Have you ever wondered what it’s like for an autistic person to mask? How does it feel? What are the effects. When I think of the effects of masking I think of an Earthquake. The tectonic plates are ‘suppression’ and ‘mimicking’, as they move towards each other and collide they grind together creating friction. They then get stuck and pressure builds up. Finally the pressure becomes too much and the ground breaks loose. Referring to masking, the longer the pressure builds up the worse the ‘earthquake’ will be. The longer I mask the higher the damage on the Richter scale.

Another way that I like to refer to the effects of masking around friends is it feels almost like a masking hangover. Masking and socialising feels natural for a while, it can also feel good. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs human beings need social interaction and that doesn’t include those of us on the spectrum. However we may socialise differently and need more time to recover. 

It is not uncommon for autistic individuals to need their own space during meeting with friends. For example, another one of my friends who is autistic likes to go for walks on her own, or goes to her bedroom. She needs her own space and she likes to stick to her own routine in her own home. This has effected her friendships in the past and that is why in my opinion it is awesome to befriend others who are autistic because we understand!

I need so much recovery time, that means laying in the dark, headphones on and a heavy blanket. When I have been masking for a long time I can feel a pressure building up in my head, it rises from my chest and my muscles begin to tense. I start to become quite agitated and I feel the need to retreat to my safe space if we are out. If I am hanging out with people at mind (pre-corona) I would sometimes go into my spare bedroom which isn’t always socially acceptable. I am very lucky and grateful for the friends that accept me doing this and accept me as I am.

From my perspective I have always found it difficult to find friends who understand the effects of my masking and who I can reveal my true colours from my chameleon disguise. I’ve recently learn though it is possible, and in the Autistic Community we call this ‘finding our tribe’. Let me take you back in time to explore how masking can effect autistics in friendships.

I personally find friendships difficult to maintain, making them is also hard but I can manage to do this, however that maintenance of friendships is something that I struggle with more. In friendships autistic individuals may use masking strategies such as:

 

  • 𝕊𝕦𝕡𝕡𝕣𝕖𝕤𝕤𝕚𝕠𝕟 – Suppressing atypical behaviours such as ‘stimming’, (self stimulatory behaviour used to calm or when we are happy), we may stop fidgeting.
  • ℍ𝕠𝕝𝕕𝕚𝕟𝕘 𝔹𝕒𝕔𝕜 – We may hold back on talking about our special interests, for example, if someone loved facts they may stop telling their facts around peers. In this sense, we hide aspects of our personalities to fit in. We may also hold back our true thoughts and opinions in conversation, for example agreeing with others even if we disagree or tolerate behaviour that we don’t find acceptable.) This is something that can make us vulnerable to being take advantage of.
  • 𝕄𝕚𝕞𝕚𝕔𝕣𝕪 – We may dress and speak like the group of friends we are trying to be a part of. This means mimic phrases, gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice. In example, an autistic person may start dressing similarly, copying hairstyles, using the same phrases and expressions, begin to adopt the interests of their peers. I can definitely relate to this one, in my mind I almost felt like to be able to make and maintain friendships I had to be like them so they would like me, as I didn’t always understand the concept of what friendship truly means.
  • 𝕊𝕠𝕔𝕚𝕒𝕝 𝔼𝕥𝕚𝕢𝕦𝕖𝕥𝕥𝕖 – We may reflect social etiquette to indicate that we are willing to socialise with others. We may struggle with eye contact and look at the bridge of the nose or stand at a 90 angle to the person we are engaging with.
  • ℙ𝕝𝕒𝕟 𝕒𝕟𝕕 ℝ𝕖𝕙𝕖𝕒𝕣𝕤𝕖 – We may predict, plan out and rehearse conversations before they happen, either out loud or in our head. This is known as social scripting and doesn’t just refer to friendships, we may do this for all of our interactions.
  • ℝ𝕖𝕝𝕪 𝕠𝕟 𝕠𝕥𝕙𝕖𝕣𝕤 – We might attend social events with someone who is more socially inclined who can act as a social crutch – this person can introduce us to others, explain social nuances to us and help us if we make a mistake.
  • ℝ𝕖𝕕𝕦𝕔𝕖 𝕊𝕠𝕔𝕚𝕒𝕝 𝔻𝕖𝕞𝕒𝕟𝕕𝕤 – This is a huge one for me personally. Autistic individuals may reduce social demands on ourselves to disguise any social faux pas. For example, we may ‘flit’ between different groups/conversations, engage in 1:1 conversations/friendships so there are less social signals to read and make use of structured socialising or ‘organised fun’. I definitely flit between friendship groups a lot in secondary school.
  • ℂ𝕠𝕦𝕟𝕤𝕖𝕝𝕝𝕚𝕟𝕘 𝕊𝕜𝕚𝕝𝕝𝕤 – Listen to, repeat and rephrase what another person says to give the impression of being an active listener or adviser without having to necessarily mentalise and process everything that is being said. 
  • ℙ𝕝𝕒𝕪 𝕒 ℝ𝕠𝕝𝕖 – May adopt a character or play an exaggerated role that is inconsistent with the ‘real us’ – examples include false confidence, fabricated stories, extraverted personality, taking on the interests of others. The effects of this for many chameleons is that we lose our sense of identity and we start to lose our sense of self. This role can change for different friendships.

