[Image Description: a white child with short dark hair balancing along a wooden beam surrounded by grass.]
Autistic children whose autism is identified early are taught to ‘mask’ their autism, hide it and act neurotypical. Subjecting a child to ABA is one way to do this, but there are many more less overtly torturous ways to encourage an autistic kid to hide their true self. This can be exhausting, and often fails, which is where much of the myth of functioning labels comes in – non-autistics believe that those who do not mask well are “lower functioning”. Autistic people who learn to mask early are often missed and not diagnosed.
Masking has consequences. Exhaustion, burnout, poor mental health… prolonged masking usually leads to all of these. Lack of diagnosis of autistic people who are good at masking from a young age is another. And a third is increased self-doubt; a lack of clarity about who one really is. This in itself has a third item in the chain of cause and effect: it increases the vulnerability of the person in question to gaslighting. After all, if you’re taught everything about you is wrong, such messages seep through more easily later.
In high school, I put a lot of effort into masking. I wasn’t very good at it, you can see that by the fact I managed to actually be diagnosed as a child. Yet I desperately tried, using a variety of techniques because I believed that was the only way I’d ever be accepted in society, and that was the only way I could survive. I bought teen magazines and tried to transform myself into a stereotype that didn’t fit. And when I failed, I’d construct yet another fake me from various sources.
By the time I left school, I had no idea who I really was. I could switch between four or five separate versions of me depending on where I was and who I was with, but I couldn’t tell which of these was genuine – or even if any of them were. I had to try desperately to rediscover who I was, and this led to a lot of intense soul-searching. I don’t think I ever found out who I was before I chose to mask heavily. I’m a different person now, disconnected in the middle by falsehoods.
A lack of knowledge of who one is also leads to doubting every word that comes out of one’s mouth (or, indeed, is typed). Every statement I made would be analysed, indeed over-analysed, until I no longer had faith in my own beliefs. Gaslighting, attempting to sow the seeds of doubt in someone’s mind until they can no longer trust their own judgement, only adds to this problem. I basically gaslight myself automatically as a result of years of being told my natural self is wrong and broken.
It makes it hard to engage in debate, especially online, given how often gaslighting is employed as a technique in online debates. It makes it hard to have close relationships, because I was vulnerable to it, and now I’m so scared of it that I just assume everyone may be trying to gaslight me, and I cannot believe a word anyone says. I am no longer emotionally capable of trusting anyone fully. I don’t know if I’ll ever regain the ability. Masking has led to permanent psychological scars.
This is why autism acceptance is needed, not just autism awareness. I am trying to trust myself again, and trust in what I believe and see with my own eyes. Trying to find the right balance between trusting myself and examining new evidence is hard, almost impossible. I’m still trying. Encouraging masking encourages self-doubt, and causes a vulnerability to gaslighting we have seen online. Autistic people who have gone through this chain of cause and effect may be more likely to be radicalised by dangerous groups online, especially when these groups praise them in ways those in their lives may not have done.
Masking can be dangerous, for more reasons than one. By encouraging autistic people to mask at all times, and at any cost, society is creating a population of autistic people who have poor mental health and are more likely to join extremist groups. This is a more likely explanation for some far-right shooters in the US having an autism diagnosis. Not autistic people being naturally violent, or lacking empathy. But autistic people are taught to doubt ourselves, and this can lead down a very dangerous path, when someone else decides to place their ideas where our own convictions have failed.