafted over time and without conscious purpose, redolent of my journey as an autistic woman in reclaiming the language used about me, and my people. So antiquated is the text that I am unfamiliar with some of the words, and it acts as a curio, or something I could have inherited. I feel I have. It holds a familial feeling, and when I peer at its loveliness I hear the ancestral whisper – we were once like you. If an object can be joyful and witty, it has those qualities. Have you ever bounced on a trampoline? My brooch is the rebound which tosses your heart in the air. It gives me abnormous joy. It trumpets confidence. That zing-a-ling feeling that I’m A-okay.
So I was delighted to learn through Catriona, that an artist called Lou McGill has been making the most gorgeous Freedom is fragile pendants and brooches
I’m moved to think there is something significant afoot in the making and wearing of these powerful almost talismanic objects, which I’d like to explore. Watch this space!
With special thanks to Susie Bass, Annette Foster, Dr. Kate Fox, Dr. Catriona Stewart, and Dr. Will Mandy for inspiring conversations, poetry, and presentations at the recent #InsideOutAutism conference organised by Prof. Nicola Shaughnessy and the Playing A/Part research team.