Rita Hayworth famously said, “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda and woke up with me”, in reference to her famous character in the movie Gilda. Was it their pre-conception of her, their fantasy or was it her actions and behaviour which saw them imagine her as Gilda, only to wake up in the cold of day and see Rita?
Acting takes many guises. People make careers out of pretending to be other people and we pay to watch them on stage, on television and in the movies. It is an artform. For some this skill comes naturally, but for others, it is something which is perfected over years of practice. We act in everyday life too. In job interviews, we portray the most professional capable versions of ourselves. We are a team player, work well on our own initiative and love to skip lunch and stay late. On first dates, we are often playing the best or perhaps a less than accurate version of ourselves. We profess to love puppies, cooking, cleaning and generally being anything that our ideal partner will want in hopes of a second date. Slowly but surely the act fades and the real person emerges.
Masking is the ultimate dramatic performance. It sees individuals take on the persona they feel is acceptable, warranted, appropriate or desirable. While it is not exclusively displayed by autistic individuals, it is almost expected to be seen in autistic females and is part of the difficulty identifying women and girls. Why is this so widely demonstrated by females on spectrum? How do we see behind the mask? What are the repercussions of a life lead in virtual costume?
If you are not familiar with masking, in simple terms it is putting on a metaphorical mask in order to alter people’s perspective of you. While wearing this mask every movement, every response, every comment is choreographed and shaped to keep up the guise and halt any suspicion or recognition of difference. The mental energy taken to keep up this fictional persona is extensive, and it is for this reason that autistic burnout is so common. ‘Autistic burnout’ is the intense physical, mental or emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by a loss of skills, that some autistic adults experience. Many autistic people say it results mainly from the cumulative effect of having to navigate a world that is designed for neurotypical people, but masking must be considered as part of this navigation. It is akin to trying to act French or Japanese when you really cannot fully understand the culture or speak the language, yet your performance is Oscar worthy. But how do we know if someone is masking?
In order to ascertain if masking behaviour is present, we first need to understand what behaviours constitute masking. We have already acknowledged mimicking of behaviour of others, usually those which the person deems to be socially proficient. What other behaviours are exhibited by those who mask?
Individuals who engage in masking will often spend time practicing conversations before they are called for. They will practice comments, questions and reactions. While this may be common when preparing for an interview or a big meeting in work, it is not so typical when preparing to pick up the post from your postman or when purchasing a pint of milk in your local shop.
They will also hide behaviours which they feel may be socially undesirable i.e. self-stimulatory behaviour (stimming) as this behaviour can make them stand out and appear odd or different to the average individual who does not understand the function of the behaviour. Hiding stims may make the person appear fidgety or as if they are anxious, but they may also develop more socially acceptable versions of their stims, like hair twirling, fidgeting with jewellery, biting nails or biting the inside of their cheek.
Forcing eye contact when they feel it is deemed necessary can be extremely uncomfortable but is also a camouflage technique for those on the spectrum. Along with this comes forcing facial expressions to mirror that of their audience. Forced eye contact and smiles can come across as strained or perhaps even sarcastic at times. The difference is there, even if incredibly subtle.
Put all these behaviours together and you will find that exhaustion is the least of the individuals worries. Bingham Young University (BYU) recently published a study in the journal Autism showing a strong correlation between how much women with autistic traits camouflage and the severity of their mental health concerns. Of the 58 women who took part in the study, most of the participants reported masking their autistic characteristics often, which was associated with higher mental health difficulties. Of those included in the study, 62% reported depression, 66% stress, 67% anxiety and 62% suicidal thoughts. This result points to the fact that masking their true selves, forsaking their own needs, hugely impacts their mental health.
We know that everyone can mask at times and that masking is not exclusive to those on the spectrum, but why is that autistic women are more likely to mask than autistic men? Well, this may come down to societal norms. Girls are often encouraged to engage in more social endeavours and boys are encouraged to engage in sport. Being pushed into social scenarios and being expected to engage fuels the need to mask. It is postulated that girls are inherently more motivated to fit, to belong and to feel as if they are accepted. This means that they are less likely to be identified, until the mental strain becomes too much, and their mental health struggles become the paramount concern.
When people become accustomed to presenting a fragmented or false version of themselves, they also put themselves at risk of disconnection from their truest selves, losing themselves behind the mask. Disconnection Theory sees individuals who use context to judge how they should present themselves i.e. masking, fail to behave in the same manner regardless of context i.e. their true selves. While we all engage in this at times, it is the frequency and intensity of masking that causes the person to disconnect from their true selves. Ragins, (2008) suggests that it is this factor which becomes detrimental to the person’s mental health. The individual must keep active track of who they are in which environment and remember how they should act, speak and even dress accordingly. This can then result in anxiety, stress and at worst, identity fragmentation. (Bowen and Blackmon, 2003; Ragins, 2008)
There is one particular quote from an autistic woman which has always remained with me. She said “I camouflage by putting on a character. I treat my clothes rather like costumes and certain items of clothing help me to uphold certain personality characteristics of which character I am on that occasion. I have a repertoire of roles for; café work, bar work, uni, various groups of friends, etc. But they are edited versions of me, designed to not stand out for the wrong reasons”. Juggling that many versions of the same person in order to be accepted says a lot about the pressure we put on people to be “normal”, but the truth is, there is no normal. To quote the title of Patsy Clairmont’s book; Normal is just a setting on your dryer. We need to raise all girls to own their real selves, whether they are autistic or not. We need to foster open communication of the realities of relationships, empower our girls to know their worth and stand up for themselves and their needs. We need to facilitate emotional literacy from a young age in our schools, homes and social circles. We need to change the messages given to young girls to look, sound and act certain ways. But to change all of the above we need to mind the gap between what we expect and what we portray ourselves. We need to own our own frailties, admire our individuality and this message will seep into the next generation. Lift our masks to ensure the next generation are not stifled by theirs.