Self-Doubt, Autistic Masking & Vulnerability to Gaslighting

[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.

Thoughts on coronavirus lockdown

TW: covid-19, suicidal ideation, violence, alcohol abuse

This is my worst nightmare. I find everything both sides of the lockdown debate say infuriating. I can’t oppose it, and I can’t support it. I’m stuck in some kind of angry limbo in which all I can do is try and pretend reality doesn’t exist and deny my own emotions or they’ll overwhelm me. This doesn’t feel quite real, but more like the middle of an apocalypse movie where all one has to do is wait for the heroes to come along and magically save the day.

Around ten years ago, I remember comparing possible crises and rating them on a scale of whether or not I’d be able to cope with them. Pandemic scored the lowest on my coping scale. I was right in my analysis of my own abilities, even as a young teenager, because this is my idea of hell. In fact, it is worse than I anticipated, because there’s a duality to my current situation that I couldn’t have predicted.

On the one hand is what I saw back then: I’m terrified of germs and getting sick. I don’t cope well with even a common cold, I can barely function, I don’t want to speak or move or eat or sleep or exist. I had a bad flu over Christmas 2019 and I was making dark half-jokes about how all I wanted for Christmas was death. Even before all this, I didn’t like people touching me and I’ve been looking for an excuse to wear a face mask since I discovered that it’s socially acceptable in some other countries.

So naturally, given this, I want it stamped out as quickly as possible. I don’t want to take any risks, and I am furious at everyone breaking lockdown – a sentiment common among the disability community online. It follows on from this that I should support a particularly strict lockdown for a particularly lengthy period of time, and oppose all efforts to lift it within the UK, and I should be thanking any deities that may exist that I am not living in the United States where there hasn’t been a proper lockdown at all in many places.

Yet there’s another side to my situation that makes this rather more complex. I do not feel entirely comfortable going into explicit detail on all of this, but there is something that is worse for me than the fear of sickness – and that is being constantly bombarded with loud, disruptive noises I cannot escape from. Probably most of my friends that I speak to regularly have heard me wish destruction on my local area.

First, my neighbours. I live in a suburb where everyone is incredibly competitive to have the newest amenities, the nicest gardens, etc. This means that they have viewed lockdown as the perfect time to bring out ALL THE POWERTOOLS. It’s near constant whenever it’s not raining heavily. Lawnmowers, electric hedge trimmers, hammering, drilling, sawing, grinding metal… it’s a cacophony of loud noises. It doesn’t help that something in my past means that construction sounds are a trigger for me.

Next door has, on several occasions, been using something so loud that I can hear it through my expensive high-quality noise-cancelling headphones. I’m having a meltdown a day, which I haven’t had since before puberty. It sometimes feels like they’re conspiring to psychologically torture me and I’ve just had to go out because otherwise I would end up hurting myself – or someone else.

Then I’m extremely sleep deprived as well because a member of my household is continually purchasing alcoholic beverages which he then consumes which cause him to make rather loud screaming noises in his sleep. So, neighbours all day, screaming all night. If lockdown lasts much longer, I will not survive it. I am hoping to move out but money could be an issue, and I’d really need to live alone because of my sensory sensitivities.

So, despite my terror of getting covid-19, I’ve still ended up going out, sometimes doing things that are technically against the rules. Protests for one thing, going indoors to a friend’s house, and I have travelled more than five miles before they stopped that. And I know I should feel guilty about this, but I would be in an even worse situation than I am mentally if I hadn’t done that.

It’s a careful balance. And what is awful and tragic is that no matter what we do, we won’t be able to save everyone. If we lift lockdown, the virus will kill people. If we keep strict lockdown, people with poor mental health will deteriorate and the suicide rate will jump up more than it likely already has. This is an awful no-win situation, and I pity everyone with the misfortune to currently be in government and needing to make these decisions.

At the end of it all

[Image: group of St Andrews University students wearing red gowns walking past the ruins of the cathedral.]

I have finished university. For so much of my time there, I never thought I would say those words. It has been an incredibly complicated time, leaving me with memories both brilliant and terrible, and more mental health problems than when I went into it, though a scarily large number of students would likely say the same thing.

As someone who had never struggled academically at school, I had huge problems adjusting, and found that my autism made it much harder than I thought it would be. Trying to adjust to all the change was hard, and it didn’t help that there was far less academic support than in my school.

But nevertheless, I made it out the other end. Even with a few moments in there when I never thought I would. University is hard, and when you’re as emotionally fragile as I am, it can legitimately be dangerous. The way students are pressured these days, both academically and financially, is completely awful.

