Why do we mask in school?

Have you ever been told ‘Your child seems happy in school, maybe it’s home that is the problem?’ in response to expressing how your child has meltdowns when they get home from a day of school. This is something that many parents of autistic children are used to hearing. You may be questioning yourself, your Childs behaviours and wondering why can’t the school just believe me? This is something my parents went through too.

So what is happening from an autistic persons perspective?

School was a place I felt I had to suppress my autistic traits for my safety and survival.  I didn’t know I was autistic, I just knew I felt different to other children. I would imitate other children to fit in. If I was teased for something I would make a mental note not to do that thing again, even if what I was doing felt natural to me. I learnt to laugh when others laughed, even if I had no clue what the joke was about. I learnt to smile when I was asked if I was ok. I learnt to be still, to not  stim even if I felt like I was going to explode. 

The anxiety that formed would build and over the course of the day it was like magma rising up to the surface, as soon as I walked into my house the volcano would erupt. Like lava, it would take me hours to cool down. My mind would process every social interaction that occurred that day, and then mentally prepare myself for the next day, preparing social scripts and analysing what other children did.

Masking is a subconscious behaviour. When I was a child, I thought practicing my conversations for the next day was normal, it was my normal. It becomes such a habit that we don’t even realise we are doing it and that makes it harder for us to express our emotions. This is why we melt down when we are home. Home is our safe space. It’s a place where we can be our most authentic selves.

Schools are not only for education. There are social rules, continuous changes in structure and routine, sensory challenges, as well as potential challenges with learning. Many of us do not find school easy, but feel we have to blend in with everyone else. Smiles conceal struggles, a smile doesn’t always mean we are happy. We may have been told from a young age that a certain behaviour is not a typical way to behave. We take things very literally and will take this on board, suppressing our natural reactions in school to avoid trouble and teasing from our peer group.

Masking that starts in school becomes an involuntary strategy to cope but eventually masks do come off. It is mentally exhausting trying to keep up appearances. Lots of children go undiagnosed due to masking and mimicking in childhood and by the time we reach adolescence we are often misdiagnosed with mental health conditions when actually the core is we are autistic.  Masking does have an effect on our mental wellbeing and as we transition into adulthood we can lose our sense of self.

So what can we do about this?

  • Liaise with the school, take in resources about masking and work on a strategy together to help the person express their emotions in school.
  • Keep a list of behaviours at home and expressed emotions regarding school and take these in to meetings as evidence. Evidence enables strategies to be put in place.
  • Teachers or support workers have a daily check in with your child. Once we trust someone our mask is usually able to come off more comfortably. When having these check ins we need open questions such as ‘What was good about today?’, ‘What did you struggle with today?’. We need questions that don’t just allow yes or no answers.
  • Charities such as AP can provide schools with information and resources about autistic masking. Raising awareness in schools of how masking presents is vital.
  • Most importantly supporting your child through meltdowns and finding ways to address their anxieties surrounding school and teaching your child that it’s ok to be different.

School isn’t easy without the added pressure of masking, but with the right support systems in place we can and will thrive. The smallest changes can make the biggest differences for us.