What is masking? It is something we all do to some degree. Whether we feel incredible or absolutely miserable, it is expected to present to others that things are fine and perfectly alright. It can take some extra work to put on this appearance. On those days when one does not want to get out of bed, it can be dreadful to push a comb through the hair, shave, put on makeup, and throw something together that resembles an outfit. On top of that comes the pleasant face and calm disposition. The face is one thing, the acting friendly is another thing entirely. Add on listening and providing appropriate responses – those are challenging extra steps of faking it on an off day.
These actions all fall under the social action called “masking.” In theater, putting on a mask turns a human into something else entirely. In social settings, putting on appearances and behaviors, especially when the human isn’t feeling it, is a social form of wearing a mask. It is entirely fake, and hard to pull off. People who are fatigued have an additional challenge with it. Some grocery store shoppers who show up in their pajamas say it all. Look at their faces, and the exhaustion you see matches their attire and often messy hair. They can no longer put on the mask.
Those are neurotypicals. What about the autistics?
People with autism often have extra struggles to do and say things that are considered socially appropriate. Our brains can be highly stimulated by our environment and hence, concentration on people is a struggle. Changes in routine takes longer for adaption, and sensory changes can throw us off. Add that to having trouble with eye contact and reading social cues, and it is like running a marathon to pull off a simple conversation of small talk. Sometimes after a day of “people-ing” (this is a term I made up to describe dealing with people with my social mask), I can manage a walk into my home and a flop on the couch. Some people must take a day to recover from a trip or a simple day outing.
“People-ing” requires paying continual attention when we just want to relax and think about other things. There are so many subtle tasks to do, including reading facial expressions (which requires making eye contact, which can be too much), processing what is said both verbally and non-verbally, considering an appropriate response, and also adding to the conversation. When put among many different people, our brains, like computers, can begin to shut down. Working with one person is like one software program running. Two people, two software programs. Multiple people, and our CPUs (central processing units) overload.
Add to all of this is a burning desire to stim or script. Avoiding a stim or a script is part of autistic masking. Most autistic adults who make it to the work world likely stim and not script. Stimming is the need to fidget to release pent up energy from overstimulation or stress. Examples include rocking, making sounds, fidgeting with an object, or humming. It usually does not fit with a social situation and can get unwanted attention. People who manage their stim successfully learn to make excuses, such as leaving to use the restroom, and let it all out when alone.
Scripting is a form of stimming, but the person acts out a “script” of a line from a show, movie, or song. Usually this is so socially unaccepted that someone who has made it to the working world has learned to stop this behavior to prevent unwanted attention. However, the stimming can prevail and sometimes emerge at an undesired time. The social mask is blown when people notice a stim.
A Stephen King character, Holly Gibney, exemplifies this perfectly. A supporting character in the Bill Hodges trilogy, she had genius in finding details (and helped with Bill’s detective work) but suffered with overstimulation. Teased in high school for stimming (jutting her jaw out) and scripting (saying “gabba gabba”) she withdrew into a lonely, dependent adult with an overbearing mother. She struggled with appropriate social skills, dress/attire, and hair. Given a chance to thrive, she learned to manage her stress from people-ing by having a coping strategy – when home after a stressful day, she would have her movie and tv show time. With this set reward, she learned to manage her masking during the day, and began to break away from her mother and learn to be independent. Holly has been one of the few characters with autism who seems well considered. These books are highly recommended.
The point of this blog is to share with autistics, neurodiverse, and neurotypicals some of the extensive work that people can go through to socially mask. It can be so draining that people need to have established routines or safe places when home so they can let out their stress or withdraw into a mindless or intellectually challenging activity. Holly in the books had her movies. Some of us have our video games, trivia facts, makeup and fashion, science, cleaning, not cleaning, etc. Others come home and let out noise such as crying, shouting, or humming. I have seen students after a long day at school let it out by singing a line in a song over and over and moving their arms around without apparent attention to the movement. When I was a teenager, I would watch QVC for countless hours, or count letters up to ten in books I read during major burnout time (and hence, reading took forever). These days I zone out and do math or think about fashion. We all have our coping mechanisms.
Mary Janca is a teacher and coach for students of all learning differences. She has been teaching for twenty years, has a Master’s Degree in Teaching, Behavioral/Emotional Disorders, and is certified in multiple subjects from first grade to high school. She coaches youth and adults with life skills and academics. She is currently working on a client base to serve students in Greensboro and Raleigh. She also works with clients nationally and overseas. You can find her on LinkedIn.
Mary has Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. She has faced many struggles in life due to these differences but is proud of her desire to get back up, learn, and keep going. She loves to help others succeed with whatever challenge they are facing.Tags: autism, autism acceptance, autism anxiety, autism awareness, autism behavior, autism communication, autism resources, autism social skills