Masking, camouflaging, passing

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.

Post-truth society

I really worry about living in the recently-monikered ‘post-truth world’.

Oxford Dictionaries’ ‘word of the year’ 2016 is “post-truth” They define it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

I reckon this makes it a really bad era for autists. Not only do we have the challenges of living in an NT world. Now we have to add in living in a PT world (attempt at word-humour).

Facts are our currency, no? We deal in facts; well I know I do:

  • The black and white
  • The literal
  • The absolute
  • The right or wrong, with nothing in between
  • The honest not the dishonest
  • The truth not the lie, nothing in between
  • The precise, and precisely bounded. No blurry edges anywhere
  • The objective not the subjective

It’s already hard enough trying to figure out what people are saying and doing when they’re being vaguely honest and truthful. Yet, for the past several years I’ve noticed that absolutely truthful facts (and I know that’s tautological, but it seems to be necessary now) appear to be becoming less important.  Not that facts no longer exist. But the focus of communication, media, is increasingly on stories, and the moods of stories, and the personalities of both the stories being told and the person telling the stories. Facts are fading. Well, and sometimes facts don’t exist at all. I can’t do that.

I don’t really know how to do the colour-, mood-, emotion-, imagination-creating story-telling. As a communicator/writer, I feel as though I’m being de-skilled because (a) I’m no personality, I’ve always said I let the quality of my work speak for me (this takes on a new resonance post-dx) and (b) I work with (truthful) facts. I can’t lie. Which I like to think of as a strength, though it too, comes with personal costs.  I can only write (truthful) factual stuff. The very fact (ha, ha) that I need to put the ‘truthful’ adjective in front of fact, shows how far removed the word ‘fact’ has come from its correct meaning.

Fact, fidelity, falsity, fantasy, fiction: Journalists used to be reporters, reporting the facts. Yes, okay, the reputable ones. Now journalists are personalities too, and they opine, sometimes endlessly (I feel). How are we supposed to know precisely the point at which they switch from reporting (facts) to opining (not facts), and back and forth in one piece/package?

How do we know what we’re reading, hearing, watching is reportage, PR-gumph, marketing-spin, political-shenanigans? I really struggle with the “docu-drama” genre. How are you supposed to know which bits are truth? You know it’s “based on some facts”, but that’s all. At least some books give you a clue near the bar code: “non-fiction”, “fiction”, or some other category.

I valued reading Tim Harford’s article “The problem with facts”. He writes “The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US surgeon general himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco lobbyists ran rings round them.” Science deals in facts (hmm, usually, let’s not go there today). Yet lobbyists and spin doctors do wicked things to the truth and make it really hard for anyone needing truth and honesty. Not just autists.

Facts are not just facts any more. Alongside post-truth we have “fake news”, “alternative facts” and the like.  But facts are true. Oxford Dictionaries define fact as “A thing that is known or proved to be true”. So I am right … it shouldn’t need a qualifying adjective. The very word ‘fact’ is being tortured into false confessions.

Anyway, I’m just saying really. Life was already confusing enough. I find the post-truth world is significantly more challenging.  I try not to decrease the size of my world, shrink it to a place I know is true. It’s not easy though.


This might all be a bit speculative, a bit premature, but I wonder … if I document it … might it become real, tangible, even in the act of writing.  It might be a bit speculative, but I’m not documenting anything that isn’t making sense, feeling a bit like pennies dropping, things slotting into place.

I’m wondering if diagnosis has given me permission.  Permission to be. Permission to express the things I’ve expressly denied about myself because it meant I didn’t fit in (etc., etc.) Permission to say that despite a normal upbringing, I’ve found existing – by neurotypical parameters of measurement – to be a most troublesome, sometimes too challenging, too difficult, an occupation.

Does diagnosis finally give me permission to speak, live, try to reach my potential – that thing that school teachers repeatedly said I was not achieving?

