There has been a bit of a buzz on the internet this month about ‘taking the mask off’. There is even a hashtag #takethemaskoff. I have read a couple of posts about it. And I have been thinking about my own situation. Do I mask? I would say, of course I do. I call it ‘putting on my public face’. I don’t know for how long I have been doing it, but at least since my teens. I remember coming back from parties or other social occasions, and my face would literally hurt with muscle fatigue, because I had forced it into appropriate expressions for hours. These days it manifests more in a painful, tense jaw. But the principle remains, I have to take control of my face when facing other people and hope the expression I present is acceptable and correct for the situation. ‘Arrange your face’, says Richard Cromwell to his uncle Thomas in ‘Wolf Hall’, and so he does. And so do I.
I am not even always conscious of the mask. I think I grew into it so early and so gradually, it has become second nature. Which brings me to the question: if I took off the mask, would there be anything behind it? And if so, what?
The theory is that when you take the neurotypical mask off, your autistic true self is revealed. But what if there isn’t anything more autistic behind my mask? What would my self without the mask even look like? Would it be any different? And if it isn’t, can I be actually autistic? Yes, it’s the old ‘I can’t be autistic because I haven’t got it bad enough’ refrain.
One thing people talk about is that they allow themselves to stim more openly when not masking. Well, I’m not a big stimmer anyway, so it wouldn’t make a lot of difference. My stimming habits are waiting for me to write their own post about them, but when I think about what I would do differently without the mask on, the answer is, not a lot.
If I am in a social situation, say with a group in a pub, or at a party, what would I be like without the mask? Well, I wouldn’t even be there in the first place! So I find it very hard to imagine how a more autistic me might behave in such a situation.
What about coming home after work, being in your own space and finally being able to take the mask off? I live alone, so I can be as autistic as I want. But am I? Of course I do things I wouldn’t do in public. Do a stupid dance round the kitchen. Sit with my feet on the chair. Pick at my scalp while reading a book. But doesn’t everyone do that? Not those specific things, but everybody behaves differently when no one can see them, surely? There’s nothing particularly autistic about that.
I have lived with other people in the past, so if I still did, I would have to keep the mask on even at home. Talk to them, be sociable, carefully gauging how much alone time I can give myself without offending anyone (tricky balancing act, that! That’s why I gave up on having housemates as soon as I could.) But now there is no one else at home, so the question of masking or not doesn’t even arise, which is why I find it so difficult to talk about it.
I spent a day with a friend the other day. Normally that would have filled the week before his visit with nervous anticipation, but this time there was hardly any of that. Normally there would have been anxiety during the visit, no matter how much I enjoy myself at the same time and how much I appreciated my friend’s company, but there wasn’t. There was no particular exhaustion afterwards. And I think this was because I didn’t have to pretend with this particular friend. I felt I could be just me. We’ve known each other for almost 18 years, although we don’t see each other often. He’s quite a bit older than me – 20 years maybe? But it’s just so easy being with him. It turned out one of the happiest days I’ve had in a long time. And I think it’s because I didn’t have to mask in front of him. That’s what made it so easy for me. I could just be myself. But was that self in any way autistic? Did I behave in recognisably autistic ways? I don’t think so. I would be the first to say that you shouldn’t identify autism just by behaviours, but that is what spills out when the mask comes off. And I don’t know if there was anything there. So if no autism comes out from behind my mask, how can I say that I’m autistic? That is the conundrum I’m facing.
It’s of course possible that other people see things that I don’t notice. Apparently I’m utterly transparent, and it seems likely that people see things that I would have thought invisible. I simply don’t know what I look like from the outside. There might be more spilling out from behind my mask than I think.
An explanation might be something which other people have mentioned a lot, and that is that if you have been masking for a long time, you become the mask. You can’t just take it off and expect your autistic self to come out. You have to reach deep into yourself to discover those autistic bits, and it’s only then that you find out whether they are there or not.
I know that it’s common with late identified autistics to feel that there is no clear demarcation between the mask and the self, and that’s certainly true for me. Mostly I feel I’m just me, whether masking or not. My masks are so much part of me that they are ‘me’ as well.
Sometimes, though, I apparently take the mask off without realising I’m doing it. I’ve been reading the archives at Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and came across this post, which is about passing and not passing:
Read the whole thing, but let me quote a paragraph from it:
I can’t count the number of times that coming right out and saying “I have no idea what you are asking me for” has actually saved the day for me. I used to be afraid of saying that, because I felt like I was stupid if I couldn’t understand something. Also, when I was a kid and my parents asked “Do you understand?”, responding with a “no” usually caused them to roll their eyes and then to either explain it again in baby-talk or accuse me of being a smartass. Still, since I started disclosing my situation, I’ve found that most people will slow down and go over things again with me. I use any/all of the following on a daily basis:
I literally do not understand what you mean. Can you break it down for me?
I don’t understand what you want me to do with this information. I’d be happy to help if you can connect it to something you want out of me.
I’m not following that example. Can you try another way of explaining it?
I don’t do well with vague terms like “advocate.” What is it that you need, and what steps can I help with? (Note: You can put in any business or educational buzzword where I’ve got “advocate.” Reform, initiate, implement, etc…)
Any and all of these statements could be taken incredibly badly by the wrong person. They just look sarcastic. I mean, who would say those things?
I can tell you that I say these things. And when I say these things, I am not conscious of ‘taking the mask off’ or ‘not passing’. It’s simple common sense: if something is unclear, ask to clarify it. I know from experience that if you pretend you understand and just nod and go away, you will be in trouble later because of the gaps in your knowledge, and then you will have to ask anyway to somehow salvage the situation, and be super-embarrassed because of course people will say: ‘But why didn’t you ask?’ So you look doubly stupid. No, I learned long ago that it’s much better, more practical and logical and all those good things to ask straight away. And nobody thinks I’m being sarcastic because nobody expects sarcasm from me in that context.
So there you have it. Mask on, mask off, swap one mask for another – it’s certainly something worth thinking, reading and blogging about. But most of the time, it’s just what I do.
Image: Japanese painting of a Noh performer, wearing a mask.