The Extra Effort Hiding Inside The Autistic Mask

Quick disclaimer — I’m not an autism researcher, though I have more scientific bona fides than your average person. Your experience may vary. As always, if the model I describe does not fit your experience, use a different model.

Autistic masking is one of those things that regularly gets misunderstood. People will accuse autistic people of "pretending" or some other verb with a wide range of negative connotations.

That misunderstanding goes away when people learn more about what masking really is… but I think there’s an aspect that often gets overlooked.

Healthline’s explanation of autistic masking is pretty typical, and not bad:

In places where the full spectrum of neurodiversity is not understood or welcomed, autistic people often feel the need to present or perform social behaviors that are considered neurotypical. Some people may also feel they have to hide neurodiverse behaviors in order to be accepted.

That description, however, leaves out a significant aspect. That aspect is what makes masking somewhat different than "showing different parts of yourself to different people."

Masking — at least in my experience — is more draining than simply using "customer service voice" or how you present to different social groups.

It’s the inside of the mask.

At the convention, my friend said, "Well, I’m about to go get dinner."

I paused for a good thirty seconds, then asked, "Are you excusing yourself, or are you inviting me to dinner?"

I had no idea. Both were equally probable. It was a very uncomfortable feeling as I kept trying to figure out the social cues, and failed.

But once I asked — and got a direct, straightforward answer — the pressure on my brain evaporated.

Masking is not just trying to get your outbound social signals "right", but simultaneously attempting to decipher and translate everyone else’s in real-time.

No wonder it’s exhausting.


I keep noticing my partner’s faces. They are each a flavor of neurospicy, and have their own unique ways of stimming, regulating their emotions, and communicating.

Every so often, their cultural programming kicks in. They apologize for whatever they were doing — a hand flap, infodumping, making little soothing noises, overthinking.

I tell them it’s okay, and not to stop.

They’ve learned that I mean it. That I do understand — and if I don’t, I will do my best to clearly say so.

I see the look of happiness, of relief on their faces when I say that.

And I wonder why so many people in their lives seem to find doing that so damn hard.

Featured Image by Chen from Pixabay