We may always use masking strategies, however I think that if we make friendships that accept and embrace our neurodiversity we begin to mask less and the after effects will not be as intense for us. I’d love to live in a world where autistic people can be themselves 100%, because for many autistics (particularly in adolescence) we can feel incredibly lonely. We want friendships and want to fit in and to feel less alone, but more often than not we are subject to bullying or we mask our entire school lives to cope and blend in with others. However, there are autistic individuals who do have very successful friendships but like neurotypical people this is through trial and error. It is also dependent on the person you are making friends with and their understanding of autism.

An article from Psychology Chartered states:

‘ Some autistic people may find it more difficult to form and maintain relationships than neurotypical people. Struggles with busy areas, loud noises and overwhelming smells can leave some social spaces difficult to navigate for autistic people, especially in places like pubs, clubs and bars, which are sometimes overwhelming for most of us. This, combined with the anxiety that many autistic people manage daily, can make going out and meeting people socially quite inaccessible. In this way, if an autistic person doesn’t have strong social support and people around them, they can very easily become socially isolated.

Social isolation can lead to loneliness if there is a gap between the person’s desired and actual levels of social contact. There is a common misconception that all autistic people prefer being alone, and would not enjoy or seek relationships or friendships. Therefore, even when an autistic person becomes socially isolated, it is sometimes assumed that they may not get lonely.

On the contrary, many autistic people want more connections and enjoy social interactions, and therefore experience loneliness in a very real way. In fact, research in April 2018 found that autistic people are one of the most lonely and isolated groups in the United Kingdom. Autistic people are four times more likely to be lonely than the neurotypical population and as many as 79% of autistic people report feeling socially isolated. Studies have found that increased loneliness in adults with autistic spectrum conditions is associated with increased depression and anxiety. Therefore, it is a vital area that needs to be addressed when considering how to improve the daily lives of adults on the autistic spectrum.’

I think that during the pandemic, loneliness has been at an all time high for many people, autistic people can face this loneliness for years. We at Team AP hope that the Empowering Me Youth Programme and the Empowering Families Programme can help to change that. AP are still here to fight isolation and Team AP say ‘The world gets smaller when you or you child is diagnosed.’ Our Empowering programmes are here to support individuals and families, to broaden experiences and help families to build positive and supportive connections with like-minded families and people who understand. Through our programmes and the activities we provide we hope to end the isolation for the families that we support.

 Hope you are all safe and well. Thank you for reading!

Cerys the Chameleon

You can read the article stated above here: https://psychologychartered.co.uk/blog/loneliness-and-autism-the-invisible-issue/