Who Am I?

Finale – Week 7 of #TakeTheMaskOff

Posted: September 3rd, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Autism | Tags: , | Comments Off on Finale – Week 7 of #TakeTheMaskOff

This week marks the end of the official social media campaign for #TakeTheMaskOff. It does not mark the end of autistic engagement with a world where we are more often rejected than accepted. I have no story of personal impact from this campaign. I’ve perhaps thought more deeply about the topic areas, but I’ve had no revelations or dramatic changes. I did not expect any such experience. I’ve been surviving in this world for 53 years. My tools and techniques are evolving and improving, not transforming into something radically new.

Rather, I’ve chosen to add my small voice to this campaign in the twin hope that non-autistic or allistic readers might understand our experience at least a little better and that other autistic people might feel a little less alone. I felt so alone and so different from everyone for so very many years I know how hard that is to bear.

I have no expectation that our world will suddenly change, but I have to believe it’s possible to improve allistic understanding and acceptance of our differences. No matter how hard we try, we can never bridge the current gap alone. If we could, we would. The “best” we can currently achieve by current measures, our so-called “optimal outcome” boils down to nothing more than not being observably autistic to a removed third party who is not directly engaging us. Even that degree of masking, desperately trying to make all aspects of our movements, body language, expressions, tone of voice, and words conform to the always incompletely understood expectations of others, is never perfect. I know because I taught myself how to do it.

I could never, however, look and act “normal”, whatever that may be. And don’t tell me that there’s no such spectrum as “normal” and that everyone feels different and isolated at times. My therapist, who sees many such allistic people, tried to say that. And it’s simply not true. I understand that nobody can clearly define those boundaries of “normal”, those things which fall in the range of acceptable variation, versus the things that are not. I’ve often wished somebody could because I felt if I actually understood the rules, I could find a way to more closely adhere to them. But those rules exist in every human culture. And they are enforced, often without thought or intent but merely in reaction. Most people absorb them over time, especially as young children, so the rules all seem obvious and automatic. The social rules and nuances feel “natural” to allistic people. I didn’t and don’t simply absorb them and my “natural” behavior and reactions do not conform to them. I had to learn the rules through observation and experience, mostly as a child, as best I could. And violations of those unspoken, unwritten, and often unacknowledged rules mark you as less than human to other people.

Autistic masking is about avoiding harm and seeking acceptance. We all seem to have stories about both. I’ll mask less when I am loved, or at least not rejected, when I don’t. I’ll mask less when I can do so and still be safe. I’ll mask less when the world of people surrounding me grants me the freedom to be more visibly and outwardly myself, whatever that might be.

I’ve masked my entire life to one degree or another, or at least as much of my life as I can recall. I’ve worked at it semi-consciously, deliberately, and systematically since I was nine years old. That means I have poured energy and effort into masking for 44 years now. The only me I know is the one trying, and usually failing, to find a place among everyone else.