Imagine for a moment that you’re cosplaying at a big convention. But, you didn’t get to choose the character you’re playing. It was assigned by the convention organizers. The thing is, this character? It’s not anything like you, Oh, there are a few minor similarities but they are innately different from you. Like, at an almost cellular level. And, there isn’t any downtime where you can be yourself. Every minute you’re there, you must stay in character. No fucking matter what. You have to think the way your character thinks, speak the way your character speaks, and even eat the way your character eats. It doesn’t matter how difficult, stressful, or even soul-killing these things are, you have to keep doing them. Even one little slip-up will get you ejected from the convention. And, if that happens, you’ll forfeit the hefty admission fee you shelled out to be there. Sucks, huh? This whole thing is an extended metaphor for something called “masking” and it’s something people with neurodivergence have to do every fucking day.
So, Masking. What Is It and What Does It Have To Do With Neurodivergence?
According to Sinduya Sivayoganathan of Lunaria Solutions, masking is “the artificial performance of social behaviours that are seen as more socially acceptable in a neurotypical society.” And yeah, that’s basically what the intro paragraph says. But I feel like Sivayoganathan’s definition comes off as rather clinical and I thought giving you a scenario like that might bring it home with a little more impact. Either way, masking is something that many neurodivergent people do when they’re out in public. And, why is that, you ask? Because it helps us fit in. And, if you’ve ever been in a situation where you don’t fit in, you know just how much it sucks.
Why, Yes I Do Have Autism. I’m Just Super Good at Hiding It
Just because I seem “normal” at times doesn’t mean I’m not autistic. It means I’m a fairly decent masker. Now, it also helps that my autism is relatively mild–Level 1–which means that I can sort of function like an adult. Most of the time. Well, some of the time. Okay, not that fucking often. Basically, I need help with things like starting conversations (ending them too. Endings are a bitch), social interaction, relationships, and a fuck ton of other shit. When I say I “need help”, I mean that I can fake it (aka mask) well enough to get by in the short term, but after a while, that shit will be plain to see. And, that’s really what masking is: an ability to hide your weirdness just enough to get by in this dystopian hellscape called neurotypical society.
The Downsides of Masking
Yes, there are downsides. For one, it’s fucking exhausting. Remember that scenario I gave in the intro? Yeah, imagine doing that every goddamn day, all goddamn day. This is why so many NDs don’t want to go back out after they get home. Between hours of maintaining a mask and trying to figure out the inscrutability of the neurotypical world, they’re physically and mentally fucking drained. Masking is also kind of a double-edged sword. You have to do it–and be good at it–to get by in society. But, if you’re too good, people will forget you’re neurodivergent. It’s just one more way NDs walk a goddamn tightrope. And do it without a fucking net. Another issue with masking is that it brings on a fuck ton of stress and anxiety because the message we get from society is that the thing that makes us who we are (our neurodivergence) is a “problem”. One that we can “fix” by acting more like you neurotypical types. And, believe me, that will fuck you up. Masking can also fuck up a diagnosis. Like in my case, for instance. When I was tested, my doctor told me I had autistic symptoms but not enough to rise to the level of diagnosis according to the DSM. I’m pretty goddamn sure that’s because I’ve spent 60-odd years masking and building coping skills. And, these are just a few of the problems with masking. We still have to do the shit, though.
Masking Sucks, But Living With Neurodivergence Requires It
Masking is so much a part of neurodivergence that most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it. It just happens. Why? Because if you’re neurodivergent and you don’t mask, it’s not going to go well for you. Neurotypicals see us as “weird” and weirdness tends to make them uncomfortable. And, it’s never good for us when neurotypicals are uncomfortable. So, we mask even though it’s exhausting and stressful and soul-crushing and… well, you get the point. Maybe someday, the neurotypical world will figure out that weird isn’t necessarily bad and accept us for who we are instead of forcing us into a box of their choosing. As usual, though, I’m not holding my breath until that happens.