Exactly what permissions do I now have? Well … let me enumerate:

  1. I have permission to no longer judge myself, measure myself, according to the criteria of normality that I was brought up to believe are the ones by which I should judge myself (to be fair, pretty much the only ones anybody knew, back then).
  2. I have permission to liberate myself from these constraints. Okay, I have to live and work in the NT world, and so I behave as best I can when I abut that world, but it’s not my natural habitat. It’s never been my natural habitat, and I’ve never understood why not, nor where I thought my natural habitat might be. Lo and behold, post-diagnosis, I have directions to what is undoubtedly my natural habitat. This is what is liberating. I no longer have to assess myself by the criteria I’ve used all my life. They’re not the correct criteria for someone with a brain hard-wired the way mine is configured. This is not to restrict, or limit, myself. But maybe, just maybe, after decades of trying – and failing – to be better, fit in more, improve my social skills, improve my people skills etc., I now know I’ve been starting from the wrong place, the wrong habitat. None of those attempts have worked … indeed my decades’ old mantra of ‘”I have no learning curve” begins to make some sense if I’m hard-wired this way, rather than merely utterly useless at learning and improving my personal, social, situation.
  3. I have permission to start learning from the right place, the right habitat. I’m reminded of the joke where a stranger in town asks a local person for directions. The reply comes back … well I wouldn’t start from here if I were you. Clearly I’ve been trying to learn/improve/fit in etc etc from the start point of ‘neurotypical’ (failed, repeatedly). Now I get to start learning/ improving/ fitting in etc. from the correct place of ‘autist’. This is actually quite exciting, now I write it down.
  4. I have permission to speak. To speak about how sometimes unbearably difficult it is to get through any single day. The plenitude of daily inadequacies and worthlessnesses I thought were shameful so would not speak of them. At one point towards the end of my ASD assessment, the assessor said something like “you’ve done really well to get this far, given all your difficulties.” I have permission sometimes to say things are quite tough. This is a bit big.
  5. I have permission … to experience, rather than to deny, quash, (at least in public) what I now know are my autistic traits. Those behaviours I used to think were me being weird, quirky, odd, eccentric, dogmatic, inflexible etc., and that people were tolerating, to be kind.
  6. I have permission, in short, to be autistic. In the few months since diagnosis I’ve already noticed some changes in my being:
    1. I make less eye contact. I’m not forcing myself so much to make so much eye contact.
    2. Rather than absolutely stopping myself, I’m allowing myself to express a little more of my literalness. In what I hope is an amusing fashion.
    3. I’m chastising, criticising, condemning myself a little less for ‘being antisocial, unfriendly, unfriended’ when I’m home alone on a Friday or Saturday night.
    4. I’m accepting more (condemning less) that taking time out to recover is simply essential. I have no problem taking ‘recovery days’ in a running schedule. I’ve decided it need be no different taking ‘recovery time’ in an autistic schedule. I notice I’ve even started calling it ‘self-preservation’ time. Just time to recover from the rigours of existing and working in an NT world.
    5. I’m even beginning to acknowledge (rather than berating myself for uselessness, inadequacy, stupidity, “oh, just get on with it, you stupid woman”) that some basic functions are just really hard e.g. public transport, town centres, anywhere with lots of people, anywhere with lots of noise, or even a little, but unexpected, noise.
    6. I have permission … to be myself. Whatever that may evolve to be. My only sense of self to this moment is negative, so I’m rather hoping myself isn’t worthless and inadequate. But there has to have been something lying dormant all this time, waiting for an opportunity to flourish. Surely? At initial sight, permission to be myself is rather shocking. Both from the perspective of loss, and waste, wasted time, a life not lived; and also from the perspective of potential. I may yet get to try to be the sort of person I’d like to be. And I’m finally starting from the correct place/habitat to reach my potential.

I know it’s not too late to teach an old dog new tricks … with patience, consistency, and the right kind of training.

I may well find there are other permissions I now have. My journey is already looking brighter.