Mental Health Training

If a ‘normal’ doesn’t exist, what am I socially masking? by Jane McNeice

Posted by on 4 Jul, 2023 in Mental Health |

If a ‘normal’ doesn’t exist, what am I socially masking? by Jane McNeice

I am Autistic and I socially mask. I do not choose it, I do it to survive, and in my blog ‘Why I am unable to stop socially masking’ I explain my reasons why. Yes, I hear you, we ALL socially mask – a work mask, a social mask, amongst others. I am not referring to neurotypical social masking, I am referring here to Autistic social masking, it is AMPLIFIED, and it is curated to a level of detail most won’t even comprehend.

On the back of my late diagnosis at age 45, I totally recognise my social masking for what it is, and the need for it, and today I adopt what I refer to as ‘strategic masking’ – allowing myself to mask where the benefit outways the cost, but giving myself permission and enough solitude so I can unmask for decompression and restorative purposes, as failure to do this comprises my mental health. I totally get this, but what I don’t get is how masking fits with the notion that a ‘normal’ doesn’t exist, often inferred in comments like “Well, what is normal anyway?” As someone who has always felt like an outsider, an observer not a participant, I recognise the comment as well intended to be inclusive, so that those of us on the fringes – the outliers – feel included. I value the sentiment, but the statement also leaves me confused.

The statement infers that there isn’t a ‘normal’. This, for someone who socially masks, is the confusing part. If society doesn’t have an idea of what it accepts as ‘normal’, then firstly why do so many of us feel excluded, and secondly, what exactly is it that I am trying to blend in with, or to camouflage through my Autistic social masking? Can one exist without the other? If I was a chameleon, to camouflage I am morphing my colours into a background, hiding in plain sight. One is co-dependent on the other. As a camouflaging Autistic, in the same way I must morph my presentation and behaviour into what society accepts as ‘normal’. I have to 1) work out what society accepts in the range of ‘normal’, and 2) become it.

With no desire to be arrogant, I did it – camouflaged – and very well indeed, for 45 years. I had others believe I was ‘normal’. No one spotted I was Autistic (or at least no one ever suggested it) and post diagnosis, no one has ever said they already knew. I self-identified prior to diagnosis, because I got lucky. No one had ‘found’ me up to that point. As a female Autistic, I appreciate there were a lot of other systemic variables that also prevented an earlier identification and diagnosis, but I am without doubt that my skilled social masking played a major part in the delay.

I pretended to be one of the herd, one of the accepted, when in fact I was always an outsider. My masking is not an illusion for me, I have always known I am ‘different’. My social masking is an illusion for you, so you accept me. I observed the herd in detail, and I mimicked…to the detail! At face value I portray what ‘normal’ is, but if you look deeper, my outlier signs were always there. My first husband was 20 years and six months older than me. This is not ‘normal’ by accepted standards. How do I know? I know because of people’s reactions to it 1) judgement 2) rejection (subtle but there), and 3) the morbid curiosity people show in the ‘not normal’ aspects of my life history. This is just one example of several ‘not normal’ things in my life history that illustrate me as ‘different’. Another…I became a biological grandmother at age 36. These ‘strange but true’ outliers, which are varied, are some of the features that cause the herd to reject and fail to accept Autistics, even those of us that hide it well and present as ‘normal’ in all other respects. These days it takes me very little time for me to spot judgement and distain – an acquired but sadly well practiced skill for many Autistics – so in most cases I hide my outlier facts unless I am trying to make a point (like now). Finding out I was Autistic has given me permission not to hide my differences so much. I still censor some things (part of the masking), but not as much as pre-diagnosis.

With genuine curiosity, I am asking again…If a ‘normal’ doesn’t exist, what is it that I am masking? If ‘normal’ does exist, would it be more realistic to stop pretending it doesn’t, so we can focus more authentically on acceptance. Pretending suggests we are all accepted, and sadly there is more than enough evidence that many of us still are not. Judgement and lack of acceptance is the very reason I and many Autistics continue to mask.