Masking: My Story of Fitting In
When I think back to my experiences in high school, I mostly remember the laughing. It made no sense to me; when did classes become so funny?
I remember one specific time, when I was just sitting there minding my own business, trying to focus on class. Then I heard laughing from all around me. It took me a minute to find where the source of the laughing was; what was everyone finding so funny while I was trying to focus in class?
Finally, to my left, I saw this boy rocking back and forth in his chair with a dumb look on his face.
I was confused, I didn't get what was so funny.
But then it clicked - he was mimicking me, making fun of me. The whole class was laughing at this one kid who was rocking back and forth just like I was, but trying to make himself look even stupider and weirder. I remember the tears welling up in my eyes as I ran out of the classroom.
Fit In or Stand Out?
No matter how hard I have tried, I have never been able to completely stop my rocking. I can’t even remember when it started, but I vividly remember this moment in high school.
Looking back, I know it was an autistic trait of mine, stimming specifically, but no one knew that I had autism yet (not even me or my family). So I just looked like the weirdo rocking in class, trying to focus, while everyone was ignoring the lecture and laughing. I tried so hard to stop rocking, but I was never able to. I became more aware of it as time went by, but stopping was and never has been a viable option for me.
But think about it for a second - why is my quietly rocking in my chair wrong? I wasn't hurting or distracting anyone. I was being quiet; in fact, I was the only person paying attention during that specific class. But I was the one in the wrong. I was told to stop doing it in order to “fit in”.
Fitting in. The worst thing that I could ever be told, the thing that has haunted me for most of my life. Something I thought was important to strive for but instead causes me immense pain.
So many things that I am told feel counterintuitive or contradict each other. Here is some of the contradicting advice I have received on fitting in.
Problems with Masking
For so much of my life, I have been told to “fit in” in order to be liked and make friends. Even from well-meaning people, this can be hurtful in the long run because it causes me to “mask” who I truly am.
Masking, also known as camouflaging, is a term used in the autism community to describe when someone who is autistic hides their “weird” traits in order to look and act more socially acceptable. This includes eye contact, facial expressions, body language, social skills, and hiding aspects of ourselves like stims and fidgets. It is basically trying to “fit in” in order for social survival.
Masking is a problem for many reasons. One main reason is that girls with autism are generally better at masking their autistic traits compared to boys, who are more likely to be diagnosed early. This is why autistic girls don’t get a diagnosis as early - because we were acting “normal enough” according to the general public.
Another huge problem with masking is that it is emotionally damaging to pretend to be someone else. Masking even the smallest traits can end up spiraling into masking every aspect of life, which is very possible for us autistic girls who can be very rigid with black and white thinking. Pretending to be someone else removes the uniqueness and joy of life, and can lead to anxiety and depression. Filtering and restricting every innately normal action for me was completely exhausting, and very disappointing because I could never do it perfectly.
Masking autistic traits is a very common idea in today’s world. Well-meaning people have even created therapies for the sole purpose of making us look “less autistic” (I am referring to ABA, but that is a whole other controversial, many-sided debate for another day).
My story at the beginning about my rocking stim is very much something that I have tried to mask in order to fit in. There are dozens of other things that I subconsciously have learned to do just because I have been told to do so, such as eye contact and asking people how they are, even when I don’t really care.
This advice to fit in has been contradicted by another piece of advice that I have been told by the same well-meaning people in my life. Dr. Seuss once wrote, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” I have been told this, and many other versions of “Be yourself!” throughout my life.
The contradicting part of all of this is that I am told one minute to stop rocking or act more socially appropriate, but the next minute I am told to embrace who I am and be myself. Do you see the problem with that? Which side do I listen to? The answer is neither and both. Though I do need to be true to myself, I still need to be able to follow a conversation and general social cues. This is a very grey issue, which can be hard for a black and white thinker like me, so I’m figuring it out as I go.
The real problem is other people putting these restrictions on how I act, think, and feel, which forces me to mask who I am. Though feedback and advice are important, it should not be solicited without the consent of the receiving person.
The Takeaway Message
I want to be really clear on this; though fitting in is something that is definitely important, I have learned that it needs to be in moderation, or I end up masking everything and not being true to myself. Social skills and other “normal” ways of acting are important to building friendships and connecting with others, but some of them are a bit ridiculous and are too much for our autistic brains to handle. The idea of fitting in is definitely a grey area that needs to be explored more, and not something that is looked at as either good or bad, right or wrong.
Most importantly, work to be accepting of those with differences, and if it isn't hurting or bothering anyone, let people be who they are, autistic or not. If you are a bit different than everyone else, learn to embrace who you are; Being different can be beautiful.
To read more about masking in girls with autism, check out this awesome article: https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/costs-camouflaging-autism/