According to the Australian Actors’ Wellbeing Study taken in 2015, performers are twice as likely than the general public to experience depression. Many report performance anxiety and high levels of stress due to work-related pressures.
What’s this got to do with masking?
Autistic people who mask are performers.
We play a role so that society will accept us and we can fit in.
The actor: Will I be convincing as Othello?
The autist: Will I convince people I’m the same as they are?
Either way, it’s a performance.
The problem with performing is that we’re not being ourselves. Whether it’s strutting about on stage playing Hamlet or standing on the school yard with the other parents – performing takes a great deal of mental effort.
Some of us mask so much that we lose ourselves. The boundaries between what’s real and what isn’t become blurred. Then one day we look at ourselves in the mirror and are shocked to find that we no longer recognise what’s being reflected back at us. The person that we used to know is buried under the mound of characters that we’ve created over our lifetime.
When I mask, I rely on what I’ve learned.
I have to recall lines or appropriate responses.
I have to judge when to speak and when to stay silent and for how long.
I have to remind myself to look at the person from time to time.
I have to try to work out facial expressions, which is hard when you’re crap at non-verbal communication.
I have prompt myself constantly.
I have to try and deal with the emotional fallout when I get it wrong.
I have to do all of this while trying to cope with my sensory issues, like background noise or smells or lights.
It’s mentally exhausting.
Imagine having to do this EVERY time you socialize, even with a neighbour or someone in the street – every single day.
Imagine having to perform every time you walk out of your front door? Or, even in your own home?
They say that the world is a stage and from the perspective of a lot of autists – it’s true – except that YOU are the actor, the director, the producer, make-up artist, wardrobe stylist and, well, you get my drift?
I have always been scared of the world and most of the people in it – so I’ve worn a mask and tried to fit in. To protect myself. To survive. Except that a lifetime of pretending has left me mentally (and physically) exhausted. All these years I have performed in order to fit in, but the truth is that I no longer want to.
I no longer want the anxiety that goes with trying to fit in.
I no longer want to feel the fear of rejection.
All these years I’ve pretended to be someone I’m not and in doing that I have failed to honour the unique (and worthy) person that I am – that all autists are.