There is no manual for life but a significant amount of people grow up feeling, not only that there is one (there must be!) but that every other bastard out there knows it by rote. A sickening, creeping certainty takes hold that this secret manual cannot be borrowed from a library nor purchased anywhere, and this tome teaches social convolutions so fundamental to society that ignorance past infancy would be deemed outlandish and risible. That gaping developmental chasm, and the way it’s perceived* is why such people (people like me, let’s be frank) spend the rest of our lives struggling to catch up, as… unobtrusively as possible.
We tend to try to piece things together by close observation, watching our peers, thinking things through, looking for cause and effect in their interactions. When forced to socialise, we learn to mimic and mirror ‘normal’ behaviours – without necessarily understanding them – as a form of camouflage, because our developmental disabilities isolate us and paint vivid targets on our backs. This defensive mechanism is called ‘masking’ and its mastery allows neurodivergent people both to survive in and navigate an intolerant world. However, it comes at no small cost to our identity, our sense of self-worth, and our energy levels.
In this post, I’m going to talk through some of the ways I’ve consciously and unconsciously masked over time, along with some of the ways it helped and some of the ways it has caused me harm. Various elements may be familiar to you, perhaps even chime with your own experiences, whilst others may seem weird or alien to you. The fact I am sharing these with you is not to seek pity, nor to complain, nor to compete; it is self-reflection, re-evaluation, and an attempt to remove a series of masks I’ve used for so long they’ve begun to feel like my skin. The act of peeling these off may cause some hurt and confusion to my loved ones. All I can do is apologise in advance and hope that an increase in understanding will help to make our relationships even stronger.
Arms are fucking weird. I never knew what I was supposed to do with them as a kid. If I had nothing to carry, they just hung there. In moments of stress, they go all T-Rex: bent at the elbow, limp at the wrist. I quickly learned to tuck my hands away into my pockets, though my parents gave me grief for it. These days I’ll often as not be holding them together over my belly or tight behind my back, but it all comes down to the same thing – keeping them out of the way.
I’ve always had a terrible posture, a round-shouldered, forward-leaning gait with my head sunk low to avoid eye contact. As I’ve described elsewhere, my step-dad helped me out here, describing and demonstrating a military posture which I came to think of as a cage because it held me so unnaturally. It was a struggle to use and maintain for any length of time, but it made a world of difference to how others perceived me. I still use it to this day when I feel the need to look confident and/or tough.
The beard and moustache? A more obvious mask, perhaps. The self-loathing I felt during childhood, coupled with my mirror obsession (which I’ll come to shortly) left me convinced I had a repellent face. All I wanted to do was hide it. I tried growing a full beard over the summer holidays between years 1 & 2 of sixth-form college but got laughed out of the room. I shaved furiously the minute I got home. Later, in university, I grew something a little less bushy, inspired by Blackadder II. That was my look for a good decade with few changes before I stumbled upon the ‘iconic’ style you’ve all come to associate with me. (I say iconic with a cheeky twinkle here, since it’s used to advertise my editing business.) The facial hair is gone now, as part of my unmasking, and let me tell you, that freaked the hell out of my daughter. Freaked the hell out of me, too, I’ll be honest. But it needed to be done. I needed to face my self again, to come to terms with who I was, and what I am.
Astonished and delighted by the facial deformities of Phil Cool, a TV comedian, I spent a lot of time practising expressions in the mirror, beginning with extremes, but gradually working toward far subtler signals of emotion. I’m not sure how much of that came down to subconscious efforts to understand other people’s expressions – helping me to read threats and overtures – and how much was so I could better fake normality on my own (generally glazed and immobile) face. Regardless, it became a habitual behaviour any time I found myself alone with a mirror. That was also the place I practised eye contact, and my reflection swiftly evolved into a surrogate ‘other’ I could interrogate in pained whispers when working through my existential crises. There was nobody else I could be so open and honest with, nobody else who understood me – or wanted to.
I spent an inordinate amount of time rehearsing the confrontations I’d grown to expect and dread at school. Pushed to a fight, I envisaged making my tormentors think again by removing my glasses and crushing them underfoot with a snarl, indicating just how ready I was to throw down. In fact, the precise opposite was true. Most of the time I was searching for ways to diffuse the situations and render me less of a target, since withdrawal – my natural inclination – was clearly not working. Bizarrely, tactical yawning became a go-to mask, affecting an attitude of carefree boredom whenever I felt particularly vulnerable. Over time, this became an automatic response. I’m frustrated by its resilience since it still finds moments to ambush me.
Although I had some successes in secondary school, I wasn’t able to truly camouflage myself until I escaped its confines and entered the social circles of sixth-form college, where few people knew or suspected the unmasked me. I further developed my social skills through humour and shared interests with a small number of friends, but I was very much still in my chrysalis form, fumbling and stumbling along the way.
The first time I noticed myself vocally mirroring was in a supermarket job in the year between college and university. A wonderful colleague of mine – older, fully-formed, self-assured – had a very camp mode of speech and I slipped into subconscious mimicry. We had a great ol’ time bantering and entertaining our little-old-lady customers. We got on very well, but one day he called me on my bullshit, stating quite firmly that I wasn’t gay. It shocked me, partly because of the anger in his voice and partly because it forced me to question my sexuality in a way I never had before. How did he know? And how did I, really?**
Vocal mirroring cropped up again years later when I moved to Wales. This time it was a more conscious effort to mask. I found myself repeating words and phrases the way my colleagues spoke them, partly in appreciation of the accent and partly because I was conscious of the hatred I’d been (falsely) led to expect as an Englishman, and was thus keen to be thought ‘local’. The accent bedded in pretty quickly, but later on – having spent 18 months in a different town with people who had a much broader, almost South-Walian accent – I found my own shifting once again. So much so that, when I returned to Aberystwyth, a colleague gently mocked me for the wild new way I was speaking. Needless to say, it didn’t take too long for me to revert to the Mid-Walian twang.
