Passing and masking are two words used to describe when a neuroatypical person appears to be acting neurotypical, and no one realises they have are neuroatypical.
I used to think I was fairly good at that.
But I was reading an article (found here if you’re interested, but most of it’s not relevant to this post) and it said:
Getting an autism diagnosis is difficult enough, with lengthy delays of around two years for adults and three-and-a-half years for children.
I took two months!
I know I was unusually quick to receive a diagnosis but still!
So I tried to think of some reasons for this
- The doctor had absolutely no idea about autism, and knew this about herself, but realised that I seemed to know what I was talking about and referred me to a specialist who could decide
- My nerves were making me act “more autistic” than usual (it took less than five minutes for her to refer me)
Or, more likely…
3. I act “more autistic” than I realise in everyday life.
Do I have any evidence for this? Well… As I said, the doctor did refer me in about five minutes. The guy who assessed me was in no doubt, although I don’t know how long it took him to come to that conclusion.
No-one who I’ve told has seemed surprised.
People have been suggesting it to my face since my mid-to-late teens.
I guess I don’t pass as well as I assumed.
So why do people pass or mask?
Young girls are expected to be more social and are more likely to be forced into social situations, where we get more practice at learning to mimic other people’s behaviour. We rote learn how to react in specific situations but the behaviour is shallow, and rarely has any deeper meaning than “last time I did this behaviour it was good”. Often we don’t really understand why some behaviours are good and some are bad. We just know that they are. As a result, we only do the “good” behaviours and we appear to be behaving neurotypically.
…my anxiety stems in part from attempting to identify and comply with social rules. I find it impossible to be quiet, for example, if I believe someone in authority is wrong. I also have a tendency either to overshare, or to stay silent when I should speak up in my own defence. Mostly I identify social rules only once I’ve broken them. I’ve often crossed the invisible line of social conformity and faced retribution.
Often, women seek a diagnosis because they can’t escape the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong. Society expects women to have strong intuitive social skills. Many autistic women talk of their belief that one day they would “mature” or simply “get it.” When they reach adulthood or midlife and that still hasn’t happened, they begin looking for another explanation.
Unfortunately, by that point, many women have become so adept at passing that mental health professionals refuse to believe they’re autistic. Some clinicians still hold damaging stereotypes of autism when it comes to women and adults in general. Women who suspect they may be autistic are told by professionals that they simply can’t be on the spectrum because they are too social, make eye contact, have a sense of humor, are married, have children or are empathetic and caring.
This can be where some of the problems come in. If someone is very good at masking they may not be able to drop the act even when trying to find out why they feel the need to act in the first place.
If I had been asked as a child why I did [behaviour x], I likely would have said “because that’s what everyone else does”. In fact, that still applies to a lot of my behaviour now, especially in larger social situations with more people. If the masking behaviour is left unchecked it can get harder to drop it, or even to identify when it is happening.
A lot of people mask out of a desire to fit in. Many of us were bullied at school – I certainly was – and we learnt to try act as “normal” as possible in order to present less of a target to bullies. Even well-meaning people can unintentionally bully us by trying to suppress our natural personality.
I was often told that my thoughts and feelings were stupid, that I was odd or weird or my emotions were inappropriate. The people who loved me, loved my passion; those who didn’t called me aggressive. That taught me to be quiet and to try to suppress what I thought.
I’ve always been slightly aware of my attempts to mask, although I didn’t realise that was what I was doing. I only phrased it as “masking” recently. There are a lot of references in pop culture to being different around different people, so I never quite twigged that this maybe wasn’t actually a “normal” thing to do (and maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned about “normal” anyway). I spent so much of my childhood wishing I could fit in and be like everyone else.
I found being shy worked best for me, although in the end it probably reinforced my fear of social situations.
I try and present a particular kind of personality. It’s hard for me to stop doing it, even when I realise I’m doing it. I try and come across as “adorkable“, that clumsy yet adorable, geeky but in a cute way, bad at social interactions, personality type that Zooey Deschanel has made so popular. Although, in all fairness, her portrayals of those characters are a bit more outgoing than I’m capable of being these days. It’s a “safe” persona for me to try present, because it seems to be fairly close to my own natural personality, but I still often don’t understand why it’s ok to do or say some things only in a certain way, or only at specific times.
When could wearing a mask become damaging?
As you can imagine, keeping up this persona is physically, mentally, and emotionally…exhausting. (Even more so the more people you interact with, and the longer it is active.)
When you finally get home to a safe place to drop the act, you are often drained so much that you are unable to function as yourself until you recharge. This leaves you unable to show emotions, or react correctly or at all to the people around you, causing some of them to be genuinely worried that something may in fact be seriously wrong with you.
But the most dangerous thing about donning this persona on a daily basis is that the more you wear it, the harder it is to take off…It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish your true self from the persona…and you lose your ability to recharge causing some of us to “malfunction” and do illogical things, have autonomic reactions, anxiety, depression, become agitated, and remain exhausted until we can regain control, turn it off, and recharge again.
Well that sounds grim. Or how about this port from the perspective of someone working in education?
1. With such a degree of conscious work going into reducing anxiety by trying to ‘fit in’ the pupil may be at a considerable disadvantage in relation to their academic studies;
2. With any kind of success at ‘fitting in’ the pupil may be masking very real problems that teaching staff might otherwise be aware of.
The result of the above could be that a student ends up being intellectually drained without reaching their academic potential while at the same time leading educational staff to believe that there are no underlying problems – a double whammy that can last throughout a whole education (including Further and Higher educational experiences). I have met so very many adults who suggest that they would have been able to get far better grades had they not felt the need to make such an effort at pretending to be someone else at school.
One of the major problems with this situation is that very often high levels of anxiety remain with the pupil/student. While ‘copying behaviour’ (echopraxia – in this case, conscious) may alleviate the day to day confrontations that the pupil seeks to avoid, it does not necessarily reduce overall anxiety. The pupil still has to work up the courage on a daily basis to enter into an environment that they find confusing and chaotic, while at the same time working up the energy to put on a façade to reduce any unwelcome attention.
Yeah that’s no better.
This constantly masking almost certainly contributes to the high levels of Anxiety and Depression in the Autistic population.
In my (extremely personal) opinion, girls are overall better at masking than boys. That could just be a bias in the resources I’ve read, though, or because autism presents differently in women so they seem to be masking better… I’m not sure.
We all need to be aware of the masks we are wearing, so we can take them off when they become too stifling, or so we can be slower to put them on.
Of course, in an ideal world we wouldn’t need to mask at all. Everyone would accept our true personalities and capabilities at face value and we would never need to hide.
This is not an ideal world.
Other resources I used for this post: