Passing – Blending in For Survival – The Masks We Wear

I grew up undiagnosed so I learned to sit still and when to be quiet. I keep all speech and movements carefully planned like I am in a play. It’s an act I put on – hiding my Autism as a survival mechanism that I developed due to not knowing why I was different. It wasn’t that I was ashamed – although as I grew older bullies forced be to hide for my own safety.

At home with my parents and family all of my differences seemed normal and I was so “smart” that nothing could possible be said about anything else.

I’ve said before that Autism runs in families, even if some families never notice it. My family is pretty quirky, despite my Autism being obvious, at home blending in was easy.

When I was very little I had a very had time regulating and maintaining and indoor voice, my balance was not great, and as a toddler I preferred spinning objects over people.

In old videos of me adults are unable to get me to look away from my things when they call my name. I can hear – because in one clip a phone rings and the bell startles me to look about but I tune out all the humans begging for my attention.

As I grew older I had to go to school and my differences became more obvious to those outside of the home. In preschool I often asked for teachers to hug me – because I was anxious and craved the release of the squeezing pressure. Teachers thought it was strange that I ask people who were not family for hugs.

Everyone was nice to me up until about the first grade. It was then that I met my first bully – a strict old fashioned southern school teacher. I remember that she wanted me to sit still and tried to make me speak in front of the class. She didn’t give hugs and she wanted me, the disruption, out of her classroom.

I remember sitting on the floor in the hallway as my mother spoke to the adults inside the office. The conversation is not in my mind but I remember my mother being very angry when we left. Afterwords I remember her telling people “that child is not stupid”.

It was agreed that I would spend part of my day in a special education classroom.

Being labeled a special-ed kid brought about a whole new type of bully – other children. People who had always ignored me in the past now made efforts to scream names at me in the hallways. The children were mean and the adults had an attitude as if being picked on was just a part of life.

In my mind all of my troubles were linked to being in the special education class-room so I worked hard to get out of there. Unfortunately by the time I escaped the SPED room the damage was done. Names like “Retard” and “Short Buss” followed me until I moved to a new city years later.

All because I was shy and had a hard time sitting still. One teacher who didn’t want to deal with me caused so much trouble and pain.

I thought things would be better in my new school. Finally I was invisible again. Unfortunately I still ended up having several altercations with bullies over misunderstandings. Despite proving my intellect, my social skills were still very limited and they often got me into trouble.

We moved one more time before high school, this time after being in a play. I remember thinking – acting is so easy it’s what I do every day when I am around other people. I made a conscious effort to pick and create a character of myself for my new school – one who does not get bullied.

I studied and watched movies and real people. I taught myself to “wear a mask” in school and eventually at work. The character. She comes out whenever I need her but takes up a lot of my mental energy.

Passing is a survival mechanism. As an adult you are asked to do more and more things that require a “social mask”. If you don’t learn do adapt one life on your own can be difficult – unless you find people who are understanding of your differences.

Wearing the mask too often can lead to Autistic Burnout.

Unfortunately we live in a society that can be unkind to what it doesn’t understand. Social skills are valued and necessary but many Aspies, myself included, have a hard time with even the basics (such as timing in conversation).

We have misunderstandings and miscommunications. People think we are rude because they do not understand that these things are not natural to us. Even worse they are often upset when we get things wrong.

It is difficult for us to hold a job or make advancements in the workplace because we do not value social acceptance or do well with office politics. I personally understand them in a very mechanical way but try to keep my head down and let my work speak for itself.

As an adult blending in means happy hours and group outings to the new trendy spot in town – things that I can’t even pretend to enjoy. I am learning that blending in is no longer enjoyable, turning down all invitations to hang out with co-workers and sometimes friends.

Work socials are the worst for me. Any group larger than three people is not enjoyable, although I can push it to a group of four without losing my mind. Too many conversations at one time or in a loud space can lead to sensory overload and will send me home feeling like a zombie desperate for a hot bath and feeling empty.

The pressure to be “professional” is intense even in a relaxed setting. How do you do professional and relaxed at the same time? I don’t have that character in my Rolodex. This does not compute.

I’ve dreamed of a day when I will drop all of the masks completely however I realize most people, especially those in sales, have some sort of character they play. I don’t want to play a role, I want to be myself.

#ActuallyAutistic #SheCantBeAutistic #InvisibleAutism #AnonymouslyAutistic

All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts

- William Shakespeare, 1564 - 1616
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42 thoughts on “Passing – Blending in For Survival – The Masks We Wear”

  1. I have high anxiety and I can relate to this a lot. Switching roles is exhausting and I have only just discovered that’s what I do. I don’t control it, it just happens and that’s when I know cos I’m so tired without doing much at all. I also share your dream… I am on a journey and I am smashing one social “fit in” box at a time to be comfortable being me. I wish you luck on your path to your dream to be you. Don’t give up. 🙂

    Liked by 6 people

  2. I see much of myself in this description. I too find social interactions exhausting and avoid going out in groups where possible. I struggled to find an identity for myself for decades and often found assuming an act easier for different situations. My son is diagnosed with high functioning autism and he loves acting, even at home with just me. It seems easier to express oneself (and often hide) behind another personality. When I am stressed or afraid to express my true feelings I will go blank in expression and shut down emotionally. My son freezes. We share so many characteristics and I feel for him, knowing the struggle ahead of him. People are hard work!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I can really empathize. Having an anxiety disorder is like acting all the time. Trying to not let people know you are anxious, not sure what to say next, how to interact socially — I have a script in my head and acceptable conversation topics. I default to politeness all the time because I know that it is the most socially acceptable thing. That was shaken up a bit when someone took my politeness as sarcasm. I remember just feeling kind of lost, not knowing how to talk or act and having to evaluate every conversation before it happened. My default became silence. And that is very lonely.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I am not going to go into too much detail because it’s the morning here and I am tired, but I can relate a lot to this post. Thanks for sharing this it helps reading others that can be going through or dealing with similar things. I even find if we could be ourselves, the way the world is right now you still will have to act ‘neurotypical’ to get certain things you want or need in life, sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So much truth it makes my heart ache to think of others having to grapple with these things as I always have. It makes me long for more understanding in this world, so, hopefully, my children can grow up not having to suffocate behind a mask. It makes me glad that you are providing a voice so just maybe that can happen, and inspires me to get my voice out there more again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As always, a really good, informative and relatable post; you have a very good way of putting yourself across so people can understand you.
    I can only pass for a short period of time before any semblance of normal goes out of the window and my ‘normal’ behaviour comes to the fore.
    I’ve got to spend a lot of time interacting for the next couple of weeks – a course I have to do with 2 facilitators and 6 other people – there’s been plenty of anxiety leading up to it and now I’m on the course I’m finding myself incredibly drained every day. It’s taking a couple of hours at least to relax after each day, and I’m zoning out during the day because I can’t maintain focus.
    The facilitators know about my issues, but it still doesn’t feel good to be going through this.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I ‘fitted in’ well in school. It was after school and living in the Adult world I found difficult. You could say that the social aspect of School allowed me to ‘entertain’. But I did well enough in school to go to University and graduate. Then came work; which I couldn’t hack.

    Today I was meant to have gone to Belfast – our electricity was off during the day for maintenance – to get Linux installed on the new Laptop I have. However, I had a bad sleep last night and slept in today. D’oh!

    I have to see my Mental Health Team tomorrow morning and I have planned to do up a note about how my meds make me feel unproductive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. gizzajob, what type of Dell do you have? I used to run Puppy Linux 4.3.1 on an old Dell Inspiron; it was amazingly fast. The equivalent version of that Linux today is Legacy OS4; it’s a “Pup”. The guy who developed and maintains Legacy Linux (formerly called TeenPup) has spent most of his efforts on Legacy OS2; based on Puppy Linux 2.x I’ve always liked Debian, but there are a bunch of distros like Mint that are aimed for use as a desktop OS; Ubuntu used to be extremely popular (as far a Linux goes) but I always looked at it as a bloated OS (kind of like Windows). Anyway, just goto one of the download sites (https://distrowatch.com has a list of all of the current Linux distros, and there is usually a link supplied with each distro to its homepage and/or download page) download the iso file and burn it to a cd; boot up with the cd and it should install without any problem. There are also programs out there for loading a Linux distro to a flash drive; e.g., https://www.pendrivelinux.com

      Liked by 1 person

  8. By writing about your journeys and your experiences you’re giving somebody else a window of understanding their own situation.

