I absolutely loved The Autist’s blog post on masking. I also loved another blog post I read, about talking to your inner child as a late diagnosed autistic person, which I’ve spent over one hour trying to find on twitter, but unfortunately I’ve been unsuccessful at finding it.
Reading both of those posts was hard for me. It is still hard to accept that I don’t have to mask. It’s hard to accept that I can choose not to mask (and I know many people do not have this privilege), even if that comes with social consequences.
Reading those blog posts caused a deep, despairing pang in my gut. It’s like someone had just punched me in the stomach, telling me, “no, you really are okay. You really are. You don’t have to be anything else than who you are.”
I nearly wanted to sob after reading them.
Grieving for my Masked Childhood
If I fully accept that I am okay in my full autistic self, if I fully accept that I am an autistic human being worthy of love and everything else in life, without the mask, then all of that suffering? All of that pretending? All of that jaw clenching and fingernail digging and teeth grinding?
That would have been for nothing.
That means I suffered a net loss in my childhood — hell, for the first 24 years of my life! That means that all of that anxiety and restraint from speaking and worrying and mentally torturing myself could have been prevented. I could’ve been like this my entire life. I could have been happy, or at least stress free, stress-limited. I could have had more confidence, more self-esteem for who I was. I could have been a different person.
If I acknowledge that masking wasn’t always necessary, it means that I equally have to acknowledge the mental turmoil I lived through as an autistic masker. And daring to even go down that rabbit hole within myself means acknowledging how truly emotionally broken I was. How emotionally cut off from life that I was. Just thinking about it makes my throat start to tighten and my stomach knot. Because it means that I really did struggle. It requires me to believe myself and face my own emotions. It means that I didn’t just have a “little” problem, or just some “mild autism” I was somehow able to work around. It means I have to acknowledge that pain.
And I find myself thinking that I am to blame for my own masking, because my family didn’t verbally tell me off or exclude me. My family didn’t verbally tell me not to walk on my toes, not to shake my arms when I was excited, not to grimace when hearing a loud sound. It was never something I could put my finger on. There is not one example I can remember to say that they tried to “make me neurotypical” (except for maybe making me wear a dress once, and making me ride a rollercoaster, and telling me something I said was rude. The dress thing was equally likely due to me being the only daughter – and only once did my mom actually make me wear a dress, and found one that was comfortable for me – see even here, I am making excuses, that it wasn’t that bad).
Why Did I Mask?
To this day I don’t know what made me mask from an early age. I think I was simply very aware of how I was being perceived by others. I pretended I was fine so often that it became my “normal,” even though I was constantly very, very anxious. I pretended sounds didn’t hurt my ears when they did, sometimes excruciatingly. I stopped speaking much in my own house as I was worried my brother would tell me I was stupid or worried he would say I was just complaining. I felt like I was never taken seriously as the youngest. I felt like I didn’t have a voice. I don’t know why, and I don’t really know if it was any one person or one interaction that did it. It was a slow progression of pressures from the outside world, and the knowledge of how one should behave. It was observing other interactions and knowing I could not do the same. It was knowing that when I went outside, I had to “be a person.” Yes, I have used that phrase, out loud, since I was 12. It was preparing for phone calls, and speaking to people in general, and knowing that without practice, it was nearly impossible to do correctly. It was knowing deep down that I was not someone who would ever be listened to, in nearly any circumstance. It was knowing that others would misinterpret my words and actions, without any true criticism or conflict on their part. It was knowing that other people thought I was shy and a teacher’s pet, but I actually had very strong opinions on things and adamantly wanted to be left alone.
No one has to look into your face and tell you to behave differently to change the core of who you are for other people.
It’s a slow process. Your self-worth simply erodes over time to make you flexible enough and small enough to bend to other people’s comforts at will. It helps when no one at the time knows this is occurring. It helps when people think that you are “growing” when seeing you outside of your comfort zone, when really you feel like you are flailing around in the ocean trying not to drown. You just hope you never have to go out there again.
Even in retrospect, I do not know why I masked. There are some obvious reasons, but even without those obvious external pressures, I think I probably would’ve still masked. When everyone else has the same kind of brain, you can tell there’s something you’re missing. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I was missing.
It turns out that I wasn’t missing anything – that maybe I just have something else entirely.
And now that I know that, I don’t have to constantly worry about it anymore.
I’m not even the weird one.
In fact, there are a lot of people who are just like me.
Advice for Parents
It’s always hard to reconcile loving relationships and good intentions with emotional pain. There are many parents of autistic children (or honestly, just neurotypical adults in general) who seem to have this sentiment:
“If I love my child enough and unconditionally, everything will work out.”
Although NTs may find that to be a nice sentiment,
I find that statement to be terrifying.
This is what I hear when someone says this:
“I think that loving someone is more important than supporting them through compassion, and that I do not need to do extra research to understand, listen to, or accept them, because love should be all I need to treat my child the right way.”
And regardless of whether you’re autistic or not, if you are not the same neurotype as your child, or even if you just have different personalities, you’re probably going to end up doing something wrong due to differing experiences, as well as lack of respect, listening, and understanding.
You can love your kid as much as you want, but if you don’t know that loud noises hurt their ears, you’re not going to be able to help them be in less pain, or reduce the noise in the environment for their benefit. And their potential shutdown or meltdown will be assumed to be disruptive behavior, because why else would they be doing it, right?
People are scared to admit that even loving your child cannot prevent you from causing them harm. Because that means every parent could do this to their child, often without knowing. And I don’t think they want to live in a world where harm can be caused by regular, everyday, well-intentioned people – people just like them.
In order to prevent these things, parents need to realize that you can love your kid and be well-intentioned while still actively or passively harming them. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Once parents know this, they can get information from others – like from #ActuallyAutistic adults – who can help make parents’ lives and autistic kids’ lives just a little bit easier. Parents need to be investigators, problem solvers. Unfortunately, no amount of love from a parent can allow them to read their child’s mind.
Verbalizing needs as any child is hard. Verbalizing needs and emotions as an autistic child, as me? It was nearly impossible. I would say it’s “unpleasant” rather than “my ears are in pain.” I would say I “don’t like something” when clothes were too tight and scratchy. I would say “why do I have to do this?” when I was filled with anxiety and dread and uncertainty and frustration.
No one saw my feelings – they saw a talkative, complaining, picky girl in place of me.
Why are we expected to know how to communicate our emotions effectively within a culture that we are outsiders of? We put so much pressure on children to behave, to be good, to communicate well, without even showing them what that looks like? Adults don’t even do these things well! When was the last time you communicated your emotions to someone? “I’m feeling very frustrated right now because I wanted to do X, but Y happened, so I cannot do X. I will go listen to music now to calm down.”
No one talks that way (although we should).
Why do we expect autistic children to?