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  • Sarah Nannery

Taking Off the Mask

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

I (aka, my husband =D) recently came across this website - The Aspergian: A Neurodivergent Collective. I found it highly engaging, full of current discourse, thought leadership, emerging and established voices, and overall cutting-edge information about Autism and ASD.

For sure check out the site, and see what resonates with you. They publish content from many different voices throughout the Autism universe, on an almost daily basis. I would definitely recommend taking a minute to read their About Us section, which sheds some light on the name of the site, and great insight on the changing landscape of terminology and classification around Autism / Asperger's / ASD.

In particular, I want to highlight a particular post from The Aspergian that struck home for me on so many levels.

Published on May 20, and accompanied by a video explanation, an Autistic woman named Samantha shares some great insights about masking in "Why Autistic Women Seem Two-Faced." She talks about how and why we "mask" (we all do it, to some degree, Autistic or no - it's just that someone with ASD may find themselves in more situations more often where masking is necessary), and she even talks about some ways that neurotypical people close to Autistic people could adjust their interactions or the environment in order to facilitate less masking on the part of the Autistic person.

I exist in a near-constant state of masking.

As Samantha says, it's not about being "two-faced," or thinking one thing while saying another - it is a very intrinsic, instinctual survival tool.

Only recently have I begun to experiment with taking the mask off momentarily, with people I am very close to. Just last night, my husband casually asked me if I was excited that my package of chipotle mayonnaise had arrived from Amazon. Normally, with my mask on, I would have consciously registered the invitation for light, playful, positive banter, and contrived to reciprocate with a semi-enthusiastic, if untrue response, saying "Yes, finally!" with a big smile. Well, probably a medium smile for my husband. But, big for me.

I would have been lying through my medium-big smiling teeth.

Telling "white lies" like this agitates me, but I have also learned that people often ask these kinds of casual questions not to arrive at the absolute Truth, but simply to make conversation and create positive connection. My husband's question was not about whether I was excited or not. It was about us having a reason to share a smile.

So last night, instead of masking, I decided to see what would happen - how it would feel - if I took the mask off for once. Masking is hard work - though often I forget how hard it is, since I do it all the time. And yesterday happened to be a mask-intensive day for me, having been the sole representative from my organization at an event that required aggressive networking, maternity stockings (sensory nightmare), and high-context social pressures. So instead, in the safety of my own home with the man I love, I told him the truth when he asked me if I was excited about getting the mayonnaise.

"Not particularly," I said, in monotone.

I was not, in fact, excited - I had ordered the mayonnaise, I had been informed in advance of the estimated delivery date, and I had seen the notification that the package had been delivered. The fact that it had arrived was not a surprise, nor was it something I had been specifically waiting a long time for or looking forward to with any ferocity. I don't excite easily. I was happy that it had arrived safely, sure, but I'd had no reason to think it would not.

What happened when I took the mask off for a moment?

It was definitely easier on me: My brain had to work less, my morality system was left unchallenged, I did not have to filter through several possible responses and choose the one most likely to be the response my husband was hoping for, I did not spend any time wondering why he thought I might be excited or if there was something I missed in the ordering and delivery process that would have precipitated excitement, and I breathed a big sigh of relief that I had gained such a mental reprieve by letting the mask fall off for a moment at the end of a taxing day.

But, I also lost out on a chance to share a smile with the man I love.

In the end, this missed opportunity bothered me more, in fact, than lying would have.

It bothered me more than all the mental loop-de-loops I would have done, with my mask on, to give him what I knew he was looking for, rather than what he literally asked for.

This is why I mask. Not necessarily because I want to, or because I enjoy the mask, or because I think people will reject me if I take it off. I mask because it is an effective, if heavy, tool. It is a strategy that allows my ASD-brain to function in a largely neurotypical world in such a way that gets what I truly need and want - emotional connection, positive interaction, love and acceptance.

I will continue to experiment - we both will - with times and places when I can take off the mask. We both need to work on facilitating meaningful interactions that do not require masking on my part, nor intense focus or preciseness on his part. It is a balance we will continue to seek, and I look forward to times when I can take off my mask with the people I love, and share a genuine smile at the same time. :)

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