I have been absent from writing for a while due to exams, and I am just so glad they’re over now. I don’t have my results yet, I won’t get them until the 12th June, but I’m pretty sure I passed everything (this time). Now all I need to do is figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

Anyone know of any jobs?

There’s a mix of emotions at this time. One is sheer relief that I’m done, but there’s a lot more fear of what’s next than I expected. I have absolutely no idea what I want to do, and despite how badly most of my undergraduate career went, I’m considering doing a postgraduate in 2019.

For all my previous life stage transitions, I’ve had a clear idea of where I wanted to go next. Things have never gone according to plan, but at least I had a plan back then. This time, there’s nothing known in the future. I have no idea where I’m going, and I have even less idea of where I want to go.

For a while I considered taking a gap year and traveling, then I realised that I would probably struggle to cope with that, given the uncertainties involved, and the fact that most affordable accommodation is also really noisy. Gap years are not the most autistic-friendly activity.

I might still give it a try, but that’s pretty much where I’m at right now. Confused, uncertain, and with no idea of where I’m going from here.

It’s still better than the way I felt at university.

Social Media – Beneficial or Harmful?

Social media has had a lot of benefits for people, particularly in the autistic community. It is a way to talk to others and gain support without having to navigate the sensory hell that is our society. The neurodiversity paradigm has spread through social media, and many have become more aware of autism rights issues and more supportive.

For me, all this is true. But social media is also the home of trolls, cyber-bullies and those who engage in techniques such as gaslighting. Some hide behind the cloak of anonymity to spread hate and hurt others. And in my personal case, the negatives outweigh the positives.

The way companies try to manipulate others’ opinions on social media concerns and frightens me. The targeted advertisements are often creepy, seeming far too closely related to recent searches. And Cambridge Analytica is not the only company using our personal data to be manipulative – expect more scandals soon.

The humans are no better – spreading all their false information and contradictory stories. Everyone has an opinion, and all those who disagree are wrong. People often go to extremes with little regard for considering facts. For example, many people will either say Russia is the source of all evil or that Russia is the best and just unfairly demonised.

In 2012, a social media argument completely broke my heart, and it took years for me to fully get over that. 366 days ago, I lost most of my friends due to something that began on social media. It is the reason I am on antidepressants, and I am far from over it even a year later.

For all the good social media can do, it has done me far more harm. One of my favourite way to relax is to lie on my bed alone and spend hours imagining what my life would be like in an alternate timeline with one difference. Many of these timelines involve me quitting, or never using, social media.

If I had never used social media, the 2012 stuff wouldn’t have happened. Last year, things wouldn’t have fallen apart (if they ever began). I probably wouldn’t have ever had a group of close friends. Then again, I wouldn’t have felt the heartbreak over losing them. Whoever said it’s better to have loved and lost clearly had a very different personality to me.

At the moment, I do not have the choice to delete Facebook as so many have – I am on committees that use it as the primary communication method, and hence will not be able to get rid of it until July 6th at the earliest. On the 7th of July, I sincerely hope I will be able to wave goodbye to a platform that has harmed me.

Of course, for some people, social media is a lifeline. It can be fantastic, and it’s certainly not inherently bad. Certain companies have terrible policies, of course, but for some this does not outweigh the good. But for me, I can’t wait to get away.

Oops I Burnt Out Again

In August, I wrote a post about how little time I have due to the large number of commitments I always make. And I think the fact that nobody has realised quite how unreliable I am, is testament to the masking skills I perfected in the latter years of secondary school. Because I’ve been almost burnt out for years.

It’s the second day of term today, and I’ve already almost passed out, took an unscheduled nap and feel thoroughly fed up. While I don’t sign up to do stuff I don’t enjoy (aside from the degree itself), that does not negate how tired it all makes me. I ought to quit something, but I almost always regret it when I do.

I don’t hate my degree subject, for all I say. But while I was brilliant at maths at school, I’ve struggled at university. It’s affected my self-esteem, and however interesting I might find the subject, I struggle to enjoy it just by virtue of disappointment in my grades. And then I feel guilty for not enjoying it as my lecturers are lovely and I don’t want to let them down.

By the end of last semester, I was struggling to survive. Between seven committees, university, and my untreated depression, things kept going from bad to worse. In December, I saw a doctor and started on antidepressants. Combined with a month-long holiday from university, I managed to relax and things got better.

Now I’m back, and the cycle is starting again. Throughout the semester, I teeter on the edge of burnout, pushing myself to the edge and over. I frequently don’t know how bad it is until it’s too late. I want to break this cycle but I don’t know how to do so without quitting what I like (such as the Doctor Who society) to focus on what I hate (like job applications).

