In my early pre-diagnosis autism reading I began to think in terms of myself becoming unmasked (before I became aware of ‘the lingo’), my hitherto coping strategies disintegrating, as I dealt less well with the daily exigencies of existing.
In other early reading on autism I was confused by ‘passing’. We pass exams. We pass ‘go’ (Monopoly … an attempt at humour). In the USA we die (how do autists even exist in the USA with that cultural need to euphemise? I’m digressing already, with another attempt at humour). Anyway my cognitive translation goes: pass …exam? No. Am I reading a USA writer … dead? No. Working really hard to exist in a neurotypical world? Ah yes, that context seems to be the best-fit, given I’m reading an autism article, not an obituary or school report. The point is it takes actual time to go through this process. I’d always just thought I was a uselessly slow reader. (It’s quite revelatory learning about oneself when one’s been an adult for so long already; a weird sensation. I may even eventually arrive at a new mantra (from many aspects) … not useless, just autistic. Actually that would be jolly nice if I could achieve that).
Back to this post. At the beginning of this month I read Seventhvoice’s throught-provoking article. I was immediately concerned about my use of the term masking. I know myself to be ridiculously truthful, incapable of deception, dissembling, dishonesty, dissimulation. I know I don’t lie. I like precision and accuracy. Some might say pedantry (and I’d view this as a compliment). Even the vaguest suggestion that my use of ‘masking’ was somehow not accurate, wrong, sent me scuttling into (further) self-doubt and reprobation.
Inevitably, I quickly went to one of my automatic first ports of call and confidence – the dictionary. I was immediately relieved to be reminded there is more than one definition of mask. Yes, a mask can disguise/conceal. But a mask also protects (gas mask, diving mask, surgical mask, face mask – cosmetics, masking tape – protecting a surface when painting). Like my cognitive analysis of ‘pass’ to find the best fit scenario, ‘mask’ too has different interpretations according to context.
I’ve happily returned to the comfortable state that I’m using ‘mask’ in an honest, protective, clean and accurate way. I’m no longer fretting I might be a liar. My honesty and integrity remain intact. There must be loads of words in the English language that have multiple meanings which are only revealed in the context of the other words around them. These are just two of them.
The bottom line is, for what it’s worth, I don’t see a dichotomy between masking and fitting in. Or trichotomy if one includes the word camouflaging of this interesting article on the subject. In order to fit in as best I’m able, I need as much protection as I can muster. Masking, camouflaging, fitting-in. I think they’re simply synonyms in autism-land. A trilogy not a trichotomy.
In the article, camouflaging strategies are said to comprise those that “may include hiding behaviours associated with their ASC [ASD], using explicit techniques to appear socially competent, and finding ways to prevent others from seeing their social difficulties.” In other words, doing our very best to fit in when interacting with the neurotypical world.
It’s all the same, no? Isn’t all of this just called wanted to be accepted, in whatever environment (work, social) one is in at any given moment, and doing the best we can to maximise the likelihood of achieving that?
My masking/fitting in/camouflaging works well enough in public (mostly). I know I’m on the edges, eccentric and easily-excepted, but I’m lucky to be good enough at my work to be professionally included (hmm, mostly). Without a mask, well, too eccentric? too direct? too pedantic (I know, such a thing is impossible). I earn my living in the NT world, so I am compelled to fit in as best I can. And I want to fit in as best I can. I need positive human interaction. However, I also know the costs of masking, of fitting in, of camouflaging, are large, and are paid in private (mostly).
Indeed, is it possible that the consequences of masking/fitting in/camouflaging, are the more important thing – the exhaustion; stress; need for recovery time; risk of meltdown, shutdown; the knowledge that we haven’t really been terribly successful at masking/fitting in/camouflaging? We read that (many?) NTs find social, emotional, verbal and non-verbal communication environments entirely intuitive, automatic. But for autists the conscious, cognitive concentration required to scrabble at the edges, pick up partial pictures, know there’s stuff you’re missing but not know what, is where the toll is taken. That, and knowing that every day will be a groundhog day, i.e. no amount of practise will improve the success rate, it’s just the way we’re wired.