If you are the parent of an Autistic child, I’m going to introduce you to a concept that’s going to scare the pants off you: Your child is going to grow up to be me.
I am an Autistic adult.
Some people are of the belief that you can grow out of Autism, or that with the right support and interventions, Autism can be cured or lessened. If you’re one of those people, then I’m about to blow your minds with a second concept:
Nobody grows out of Autism and a child cannot be trained out of it. We just get better at hiding it.
Some of us have help hiding our Autistic nature and traits, through ABA or other interventions. Those of us who went undiagnosed learn to do it ourselves. It’s called Masking.
Masking is exactly what it sounds like: We put a mask on—a Neurotypical one.
I notice the music thumping before I even get there.
I walk up the path and ring the doorbell, hoping nobody will hear, so I can slip away unnoticed. But, of course, they hear.
The door swings open. Light and sound explode outwards in my face, forcing me to take an involuntarily step backwards.
The switch flips, the mask drops down.
“Hey, how are you doing?” I ask as I push in. I can already feel the real me slipping away, the script held firmly in the forefront of my brain.
I shrug off my coat and pass it to the host, remembering to give them a winning smile. I don’t know what I’m going to win with it, but it’s there anyway.
A shake of the hands, trying not to die internally as my whole body wants to seize up, run away and scream at their touch, fire lancing from my palm, slamming up my arm and setting alarm bells off in my mind.
They gesture down the hall, so down the hall I go. The thumping of the bass is making me bounce on the crumb-littered carpet, the cacophony of voices merging with the shrill Christmas music, blasting out of the speakers. Everywhere is light and bright, the twinkle and sparkle and flash irritating my eyes and making my head spin.
I deposit myself firmly in a corner, clutching a drink handed to me by the host. People talk to me but I’m separate from myself now, helicopter viewing.
Watching myself mutter and mumble painfully, not even hearing what the other person is saying; Screaming at myself to get out, to just leave, to escape into the silence of the night, the darkness. To get home where it’s safe.
Except I don’t. I can’t.
I’m masking and performing.
Those of you that have young children who are fine at school but melt down at home have already witnessed it, as they are the ones who are especially good at it. Conforming at school is masking.
All day we “pretend” that we are NT. We make eye contact, a bit of small talk; we certainly don’t stim or fidget. We contain ourselves and outwardly make it appear that we are everyday people, doing everyday things.
Some of us take off the mask when we get home; those are the ones who melt down when they get home from school and you can’t figure out why.
There’s a reason for that Meltdown though.
If you can, imagine a day at school when you are Autistic: Hundreds of children, bells ringing periodically, people bumping into you, touching you, trying to listen to a teacher but your brain can’t process it quickly enough, the roar of voices, the ticking of clocks, movement everywhere. It’s a complete assault on each of your senses for seven hours a day without a break or let up.
Then you get home and it’s safe and calm, so you take the mask off. Kind of like shaking a fizzy drink bottle all day, then unscrewing the lid. The fizzy drink explodes everywhere.
Some of us don’t take off the mask; we come home and conform there, too. Whether as a child or as an adult, we lock ourselves into our masks. Our parents, our partners, our friends—none of them see the real us, the way we are underneath.
The biggest issue with masking is that a lot of it is conscious. We are aware we are doing it (once you get to later life it becomes a kind of autopilot), so can you imagine what kind of Herculean effort it takes?
Eye contact, social cues, waiting for the right moment to speak, don’t speak too much, don’t spin, don’t flap, hold it in, try to cut out the noise, don’t freak out that someone is touching you, remember your script, don’t say what you think, read between the lines, don’t be so literal, don’t just scream, focus on the conversation, ignore the six million thoughts running through your head at once.
Can you imagine holding all of that in your head while trying to hold a conversation? Or listen to a teacher? Or purchase something from a shop?
It’s utterly exhausting, both physically and mentally.
There are those of us who went undiagnosed; We Are the Expert Maskers. Some of us have been doing it for so long we run it on autopilot.
We’ve compartmentalised our brains so that we’ve cut ourselves off from that part of it. We aren’t aware of it, but the same huge mental process is burning away. Some of us have even convinced ourselves that it isn’t real, that we don’t do it. But it’s always there, that nagging memorandum that we’re able to tap into it at any time and remind ourselves that we are different, we don’t fit in…
For decades, it’s been the undiagnosed that have suffered. Years of masking takes its toll.
The freedom for Neurodivergent people to be heard is paramount for Kieran, and he has spent his whole life immersed in Autistic life and culture with Autism diagnoses for himself, much of his family growing up, and now two Autistic children of his own.