Explaining the autistic mask in one essay. Is it impossible? Sure feels like it from this end. Am I still going to do it? Hell yeah, I am.
To preface, I’m explaining my mask and my insights of that mask as an adult woman who was diagnosed at 24 years old. Every autistic person is different: an individual who experiences their autism in their own ways both internally and externally. Many of our experiences are similar and we can often relate to one another, but please do not take this explanation as absolute fact for every single autistic person. Auties reading this, feel free to sound off in the comments if you relate or differ; let us know.
Also, in much of this you may feel like I’m explaining the mask in a positive light because I am. Don’t worry, I eventually acknowledge that it’s a way to hide our autistic characteristics from the world to make other people comfortable, and I don’t think we should have to do that. But my mask is a part of my autism and of me, so I don’t think its usefulness should be ignored either.
Okay, let’s get on with it.
What is the mask or masking?
Masking is a term adopted by the autistic community to explain the persona we adopt in uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations. Our definition of an uncomfortable situation can very much differ from a typical person’s definition; it may even differ from autie to autie. An uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation can also cover a prolonged amount of time—like the beginning of a new relationship, traveling with people, or a dramatic change in lifestyle or routine—and the mask will sometimes stay on for that entire duration.
This mask is learned throughout the course of an autistic’s childhood and life through experiences in which their autistic characteristics were reacted to in some way. For example, my autism makes me less likely to answer questions I either don’t think need answers or don’t have the mental energy to answer at the time. Unfortunately for the people in my life, that sometimes includes things like “How was your day?” Now, if a typical adult asks an undiagnosed autistic kid, “How was your day,” and that kid doesn’t answer, they’re likely going to be reprimanded or at least prodded until they do answer. That’s a learning moment that helps develop the mask. Over the course of time, patterns are learned. I found out I can answer, “It was good” even if my day was terrible, and the conversation will probably end quickly and easily. These patterns turned into scripts that make day-to-day social interactions, conversations with grocery store clerks, and small talk easier to navigate. Because, in case you didn’t know, saying I’m good when I’m not good goes against every autistic wrinkle in my brain. My authentic response would be to not answer if I didn’t want to go into it or to tell you the truth.
As you can hopefully see at this point, the mask is an extremely useful tool. It can help me navigate day-to-day experiences like elevator pleasantries at work, checking out at the grocery store, random conversations with strangers, and greeting people as I come in and out of the gym. Because (I’m going to interject here with a reminder) I’m autistic. That means my social skills were developed differently than is normal, and according to many typical people, they were developed poorly. My brain unmasked does not automatically respond in ways that would allow me to painlessly get through elevator pleasantries at work, checking out at the grocery store, random conversations with strangers, and greeting people as I come in and out of the gym. But with the mask on, my brain is essentially on supervised autopilot: picking responses for me because it recognizes a pattern, or mirroring the tone, responses, and body language of the other person.
And that brings us to mirroring. Mirroring is when one person either consciously or automatically copies the actions and energy of the person they’re interacting with, and it’s an enormous part of my mask. When I’m masking and mirroring, it’s always automatic; if I tried to do it consciously, I’d undoubtedly mess up by making my brain focus on too much at once.
While I’m mirroring, I’m mimicking the other person or people often down to the body movement. I say yes to things they say yes to, I laugh when they laugh, I smile when they smile. Are you seeing any possible problems yet? We’ll get to those later.
For the most part, mirroring helps me navigate social interactions beautifully and often come out the other side with glowing reviews of my personality. People instinctively love people who are like them, and that’s why mirroring is such a successful tool. But at this point, I feel it’s necessary to reiterate, one, that it’s not the authentic me, and two, that I do not do this consciously in order to manipulate people; I do it automatically in a brain that’s functioning in survival mode to navigate a social interaction without being ridiculed, acting awkward, or utterly failing. That may sound dramatic if you’re not autistic, but it’s true.
To summarize myself in my mask, I’m often very much like the environment I’m in or very similar to the people I’m with. I’m usually high energy, extremely agreeable, quick to laugh, and very smiley. These are all patterns and tools my brain learned that successfully help get me through social interactions. And please understand here, masking does not mean I’m having a terrible time. Some of my most entertaining memories are from parties or moments or events where I was absolutely masking. I had a great time; I’m glad I went; I was still myself because my mask is part of me as an autistic person, and I don’t regret any of it. But there are negatives, and it’s time to get to those.
So, why is masking bad?
I’m going to start this section with a limp, “It’s not all bad.” Like I said, masking is a useful tool that helps me get through day-to-day interactions and uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations in ways that aren’t painful for me. Buuut masks—especially masks on undiagnosed autistics who are unaware of their masks—can be dangerous. More on that later. Speaking from experience, autistic people often adopt these masks to hide their autistic characteristics, and that’s exhausting. We shouldn’t have to do that. Period. But we’re not the only ones who do.
