What Is Masking? – #TakeTheMaskOff
This piece of writing is my contribution to the #TakeTheMaskOff project which aims to explain what masking is and hopefully promote autism acceptance. The project starts on 23rd July 2018.
It consists of six weeks of blogs, vlogs, interviews and personal experiences about masking, with a different topic being chosen for each week. Every contributor to this project will have a slightly different take on masking and this blog will explore my own personal ideas and opinions on the subject.
What is Masking? – Masking is what some autistic people do to try and appear ‘normal’. Traditionally, our society is such that anybody who is perceived as different is mercilessly persecuted. It is hardly surprising that some autistic people have evolved techniques to try and stop this happening.
Masking, for me comes as naturally as breathing. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t masked, nor can imagine living in a world where I don’t do it.
My masking technique has evolved as I have grown older. My skills have improved as I have learnt new tricks and techniques and I have developed a repertoire of useful set phrases.
One thing to remember though is that although masking comes naturally to me, it’s certainly not effortless. When I’m ‘in the open’ I am constantly analyzing everything about myself, from the position of my hands, to the way I walk, to the expression on my face.
I’m taking a train to visit family today and just as an experiment, I’m going to write down exactly what I do to mask, starting from one end of the journey to the other.
I’m lucky so far, the platform is empty and I’ve got a row of three seats all to myself. It’s a beautiful, fresh summer day and I feel strangely calm. My train’s nearly due and the platform is still empty. I’m starting to get twitchy, I bite my nails and try to resist the urge to rock from side to side.
A family has arrived and they make me feel slightly uncomfortable. I dig my nails into my hand to distract myself. I try to ‘act normal’ and sit still, then I worry that I might have overdone it and look like I’m frozen .
I finish my chocolate and lick my lips. Then I realise how creepy this must look and stop myself. A high speed train whizzes past and I resist the urge to cover my ears. It’s intense, but strangely exhilarating.
I’m on the train now. I’ve managed to get a seat next to a young woman. It’s difficult to write when I’m sitting next to someone, but she’s looking out of the window, so I should be OK.
I’ve got a song going through my head, it’s been there for days. I have no control over the presence of the music, the lyrics seep into my mind like damp seeping through fresh paint. It influences my mood and colours the way I see the world. It’s not necessarily unpleasant, but it is relentless.
My current song is by Neil Young and it’s called ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’. I’m trying to stop tapping out the rhythm and swaying to the music
….don’t let it bring you down
My face is too expressive. Every thought seems to want to come out on my face, even when I don’t want it too. I’ve always been a day dreamer.
…find someone who’s turning
I wonder if I should remove my shoulder bag and put it on my knee. Perhaps I look little strange with it still over my body, as if I’m expecting bag snatchers at any minute or I’m unusually obsessed with material goods. The woman next door to me has got her bag on my knee and she’s ‘normal’. Nah, I’d only forget it.
I shut my eyes and try to affect a neutral expression. Hope I don’t look too blank. There’s a group of children and their voices rise to a cacophony. ‘Concentrate on your breathing’ I tell myself.
…don’t let it bring you down
We’re going through a tunnel now and I notice that I’m grasping on to my notebook so hard that my fingers hurt.
…don’t let it bring you down
I resist the temptation to put my hands over my ears and try to affect an expression of mild benevolence.
I look out of the window and I feel an urge to cry. It’s all so incredibly beautiful. We’re travelling through the rolling hills on a perfect summer’s day, all I can see is nature and I can feel the fragrant breeze coming through the window. You absolutely mustn’t cry – nobody else is crying. Don’t cry, you can’t cry, you just can’t. I bite my lip.
I’m getting slightly jumpy now. I hope that the woman in the seat next door hasn’t noticed. I wouldn’t want to freak her out, that wouldn’t be fair.
I bite my lip. I dig my nails into my palms and remind myself to keep breathing.
Somehow, the atmosphere has changed. I feel uneasy and I don’t know why. I force myself to look out at the trees, see some red flowers and I smile.
I scratch my face. ‘Make sure that you leave it a good while before you do that again’ I tell myself. My hair’s tickling my face and I can’t scratch it. I’ve got an itch in my nose now.
The ticket inspector comes round and I try to form my features into ‘an air of studied nonchalance’.
More finger flicking. I try and keep my face calm
…old man lying by the side of the road
I tell myself – ‘Look at the trees, just look at the trees’
Face itch, scratch, guilt.
My bracelet’s twisted round, so it’s got the catch at the front. I resist the urge to correct it. I’ll save it as a treat for later. I play a game. How long can I resist?
I’m so tired, I woke up at 5am, it’s so hot, maybe I’ll just fall asleep. The train seems to have a gentle up and down motion. I imagine that I’m on a sailing ship in crystal clear tropical waters. I’m on a beach with white sand, warm shallow water and I’m talking to a crab. I tear myself away – got to concentrate, can’t relax.
I’ve got an itch in my ear now. I’ve noticed that my body often creates itches in order to distract me from unpleasant situations. I notice that two people in front of me are scratching their heads, maybe it is socially acceptable after all?
Suddenly we’re here. I get up early, manage to get in the queue for the exit without accidentally offending anyone. Things are looking up.
My family meet me outside the station.
Family – “Did you have a good journey?”
Me – “Oh, fine”