Let me see now, what other little humiliations can I reveal as I pry these masks away? How about the parroting of opinion? I remember a situation in university when that song came out: ‘It’s oh so quiet.’ I had a pretty limited collection and taste in music, but my friendship group were raving about Björk. In one conversation I heard the phrase ‘only she could get away with it,’ and I ended up parroting this a day or two later in another conversation. The gotcha! moment when my friend said I was repeating his own words back to him left me shaken, physically nauseous, questioning all of my ‘own’ thoughts and opinions and treating them as suspect. It’s a poisonous little doubt I hold to this day, eating away at my sense of self.
Performance and identity
Wordplay and comedic misunderstanding were skills that came slowly to me through childhood – fed by my step-father who delighted in such things – but I worked hard on them and brought them to bear in the latter years of secondary school. The generation of surprised laughter helped me to make some friends and allowed a seedling of confidence to take root when it came to social interactions. I took this to extremes at college, becoming something of a class clown in Biology lessons, much to the fury of my teacher, before I properly keyed into timing, appropriateness, and audience. Had life gone another way, I might have taken up the performing arts as an actor or comedian (each requiring the kind of dedicated, acute observation and practise so suited to the neurodiverse), but by the time I scented the possibilities, I felt too much time had slipped past. I’d caught up, socially speaking. I could pass for normal, and that was enough for me.
Roleplaying games provided me with the means to experiment with improvisation at university, alcohol reduced my inhibitions, and success in the fields of friendship groups and romance caused my seedling of self-confidence to grow monstrously – from the outside, at least; I never stopped being aware of the hollow core (as I saw it) at the centre of my being. On our first date, I cracked in front of my wife, eyes welling up as I explained that I wasn’t what she thought I was; that I wasn’t always fun and happy; that I struggled deeply and was often depressed. It was important to me, supremely important, that she saw me without my mask because I couldn’t bear to have this joy stripped away from me later on should she discover ‘the truth’ on her own and feel betrayed by it.
Passing for neurotypical is a winning trick in an intolerant world, but as the multitude of masks solidify, start to feel like flesh, the sense of ‘life as performance’ becomes normalised. It is a prison – make no mistake – yet it gives the inmates a false sense of liberation. ‘I’ve cracked it!’ they think, or ‘I’ve caught up at last!’ But neurodiverse people are not behind, are not lesser beings, and they – we – should not have to fundamentally change ourselves in order to be accepted. How can we know and trust to love and friendship if we keep our true selves hidden? How can we fulfil our potential if the things that make us unique are stuffed into a locked closet in embarrassment? We have nothing to be ashamed of. All we want is to be seen and valued and loved for who we are. The performance is frankly exhausting, and only serves to allow the neurotypical majority to shirk the work of forging an inclusive and diverse society.
To be fair, there have been gradual shifts towards more neuroinclusive schools and workplaces as awareness of (and empathy for) people with autistic spectrum disorders grows and spreads***. My daughter’s experience through school has proved far smoother and less traumatic than my own, and from my new perspective as a Specialist Mentor at our local university, I have witnessed first hand the care and dedication offered to neurodivergent students to enable their higher education, launching them into the world as proud, resourceful, and capable members of society with all their unique strengths intact.
However, I hold no real hope that we have seen the end of masking altogether. Society is too fickle, too vulnerable to the divisive right-wing press, too prone to throwing minorities to the wolves when the going gets tough. For myself, I’m sick of hiding the whole me. I’m just plain tired of living the lie. Inspired by others on the spectrum, I have decided to embrace my neurology and set aside my masks—or at least try to; the damned things are so much a part of the shape I’m used to being. The temptation to reach for them in times of stress, to contort my metaphorical face into something deemed less… ugly will be tremendously strong, but this is important. We can’t change society, but we can be role-models to our community, we can encourage our friends and family towards better knowledge and understanding.
And we can show the world our full worth with the masks peeled back.
Let’s do this.
* If you are not aware of The Double Empathy Problem, it rejects the notion that the social problems of autistic people stem from their own ‘deficiencies’ e.g. the perceived (though false) lack of empathy, and instead notes that the difficulties derive from both sides of the neurological divide e.g. the reluctance of neurotypical people to engage with and try to understand people with autistic spectrum disorders. Society literally disables autistic people whose neural and sensory processing is no more ‘wrong’ than Apple software compared to Microsoft.
** Let me just side-track for a moment to unpack that. Homophobia was the norm in mainstream media, and very much so in the area I grew up in. I’d had plenty of aching, unrequited crushes on girls, but had misread any similar feeling about boys as admiration. As a person who grew up feeling like an outsider, an exile, a reject from society, the time I spent with that co-worker – the first openly, confidently proud gay man I had met – gave me pause to wonder if I had found my tribe. I wasn’t attracted to him, and he never gave me cause to think he fancied me, but we had a rapport that was effortless. We clicked. Little wonder I began to emulate him; I just wanted to belong.
*** Helped in no small part by autistic spokespeople and advocates such as Chris Packham through his extraordinary BBC programme, Inside Our Autistic Minds and activism, and Fern Brady through her writing and comedy.