    Honestly, I nodded vigorously to myself when I read happy hours are not so HAPPY although everyone is having or pretending in having a good time.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I love this post. I have same kind of experience with teachers and most of the people around me, and reading your entry is just both painful and contented, because of how true it is.
    Also, thank you for stopping by my blog. I appreciated all the likes you give me. Your blog is very nice, and I would love to read more from you. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I feel we grew up in mirror lives. It’s just… I hated school. I was in the B.E.H class for all the wrong reasons, tracked, and hated since 3rd grade. Due to be tracked, I was not able to go to college. I was told I’d be denied at all the easiest schools to get into across the country. People in school called me the same things, including all the insults an overweight person could hear. Just…. hearing this… I feel like if we were fortunate enough to have met each other, like I was told by a girl who liked me, “I’d date you but the whole different race things; people wouldn’t like it.” Hearing that in the 11th grade wasn’t cool. It was the second time I heard it. It didn’t get easier. I wonder – if it were not for whole racial thing – if we would be like allies from a battlefield who had that bond that others could never understand; something closer than family could provide. I wondered this many posts before.

    In any case, your words are deep and profound and if anything, if ANYTHING, people need to not just be entertained by your rhetoric but understand that they way you were treated is a common thing towards all people who are not “normal”. People need to change and stop hating. It is clear that the less educated people are on differences, that they cling to hatred more so than comprehension.

    You keep telling your story. I may tell mine one day. You on the other hand… you clearly know my story with very subtle differences that so far, I have not seen, but I refuse to think they are not there. I mean, it’d be silly to think two people could be a perfect mirror image. The reflection never sees the spot that needs cleaning. …. does it?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Anna, does this mean you’ve given up on being natural? I don’t think it’s really possible to go maskless, anyway. In an earlier blog you described the bad response you got at your dental office when you “came out”; the average person has an even worse reaction to hearing somebody is autistic.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I just figured it out! It was published for about a minute and I pulled it because it was scheduled for a PAST date VS a future date. YOU were one of VERY few to see TOMORROW’s blog. Stay tuned it will be on the front page tomorrow. Sorry did not know my own schedule.

          Liked by 1 person

  12. These things are a real struggle for everyone with an invisible illness, especially if you’re also considered to be high functioning.

    My brother has Aspergers and the teachers told my parents that he couldn’t be taught. He wasn’t diagnosed until he was in high school. Growing up with him helped me recognize signs in my son so now I’m always advocating for him.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. So much in this post is speaking to me. Specifically the first bully being a teacher. My son was bullied by an old teacher– told me he was the worst student she’s ever taught. He’s 3. He’s being observed for autism now– I’m a mess over it. Your blog helps.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I just pulled him out of the school that was mistreating him. She was awful. She rolled her eyes at him, yelled. They wouldn’t let him participate in activities. They made him enter a room full of crowded people repeatedly until he “entered correctly” (without flapping, jumping, etc). My heart breaks thinking about it. Do you think your life would be different had you gotten early intervention?

        Liked by 1 person

  14. goodness, this is almost like my growing up and blending. Lots of violence (and gangs) in schools where I live so when the bullies came it was be beat or fight like hell. (Or fight like hell while getting jumped so they know you aren’t that damn easy next time.)

    I was just into my early teens when I prayed and prayed I could wake up as someone else the next day and be like other people so I could make friends and belong — I had no understanding of why I was different and couldn’t make that jump.

    Also, I grew up with “You’re so smart, but not common sense.”

    “You’re so smart but *insert whatever here.”

    I associated you’re smart with you’re different and stupid. smart unlike us but stupid in all other ways.

    After my trigger with PTSD, being in bed i’m told for two years, learning to walk, talk, regain some memory — I lost a lot of my cognitive abilities (they flux daily still) and I lost my ability to blend. Period. Made it very difficult for everyone around me because they didn’t understand me before I triggered — and now I can’t pass for anything. So I talk about it now when speaking about living with a severe mental illness (ptsd) and functional neurological disorder.

    It’s astounding to see that my experience wasn’t singular but so very much like yours that you describe and — as terrible as it is even — I feel this bond of shared experience. That’s novel to me.

    Novel.

    So glad to have connected and your writing and sharing of your experiences — incredible. Thank you for helping me to understand more of my experiences by reading about yours.

    Like

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