Since my depression started, I’ve reached burnout earlier and earlier. I’m hoping with treatment for that, I can extend the time before I reach it and get to the end of the semester. There’s no guarantees though. It’s my final semester, and I’m hoping so much that things will get better once I’m away from this place.

I think I try and keep myself busy to distract myself from all the bad memories here. At the end of my third year (this is my fourth), a bunch of stuff happened and while I’m here I am constantly reminded of all my mistakes. There has been a lot of good at university too, but I just want it to be over now.

Which brings me to my main point. I will get everything for all my committees done, and usually on time. But at the expense of my studies. I almost never study enough, because I’m so exhausted with all the other stuff. Perhaps it would be different if I was studying something else, but perhaps it would not.

I am stuck in this cycle of pushing myself, burnout, rest, push, burnout, rest. I don’t think it will ever stop. I don’t think it can stop, without sacrificing all my interests. And I think the most challenging barrier to ending the cycle is that I’m not quite sure I want to.

Why Trump’s Mental Capacity is Irrelevant

There has been a lot of discussion recently surrounding the book written about Donald Trump by Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury. The book is marketed as being an inside look at life in the White House. In the book, Wolff alleges that Trump is unfit for office due to his alleged low intelligence and mental health issues, and that all those around him were aware of it. Now, I am no fan of Trump but I take issue with these allegations.

Wolff claims that Trump is “intellectually incapable” of carrying out the duties of the president. He makes claims that Trump does not read and may be “semi-literate”. This is clearly nonsense – Trump has a degree so must be literate and reasonably intellectual. His reluctance to spend time reading documents within view of Wolff may well stem from the fact that the president will be incredibly busy and actually not have time.

Even if these claims had the slightest merit, these claims are incredibly harmful to intellectually disabled people. Some have claimed Trump may be dyslexic, in the context of saying he is unfit for office. Why this is a harmful and insulting claim should not have to be explained. Dyslexia should not be a disqualification for elected office. And while president is a hugely important and stressful job, there should not be some kind of IQ test before someone is allowed to run – claims that only those with a high IQ should be president set the US on a path to this kind of dystopia.

There have been many psychiatrists claiming Trump is mentally ill. Psychiatrists diagnose mental illnesses after examining their patients. A reputable psychiatrist would not make a diagnosis of someone they had not examined – and are we expected to believe all those making these claims have examined Trump in person? Regardless of profession, these people are humans, and humans can make biased claims for political reasons, and those who oppose Trump certainly have political motivations for casting doubt on his fitness for office, thanks to the 25th Amendment.

Many other mental health professionals disagree with these assessments. A common ‘diagnosis’ thrown at Trump is Narcissistic Personality Disorder – but the man who wrote the diagnostic criteria for this condition disagrees with the assessment, saying that Trump does not show the signs of being mentally ill, and stating that:

“Bad behavior is rarely a sign of mental illness, and the mentally ill behave badly only rarely.”

Which brings me to my main point: blaming Trump’s behaviour on mental illness is not only inaccurate, it is actively harmful to people with genuine mental illness. To claim that Trump is dangerous and unfit for office due to his alleged mental health issues is to claim that anyone with a mental health issue is therefore necessarily unfit for office. This is untrue as there are many mental conditions that would not stop an individual from being a good president, and to make claims like this is to exclude these individuals from the presidency for a long time.

Mental health conditions already have a huge stigma – this is evident from Trump’s detractors using them to insult him in itself. These claims do nothing but add more stigma to these conditions, making people with legitimate diagnoses more concerned about being judged as being like Trump, and those who wish to seek formal diagnosis more afraid to do so, lest they be judged unfit.

People with mental health conditions are already discriminated against in societies across the globe. Where there is legislation requiring employers to allow employees to take sick days, many employers do not count mental illness as a legitimate excuse to miss work as they would for physical illness. Those with mental illness or mental disabilities are frequently discriminated against when seeking employment as they are often seen as unreliable, while at the same time being judged fit to work when trying to claim disability benefits.

Donald Trump’s behaviour does not indicate mental illness – rather, it indicates that he is greedy for power and does not care who he hurts to get it. These are not mental conditions – they are part of his character, which does not make him ill. Trump’s periodical twitter threats against North Korea are not a sign of mental illness – rather they are likely to be politically motivated and not as spontaneous as is often claimed.

Trump won the election by being outrageous. It is a strategy that should never have worked, but nevertheless it did. Can we say with certainty that Trump’s tweets are not part of a tactical plan to keep his supporters on side? What looks like ill thought out rants could be part of a strategy of sorts aimed at keeping Trump’s alt-right voter base on side. People say things online for a multitude of reasons, and many of these are not genuine. And if Trump was really going to ‘lose it’ and nuke somewhere, he’d probably have done it already.