To create a relatable comparison for almost every human—typical or atypical—imagine you work a job that requires you to work face-to-face with customers. We’re talking retail, restaurant servers, baristas, sales, whatever. Imagine you’re face-to-face with a customer and think about the voice, the expression, and the persona you put on. You’re probably cheerier than normal, more agreeable; you’re laughing at things you don’t think are funny, right? Now imagine you have to work a full shift with a constant customer service mask for eight hours. At the end of that shift, your brain is noticeably tired—much more than it would be if you’d been kickin’ it with your friends all day.
That’s essentially the autistic mask. But the autistic mask comes on much more often than a typical person’s customer mask (or family dinner mask or friendly neighbor mask, whatever). For some auties, it can come on every single day, and, even if it’s a useful tool, it’s going to drain that person’s energy to do other things and to navigate other interactions. It is exhausting to act in a way that is inauthentic to who you are. And the huge problem with a mask draining my energy is that my energy is already significantly more affected by typical, everyday experiences—like fluorescent lights and unexpected changes to routine—than a neurotypical person’s. A typical person puts that customer service mask on and that’s the thing that made them tired; an autistic person puts that mask on and they still have to navigate one hundred more energy-draining things before going to sleep at night. That’s the equation for an autistic meltdown.
This brings me to a mildly painful experience I’ve had more than once in my life, all pre-autism diagnosis. That’s long-term masking at the beginning of a new relationship. In case you’ve never been in one, the beginning of a new romantic relationship is filled with unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable moments; I mean come on, it’s a completely unfamiliar human you’re trying to get to know and be around a lot. Autistic or not, that’s difficult to navigate.
Before I was aware masking was a thing or that I was doing it, I had multiple relationships start to hit pain points because we rushed into a relationship while I was still masking, they got to know that Sabrina for several months, then I finally got comfortable enough to take parts of the mask off. It can be understandably disorienting to go from dating an extremely agreeable and high-energy Sabrina who is very much like you to the more authentic and often very tired Sabrina who likes World War II history and binge-watching obscure YouTube channels. Now more aware of both my autistic characteristics and my mask, those things come up much, much earlier in any relationship—romantic, friendly, or otherwise. And now, I am much more comfortable being my authentic self in a wider variety of situations.
But masking isn’t just the result of mildly painful memories. As I’ve hinted at multiple times, masking can be dangerous both for mental and physical health reasons. As an autistic person who got a diagnosis as an adult, I grew up autistic without knowing I was autistic. This means much of my personality was built under the mask without knowing that was happening. I learned speech patterns and conversation scripts; I learned the phrases and personality traits people did react well to, and I adopted those; I learned people would think I was looking them in the eye if I looked at their mouth instead; I learned stimming was weird and I shouldn’t do it because I’d get laughed at; I learned I should be and dress and act this way because then I would fit in or maybe even be applauded; I went along with whatever my friends said or did because I was mirroring them.
Doing these things and repressing others (like stimming) are all parts of masking. When I got my autism diagnosis, I got the chance to see the mask I was wearing and, in time, find out who I am under all these learned patterns. If you can’t tell from the WWII or YouTube comments, I’m a pretty cool person.
Are you saying autistics should mask?
I mean, kind of. But wait. Autistics, I’ll speak to you directly: do whatever you want. If masking means you can get through meeting your boyfriend’s family for the first time or check out at the grocery store quickly and not memorably, do it if that’s what you prefer. Use it not because you feel like you have to, but because it’s part of you and you can. It’s like a god damn superpower. If you would prefer that typical people suck it up and deal with your atypicalness, do that instead and throw that mask away.
Just know that taking the mask off is easier said than done. Like I already explained, mine is automatic and sometimes very helpful. But it was also on for what is currently the majority of my life, and I’m still figuring out who I am under it. I don’t know yet how to make that mask stand down during times of struggle, and there have been multiple times even post-diagnosis that I’ve been grateful for it.
Yes, my mask is a way to hide my autistic characteristics from the world so other people are more comfortable interacting with me. No, I don’t think I should have to hide my autistic characteristics to make other people happy. And I don’t anymore. Since my diagnosis and better understanding of myself, I stim when I know it will help me, I talk about WWII history when I’m excited about it, I say things my friends and family don’t always understand. But also, confrontation/explanation/questions/comments with strangers or acquaintances can sometimes be more exhausting than just breezing through the interaction with a mask.
So, am I saying autistics should mask? I’m saying do whatever makes you happy and comfortable in the moment. I’m saying do whatever the hell you want.
Is it over? I have more questions.
That’s cool. There’s an email on this website somewhere. You can always send questions there. The comments are also open. If you know me, send me a message, a text, a DM.
I write these things because I want diagnosed, recently diagnosed, undiagnosed auties to get the chance to better understand themselves, to be safer and happier. I want neurotypical people who don’t share these experiences to better understand us so they can be happier too. If you’re not autistic and you’re reading this, I’m very happy you’re here. You too, auties; I’m always happy you’re here.