I had an interesting conversation with M, recently. He wanted to understand why I was disappointed when a stranger figured out I’m autistic after dining with us. He suggested I may be ashamed of being autistic. I thought about it and attempted to explain the concept of masking. It’s not about shame; it’s pragmatism.
The ability to mask my autism from strangers is a skill I’ve honed over the course of my life. It’s necessary for survival. It’s not something used only by people with autism, either. People with mental illnesses also recognize the need to mask. Mental health providers at the VA suggest it; a psychologist jokingly instructed me not to get caught talking to myself in the hallways of the VA. 😶 I figure it’s a common practice among most invisibly disabled people.
I also mastered the ability to mask my depression in the process. The same psychologist I mentioned above was annoyingly surprised when my mask slipped, and she suddenly believed I was depressed for the first time. I remember thinking to myself how much easier it is to hide depression from mental health providers than nearly anyone else. They’re trained to look for specific symptoms, which I choose to regard as convenient for me. (You can’t be black and disabled at the Sioux Falls VA without handcuffs and leg shackles, so naturally, I roll with being black while wearing a shrink-proof mask.)
People with visible physical disabilities can’t mask but have the perquisite of being perceived as disabled on sight. (I doubt they consider it a privilege, though.) I’ve had decades of trial and error to figure out which behaviors attract ridicule and bullying. It’s not easy to overcome my nature whenever I’m around people, though. In fact, it’s exhausting.
I stifle the behaviors and motions I’ve identified as unsafe in the company of others. I try to be invisible at those times. I suck at remaining still, even though I know it would be helpful. To compensate, I mastered the ability to rock minutely. I do it slowly, and limit my range of motion to a few inches in each direction, while visualizing a gear system amplifying the efforts of my tiny movement.
Sadly, I’m fully aware I tend to rock more vigorously when my anxiety increases. I stop when I realize. I hate that I often catch myself when some asshole imitates me to amuse others. Naturally, I’ve also mastered the ability to present both birds at half-mast 3 inches from the face of the asshole mentioned above, while looking unamused. I consider it a public service. You’re welcome. 🙃
Thankfully, the human brain can help shelter us a bit from the disturbing lack of empathy in strangers. Dissociation is another skill when forced to endure extreme discomfort while in public. Sometimes, it’s all I can do to keep from screaming: Like when the clock is ticking so sharply, and the person beside me breathes loudly through a congested nose. Or the overhead lights are buzzing and too bright, the tv is too loud, and the wool fabric on the chair is scratchy on the backs of my arms, while my left shoe is tied more tightly than my right. And the perfume, my god, the perfume! /scream
I’m not ashamed of being autistic. I’m too busy tweaking my ability to pass as typical and well adjusted to waste time feeling sorry for myself. 😂 Plus, there are a gazillion other things I’d much rather do. Like playing Bach’s E major Partita on violin for some random, yet surprisingly attentive cows, while sitting on the fence in a soggy field. It’s what I’m off to do now. ✌🏽